Cayuse release weekend.

In Rosé, Syrah, Uncategorized, Washington on April 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

We arrived in Walla Walla just before 5 on Friday. Just in time to stop in at Dusted Valley’s tasting room before closing. I’ve been a big fan of this winery for a long time, tried though their whole line and especially liked the Stained Tooth Syrah and their Grenache. Also tried a couple of blend samples, which was really fun.

Just a short distance away, Sleight of Hand has just opened a new tasting room, and owner Trey Busch threw together a great, informal party Friday night. Winemakers and winery employees from Walla Walla, as well as a bunch of folks who were in town for Cayuse release weekend were there. Former Boise chef Andrae Bopp now owns a food truck in Walla Walla, and was serving up some outstanding food. Everybody who was invited was asked to bring something special from their cellar. There were too many outstanding wines to keep track of, but I know I was especially fond of the 2006 D’or et de Geueles La Bolida, and the 2006 Cayuse God Only Knows Grenache.

We all hit the sack relatively early, wanting to be well-rested for Saturday. We arrived at Cayuse just after 11 on Saturday morning. Whatever you think about the hype surrounding these wines, you can’t argue about the power this event has. One winery’s release date is a massive event for the whole town. Driving up to the winery, the appearance from outside belies the event happening inside. The winery is fairly nondescript, the vines still dormant, fruit trees to one side of the property, white lines painted for parking spaces outside the winery. From the outside it feels more like a small-town fair than a release party for one of the most sought-after cult wineries in the country. As we wait in line for entry, Christophe steps out and shouts that we are all crazy. Somebody in line shouts back that he is the pot, and we are the kettle.

One of the first things that stood out to me when we arrived was the vineyard outside the winery itself. If you’ve been to the southern Rhone, you’ve seen the famous stones. Some of the vineyards are so rocky, there’s literally no visible soil beneath the vines. If I wasn’t misinformed, the vineyard surrounding the winery is Cailloux, Cayuse’s oldest estate vineyard. In addition to the ground being covered in stones similar to those in Chateauneuf, the vine training in this vineyard is unique. The vines are trained much lower than any others I’ve seen anywhere in the US. I’m not a vineyard manager, but I’m assuming that this must be very helpful in protecting the vines from the Walla Walla winters, which can be more harsh than those in the Rhone. In fact, there was an unexpected freeze in Walla Walla in the fall of 2010 that is going to severely impact yields for the next few years. While grape vines can withstand freezing temperatures under the right conditions, the freeze last fall came before the vines had gone dormant for the winter, and many in Walla Walla didn’t survive.

As to the wines at Cayuse, the God Only Knows Grenache, the Camaspelo, and the Widowmaker Cabernet were the stars of the show for me, with the Armada Vineyard and Bionic Frog the leaders amongst the Syrahs.

From there we drove to the other side of town to visit L’Ecole no 41. This is another winery of which I have always been fond, and their wines did not disappoint. The first thing I noticed when we entered the tasting room was their new labels. If you’re familiar with their wines, you’ll be familiar with their brightly colored schoolhouse label. The new label is a more ‘serious’ looking black and white number, with a nice sketch of the original schoolhouse building. While I understand the marketing logic behind their change in packaging, I will definitely miss the somewhat whimsical and playful old labels.

I’ll honestly say that there wasn’t a single wine we tried there that I didn’t like, and we tasted quite a few, but there were a few standouts. Their 2010 Chenin Blanc was outstanding. It’s beautifully textured, and has fantastic acidity and balance. Their rose was great too, and if you’re headed through town I would recommend picking one up, as it will not be available anywhere but the winery. The reds were great across the board, but it was a particular treat to get to taste some older vintages. I’ve always felt like L’Ecole’s reds would age well, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try a whole lot of them. We tried a 2005 Syrah, which was drinking beautifully, very well-integrated and elegant. And, owing only to the generosity of our hosts, we got to try the 2001 Apogee, which was one of my favorite wines I tasted all day. Apogee and it’s sister wine Perigee are two Bordeaux blends. I’ve always felt that they both have great aging potential, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try one with more than a few years’ age on it. 2001 was the very first vintage Apogee was produced, and it was fantastic.

We also went to Woodward Canyon, Buty, and  Walla Walla Vintners. I’ll be perfectly honest, I wasn’t keeping detailed notes by this point in the day, but there was truly nothing we tried that I disliked. I was especially struck by the stylistic diversity in the red wines from Buty.

After a relaxed dinner at our condo, two of us went downtown to the opening party for a winery’s new downtown tasting room. I’m not going to say which winery it was, since I’ve heard rumors about the owner getting litigious against bloggers who say things he doesn’t like. As we approached the tasting room we saw a heavily intoxicated woman shouting down the street at a friend who had apparently decided to call it a night. She ended up a few steps ahead of us as we entered the tasting room. The doorman let her know in no uncertain terms that she was too drunk to be allowed in. He took enough time away from arguing with her about how drunk she was to check our IDs and let us in. Both the tasting room space and the party itself were roughly what we had expected. A rough-edged warehouse-style space put together in a deliberate attempt to make it look like it didn’t cost nearly as much as it must have to renovate, the party and the DJ all working together to mimic the feel of some trendy underground dance club that you can’t even find unless you know somebody. To be fair, everybody there seemed to be really having a good time, but it took us less than 5 minutes to conclude that this was not our scene. We made one lap of the room and headed back to the door where, as we walked out, we saw the owner arguing with the doorman in an attempt to get the drunk woman into the party.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip.

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