Christophe Baron was the first to plant vineyards in a stony former river bed in the Walla Walla Valley. It reminded him of France's Châteaneuf-du-Pape. Today that area, known as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, is the most distinctive AVA in the Pacific Northwest.
A different terroir a few miles away reminded the Cayuse Vineyards vigneron of Hermitage, so he invested years of physical effort and an ungodly amount of money to plant its steep hillsides. Last week he offered me a first taste of the vineyard's debut vintage.
He is calling the site "Hors Catégorie." Bicycle racing fans will recognize the reference to a climb "beyond categorization," exceeding the official rating system of 4 (easiest) to 1 (hardest). It's no exaggeration. Parts of the slope top 60 percent inclines.
On a rainy afternoon in 2009, he showed me the unplanted site on a remote stretch of the Walla Walla river's North Fork. The footing was too slippery to climb. The rocky soil was fractured basalt, not Hermitage's granite, but the resemblance to the famous Northern Rhône appellation was uncanny.
After the first stage of clearing the hillside, a $30,000 invoice arrived from the contractor. "Whatever it costs, don't tell me," Baron told his general manager Trevor Dorland. "It's an American jewel."
Young vines now cover 2.5 acres, rising 100 feet up the slope. On a sunny day in early September, climbing was tough going without a hiking stick. We followed a road built around the edge of the vineyard to accommodate winches that allow tilling of the soil and other viticulture between the closely planted vines (10,000 vines per acre). The vines from Baron's most recent vineyards, including this one, are trained on stakes only 1 meter apart, yielding little more than 1 ton per acre.
Baron stood at the top of the vineyard and gazed through the vines at his small herd of Limousin cattle corralled in a field below and guarded by a llama. The bovines are part of the biodynamic approach to farming. The vineyard may be the point, but it's not a monoculture.
In the cellar beneath the fermenting vats of 2015 grapes, Baron led me to a pair of puncheons. He extracted an equal amount from each container with a wine thief, and blended them together to taste.
The first thing that struck me was the open, almost weightless texture. The licorice-accented blackberry and dark plum flavors are still in the primary stage, but the extremely long finish weaves in mineral notes galore, reminiscent of wet stones and hot bricks, picking up hints of cinnamon, fresh-baked bread and a field of flowers.
This combination of expressiveness, power and weightlessness is rare in American Syrahs. With production only about 120 cases, and 12,000 names already on the Cayuse waiting list, demand figures to skyrocket after the wine is bottled next spring and sold in 2017. Allocations are sure to be limited, even at a price likely to exceed $200 a bottle.
Baron is right. Hors Catégorie looks like a jewel.