The long-stemmed glasses make gentle scraping sounds as we swirl them against the round white table in the minimalist office where Cayuse Vineyards staff holds tastings. Elizabeth Bourcier, the assistant vigneronne, sips and looks upward, as if consulting the chandelier whose clear glass globes mimic a grape cluster. Her blissful whisper distills this rapturous experience into one unexpected word.
Winemaker verbiage can seem comic to the layperson, but this is unequivocal, liquid steak tartare. Bloody as a prizefight, it pulls across the tongue, the essence of an old-school steakhouse captured in a slope-shouldered bottle with a horseshoe on the label. I’d even buy “ashtray.”
This 2012 Horsepower The Tribe Vineyard syrah is the work of the effusive Frenchman to my left, Cayuse Vineyards founder Christophe Baron. Compact with brown eyes and slightly spiked-up hair that makes him look younger than his 48 years, Baron grew up in the Champagne region of France. Between the national acclaim and limited quantities, there is, perhaps, no bigger trophy in Washington wine than one of his bottles.
Though, he readily admits, his wines aren’t for everybody. Drinkers who seek out the ripe and fruity, oaked and boozy, don’t necessarily want salty, meaty, umami flavors that would be spiritually at home in a charcuterie cave or butcher’s case. But enough people love Baron’s wines that the queue simply for a spot on Cayuse’s list is 15,000 deep. It might take eight years to join the rarified roster of 3,500 individuals eligible to actually purchase the small amount of wine he makes each year.
Baron’s wines mostly come from six square miles of the valley known as the Rocks, where fist-sized cobblestones blanket the ground. This was orchard country when Baron planted his first grapevines in 1997. Other winemakers thought he was crazy, taking on a patch of land where planting was a matter of prying rocks aside with a crowbar. Toward the end of the last ice age, the Walla Walla River thundered down from the Blue Mountains, a melted snow torrent that propelled volcanic matter down these slopes, tumbled smooth before they hit the valley floor. The resulting geological souvenir is a patch of stony land, with a chemistry distinct from the rest of the valley’s soft, compliant soil.
Vines in this alluvial fan must send roots deep into the ground. Their grapes tend to be small, with concentrated flavor. Baron’s wines put the entire region on notice that something special happens in this soil, especially with chameleonic syrah. Critical acclaim followed; so did other winemakers.
“It’s the first time in Washington state where you can pick up a glass of wine and it doesn’t matter who makes it, there’s a fingerprint of that Rocks funk,” says Sean Boyd, a geologist turned founder of Rôtie Cellars, whose laconic candor belies his expressive wines. Jeb Dunnuck, one of the most influential wine critics in America, takes it a step further, remarking on his website that “this terroir is one of the most singular in the world.”
Today, more than 20 winemakers—established names from Washington to California to Spain—have sought out this land, eager to be a part of the movement unfolding here. In 2015, some of them took what seemed a logical step on the path toward international greatness: They applied to designate this region an American Viticultural Area. The sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley was approved with a horrendously clunky moniker, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. Denizens take great care to say “Rocks District” since one canny local winery trademarked the term “In the Rocks” early on for its exclusive use.
But the man who first discovered the stratospheric potential of this appellation wants nothing to do with it.
"Rule number one,” says Christophe Baron as he navigates his old pickup truck—license plate WWSYRAH—down Sunnyside Road: “When you’re at Cayuse, the word you have to use is stones.” Never rocks. He feels similar disdain for the word winemaker; Baron terms himself a vigneron, someone who tends his own vineyard and controls his wine from plant to bottle.
The land that’s seized so many imaginations feels like a slightly tumbledown exurb, dotted with orchards, fallow fields, and, increasingly, grapevines. Stones are thick like carpet in some places, scattered on dirt like confetti in others.
Except, it takes more than geology to make wines like Baron’s. We pull over at his Fiddleneck vineyard, where vines are planted too close to navigate via tractor. Four draft horses are hitched to cultivators brought from France. Brown flanks brush vines as horses trudge down narrow rows; cultivators dredging through stone-covered soil sound like pebbles clanking in a coffee can.
