Has Washington's Syrah King Found Côte-Rôtie in Walla Walla?

Apr 20, 2006

The beat-up red SUV bounces and sways as winegrower Christophe Baron pilots it over a creaky bridge and into the mud left by recent rains. I take inventory of the dashboard: an old pair of sunglasses, a ballpoint pen, a round can of Altoids, a strip of flannel cloth.

Baron's Walla Walla, Wash., winery, Cayuse Vineyards, dribbles out a few hundred cases of extraordinary Syrah from his existing vineyards, which he started planting in 1996, plus a few iconoclastic bottlings using Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. His wines may be impeccable, but his truck is not.

We are about eight miles from town, where a rickety bridge spans the North Fork of the Walla Walla River, a stone's throw from the confluence of the South Fork. "A stone's throw" is appropriate for Baron, who loves vineyards filled with rocks. He owns five vineyards on the stony ground of an ancient riverbed a few miles to the west, in meager soils that remind him and others of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He plans to put a vineyard here, on the steep hills facing the river. You can see him practically salivate over the prospect.

This one is different. If Baron's existing vineyards suggest Châteauneuf, this one reminds him of Côte-Rôtie. The brown soils on the hills are filled with broken chunks of sharp-edged basalt, very different from the smooth river stones under his other Walla Walla vineyards, and that's just fine with Baron.

"Everybody wants to plant on the stones now," he says. "The land is too expensive for me. It was $3,000 an acre. People are buying land there now for $15,000." So he looked elsewhere, secreting radio-controlled thermometers called hobos here and there, waiting for the data to confirm whether a site was worth pursuing.

"The hobos tell me it's too cool up here to ripen Cabernet or Merlot," he says. "It has to be Syrah." He grins.

Christophe Baron surveys the steep, rocky site where he is planning a new vineyard.
Baron has been spying on Walla Walla for three years, sneaking into vacant plots that look like they might be good vineyards and hiding remote temperature sensors. He found this site while riding his bicycle through the hills along the river. It was an old apple orchard, overgrown with blackberry vines, but what caught his eye were three steep hills rising 100 to 150 feet behind the trees on the valley floor.

"This is going to be something special," says Baron, squishing his way up a newly carved road on the muddy slope. "I'm going to do this 100 percent like Hermitage, really close spacing, meter by meter." That translates to 4,000 vines per acre, two to three times as many as his other vineyards, which are already among the most densely planted in Washington. Because close-spaced vines each produce less fruit, they theoretically put more energy and flavor into the grapes. They are also much harder and costlier to farm, and in the wrong place can produce odd flavors.

The rows in the new vineyard will have to run up and down the incline. Baron has already ordered specialized French machinery, including a winch, because the steepness would defeat existing farm equipment in Walla Walla.

One south-facing hillside has already been tilled by hand, an acre or so ready for planting this year. The other slopes face southeast and west and the soils have a lighter cast to them. He hopes the different aspects and soil types will earn the kind of complexity that blending several sites can produce in Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage. "Syrah is going to be very different from what we got down on the stones. I have to put in some Viognier too, because it looks like it might be more like Côte-Rôtie than Hermitage."

He knows the Syrah up here tastes different from what grows elsewhere in the valley because he has been buying grapes from a small vineyard about 1/4 mile up the road. "He has the wrong clones in the wrong spacing, and he's not a very good grower, but you can taste the potential in the wine," Baron notes.

At most, he expects to plant 3 1/2 acres over three years. The first wines could be made in 2008.

We stand on the hillside watching the setting sun struggle to peek through the low clouds. Baron points to a flat area along the base of the hills. "I want to get a few cows to graze there," he says. "It's not suitable for grapes. And I think I want to build a house here, too. Not too big. I'm too messy to have a big house."

United States Washington Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz
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