much ado about Cayuse

Have you heard of Cayuse? They make (intensively?) polarizing wines. In fact, there was a big hoo-ha in the internets over whether or not a Cayuse wine was flawed or just, well, different. Here is a link to an article that stirred up a hornet’s nest of anxiety in any number of wine chat boards in 2010: bedlam

(As a scientist, I cannot agree to conclusions formed by  tasting a single bottle of wine; the point of the link is simply to illustrate the fierce opinions that these wines induce in otherwise normal, happy people.)

Cayuse lineup

Cayuse wines are probably quite different than that which you regularly drink*. They carry flavors often described as vegetal, briny, olive, sweaty, meaty, bloody, and iodine, to name a few. In my limited experience, these ‘funky’ flavors are also accompanied by really gorgeous, intense, and delicious fruit, which makes the whole package unusual and also quite tasty. Again, my experiences are limited. I have tasted probably 5-6 bottles opened by friends and I’ve been to exactly one of their release weekends where you barrel sample the lineup (reds only: 7 Syrahs, 2 Cabernet blends, and 1 Grenache.  The Viognier and Rose I did not recall tasting).

These wines are HOT in the wine community. Winery price is $60-$75, but they sell for $200 or more per bottle on the secondary market.  Being so popular, when you make it onto the mailing list, you are only allocated 1 wine to start. And that wine is not chosen by you – it is chosen by the winery. This is how I came to own Armada Syrah in the first place. (A funny thing about the Cayuse Mailing list: you pay for your wine 1.5 years IN ADVANCE. I received the 2007 Armada in 2011 at the release party.)

Fast forward to last Saturday night. A basketball game that shall remain forever squashed in my memory (The Horror! And at home, too!) required some serious alcoholic sustenance to make it through the second half, so we opened a 2007 Armada to soothe our tired, Carolina-blue souls. It didn’t help things.

Cayuse Armada Syrah 2007

Cayuse Armada Syrah 2007

In fact, I thought it might be corked. I am not at all sensitive to cork taint – ask anyone in my tasting group. I am super sensitive to alcohol levels and Volatile Acidity flaws, but TCA has to be severe in order for me to pinpoint it. I usually can tell that a wine is not right, but I spend a lot of time swirling and sniffing and then it usually takes the person next to me saying “Corked” before I can recognize faintly the smell of wet cardboard. Since on Saturday I was drinking with two people also unable to identify cork taint, we were all left nonplussed by the bottle. It smelled fine, with some plummy olive and brine, but the palate was frankly bereft of fruit. All we could taste was broccoli, pepper, and cigarette smoke.

Being the true pioneer (nerd) that I am, I took the bottle to a professional for a second opinion today. I really thought it might be corked, since I was hard pressed to identify any fruit flavor in the palate, and cork taint would still be evident after 48 hours open. Jason at Pike & Western tasted it for me and said, “Nope, not corked. Just kinda doesn’t taste very good.”

And there you have it. Armada Syrah is just not for me. Or Jason, apparently. So who wants my extra bottles?

*unless you are a super wine nerd, which is totally cool by me

beaujolais to the rescue

Why have a cellar? Besides the fact that it satisfies the urge to hoard and gloat over one’s possessions (as anyone who has a basement cellar knows, nothing quite beats the thrill of ducking down stairs to admire racks and racks of drinkable possibilities), the reason I like to have a cellar is so that I can cook anything for dinner. Not that I get fancy all that often, mind you, but when an epiphany strikes (Osso Bucco! Duck l’Orange! Something not frozen!) one of the worst* feelings imaginable is knowing you spent all day cooking dinner and…you have no wine to go with it.

Nonetheless, as I mull over dinner tonight the possibilities are not as endless as I’d like. I am not lucky enough to have a cellar today – what I have is an off-site storage locker and a small wine rack in my stair closet.

what's in YOUR closet?

what’s in YOUR closet?

What I try to keep in my limited closet space is wine that will pair well with a variety of foods.  I like to think I have a lot of Champagne, but the truth is that Champagne is so tasty and versatile that it is the first to go. Today, I think I have a lone bottle of Pierre Peters down there.  The rest is a motley assortment of Cru Beaujolais, Loire Valley whites, Riesling, and the odd Italian wine.

So what is a poor gal to do?

Lapierre 2011 Morgon

M. Lapierre’s 2011 Morgon

When in doubt, open the Cru Beaujolais, I say. I haven’t even decided what to cook yet, but it doesn’t really matter – this should go with almost anything I can throw into a pan. I have not yet tried the 2011 version of M. Lapierre’s Morgon bottling, but I am a fan of this wine every year – it’s so fresh, vibrant, and pure. In general, I find Cru Beaujolais refreshingly uncomplicated by oak treatment and free of heavily sugarfied flavors from which many New World wines suffer. Plus, the low alcohol (12.5%, says this label, and I believe it) makes the quaff much more enjoyable to my palate. Since it is after 4 pm and I still haven’t thought of a menu, I am likely to do a fried egg on vegetables+leftover rice or somesuch peasant fare. And I expect this wine to elevate my rather pedestrian meal to something worth writing about.

*OK, so that feeling hardly compares to that which follows after allowing your one-year old to tumble into the (empty) bathtub while grabbing for a rubber toy as you folded laundry in the next room, but it still irks.