Planting grapes sur échalas—literally on stakes, so close that each row shades the next—lets them ripen with lower levels of sugar. “It’s like haute couture,” says Baron. “One piece takes 100 hours to create; we take the same approach.”
Next is Cayuse’s first vineyard, whose origin story is practically legend. In 1993, a young Baron wanted to work in Oregon’s buzzy Willamette Valley but ended up with an 18-month hitch in Walla Walla, not realizing pinot country was five hours away. He worked in Australia, New Zealand, and even Romanian wineries, then returned to the U.S. in 1996 to buy land in the Willamette Valley. On a quick social stop in Walla Walla, conversation turned to France’s famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. A farmer friend knew of land with a similar blanket of stones. The next morning they headed toward the conjoined town of Milton-Freewater; we’re standing on the 10-acre plot Baron first spotted that day, thick with softball-size stones.
The legend stems from Baron’s obsessive labor as much as the singular terrain. A guy willing to maintain a team of draft horses for the sake of good wine would have no patience for the rule-strapped federal approval process that forged the Rocks District AVA. Or the requirement that boundaries follow existing features—like roads or ridges—rather than match these rocky soils exactly. Baron certainly dislikes the unwieldy name, another product of governmental guidelines, and the possibility that a less-exacting winemaker could slap it on a label to imply that what’s inside the bottle is in a league with Cayuse. “That was done by a bunch of amateurs,” he scoffs of the appellation, leaning over to make sure I’m writing down his words.
There’s also the small matter of another boundary, a border between two states that’s more impactful, albeit way more arbitrary, than the edges of an alluvial fan.
Steve Robertson gives his own tour of the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. A one-man chamber of commerce in a well-traveled Audi, he could almost pass for John Kerry’s gentleman farmer cousin, with his strong profile and iron-colored mane. The area lured Robertson’s family from Oregon and California; his daughter, Brooke, tends their 10-acre SJR Vineyard, and their Delmas syrah is a consistent heavy-hitter. Robertson definitely refers to the AVA by name; he and Whitman College geology professor Kevin Pogue spearheaded the application—“If you draw lines around something, you give it importance.”
The Rocks District is six miles southwest of the city of Walla Walla, but when Robertson crosses Stateline Road, we trade Washington for Oregon. Most of the Walla Walla Valley lies on the Washington side—not to mention nearly all the winemaking infrastructure. However, the Rocks District itself, the terroir redefining Washington’s reputation is actually, entirely, in Oregon.
Still, Robertson points out where some top names in Washington wine—Betz, Dusted Valley, Doubleback owner and former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe—are buying up acres and ripping out fruit trees to plant grapes. Attention from Europe helped elevate Napa and the Willamette Valley, he says as we pass the future home of Valdemar Estates: A family of Rioja winemakers chose this AVA for its first project outside of Spain.
Another wrinkle of AVA law: Only wines made in Oregon can use the Rocks District label. Most grapes get trucked over Stateline Road to wineries in Washington.
This gives Baron more cause for scorn, but also explains why the story of Rocks District has been slow to travel outside of wine circles. What good is a wine that tastes of a specific place if nobody can visit to witness what makes it special?
That’s about to change. Impressive new guard wineries, like Maison Bleue, Rôtie Cellars, and Force Majeure, are planning wineries and tasting rooms next to their estate vineyards, the model that makes a visit to Napa so appealing.
Baron, meanwhile, is busy with his newest project, a two-acre pocket of land outside the Rocks District, where the north fork of the Walla Walla River meets the main waterway. The foothills of the Blue Mountains seem to start right here, flat pasture suddenly thrusts upward and rows of vines incline toward the sky.
Once again, he’s found land that recalls a famous French terroir, this time the steep riverbanks of Hermitage. The second vintage of this Hors Categorie syrah, just 1,200 bottles, debuts in early 2019. Reviews of the first release were rapturous.
There’s no trick to what he does, Baron says after we scramble up the hillside to admire the views from above the vines. Just an attitude that winemaking starts here. “I’m not a magician. I’m a vigneron.”