“and that’s why….you ALWAYS bring a back-up bottle”

Serious wine drinkers bring backup bottles. This is because serious wine drinkers become utterly despondent when a flawed wine ruins the night/meal/tasting.  Lucky for me, I am friends with a few such serious wine drinkers.

Ridge 1991 Geyservilles

Ridge 1991 Geyservilles

This past weekend we hosted quite possibly the last dinner party ever in our Seattle house before we pack up and move to more southerly areas.  Our good friends brought some wine (pictured at left), we provided some wine, and their daughter babysat our daughter in the living room – it was a very pleasant family evening.  The two low points were a corked bottle (the horror!) and an embarrassing plum tart debacle which I blame entirely on my Aunt Marsha’s recipe (or lack thereof). But this blog is about wine, so we will leave my baking exploits alone.

Ridge Vineyard’s Geyserville is an old favorite of mine. It appeals to me for many reasons, not the least of which is how delicious it is.  Here are some of Geyserville’s best attributes, in my opinion: Continue reading

something to cook with

I don’t know how often you read wine chatter on the internets, but a well-used adage I’ve come across many times is the following: “never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.”  Inevitably this is interpreted to mean “never cook with wine you wouldn’t serve a guest” or even “never cook with wine under $30”.

This is pure insanity. I cook with wine, often. And sometimes, like my refrigerator magnet says, I even put it in the food.  But when I do put wine in my stews, braises, etc… it is never, NEVER a bottle over $10. I have, in my wine drinking career, certainly tasted horrible wines before. If I truly were compelled to spit a wine out after a single sip, then no, I wouldn’t cook with it. But wine will transform when cooked, so taking anything with complex, interesting nuances and a silky mouthfeel and wasting it in a pot on the stove is simply criminal. Continue reading

the evolution of taste

I first became interested in wine in 2007 when I was writing my Master’s thesis. Holed up in my family’s cabin, 45 minutes from the nearest city (if you call Hilo, Hawaii a city), I was in desperate need of something to procrastinate with, instead of tackling the statistical mire that my investigation into spawning cycles of reef fish had become.

Yellow Tang Fish pic

Here’s my little study subject.

I decided to learn about wine, which has its own challenges on a tropical Pacific island, but I didn’t let that stop me. Nor did I let the fact that the nearest wine shop was 45 minutes away slow me down. I had the internet. I had a corkscrew. And most importantly, I had discovered a tour guide who was engaging, spoke in simple language about wine, and who didn’t make it seem elitist, complicated, or expensive. His name was Gary Vaynerchuk and his show, WLTV, was my gateway. Here is a link to a classic video of his, in case you are unfamiliar with his particular…style:

What wine pairs with cereal?

Six months later I was back on the mainland, Continue reading

a bubbly farewell

At the end of January we met friends for a special occasion dinner (our ‘going away party’, as we are soon to relocate to the Bay Area) which was, luckily for us, accompanied by some very nice wines. My predilection for all things Champagne is no secret, and there were two very nice bottles of bubbly to start us off, neither of which I had ever tasted previously.

january 2013 champagnes

(sorry about the photo quality…)

Salon is a mythic creature, a single wine produced by a single house, and only released in certain years.  And while I certainly appreciate a good Blanc de Blancs, I often choose to drink at the fuller, broader end of the Champagne spectrum.  However, I was certainly not going to turn down a taste of this beauty given the history of the producer and my naturally inquisitive taste buds. (Also, I had brought the thing!)

Upon first opening, the 1997 Salon did not particularly impress me, I’m sad to say. Even in my burgundy stem, the nose was essentially hidden and the palate, though texturally quite impressive, offered very little besides a faint bread taste and chalk feeling. However, after 30 minutes or so of air (and warmer temperature) the stone fruit, lime, and chalk became more pronounced even as the texture smoothed to a point so far on the horizon most Champagnes don’t even know it exists. It was quite wonderful, and its pedigree was clear.

The second Champagne is near and dear to my heart, even though I had, as of that dinner, never tasted it before in my life.  My husband and I visited Champagne in the spring of 2011, and one of our favorite visits was to the house of Charles Heidsieck. We had a lovely tour of the caves, tasted the full lineup of Charles and Piper Heidsieck (both houses, completely separate for decades, have recently merged under the same parent company) and ended up deep in the ancient cellars, faced with a wall of dusty, cobwebbed bottles. Christian, our fantastic, exuberant guide generously offered to pop any bottle we saw in front of us, which is how we came to taste the 1983 Champagne Charlie that glorious spring day (and also how we came to be 30 minutes late to our Michelin-starred lunch reservation, but that is another story entirely). In any case, tasting that wine in that company in that place remains one of the highlights of our wine journey together. And any chance to drink another Charles Heidsieck creation is something we look forward to in a misty-eyed, reverential way.


The 1985 Champagne Charlie was an Oenotheque bottling, meaning it was recently disgorged from those very caves, having rested comfortably on dusty shelves since birth. I was, of course, fully prepared to adore this wine, which may have colored my notes.  But wine is to be enjoyed, and while I appreciate the benefit of a fully unbiased approach to wine tasting, this was neither the time nor the place for such lunacy.  The 1985 Charlie was simply my kind of awesome – caramel, biscuit, nutmeg, all that good stuff. I didn’t take very complete notes because I was too busy loving the taste and the texture and the memory. I only hope that everyone tastes such a special bottle as this at some point in their lives – preferably while surrounded by happy and generous friends.