How Horses In The Vineyard Help Create World-Class Wines At Cayuse

By | December 20, 2022

In the Washington State wine industry many people refer to Christophe Baron as the ‘Crazy Frenchman.’ Who else would buy of field of stones that no one else wanted and plant a vineyard on it? Who else would employ massive-muscled work horses to till the soil in the vineyards? But…. who else would become so successful that his distinctive biodynamic world-class wines typically sell out in the first 3 weeks of release each year?

Born in Champagne, France to a winemaking family, Baron studied viticulture and enology in Champagne and Burgundy. Next he traveled the world to make wine in Australia, New Zealand and Romania, before heading to the Pacific Northwest.

“In 1996, I decide to purchase land in the Willamette Valley of Oregon,” Baron stated in a recent online interview, “and was driving there the next day, but stopped in Walla Walla, Washington to visit an old friend. While talking over a glass of wine, I showed him a picture in a book of the Southern Rhone with the vineyards covered in large stones. He said there was a field of stones like that just south of town. So we drove there, and I saw this field of softball size stones, and I said ‘this is it!’

Needless to say, Baron never did make it to Oregon. Instead he negotiated the next day to buy the field of stones – which no one else wanted because it was too difficult to farm. By 1997 he had planted his first vineyard of syrah grapes, and named the property, ‘Cayuse,’ after a Native American tribe whose name came from the French ‘callioux,’ meaning ‘stones.’

Today, after nearly three decades of successful wine crafting, 75 acres of vineyards, and 5 successful wine brands, Baron reflects on the journey and what has made him so successful. Part of that success has to do with horses and farming according to biodynamic principles. Other key aspects include limited production, exceptionally high scores on his wines, and hiring a talented team of employees.

The Positive Aspects of Horses in the Vineyard and Biodynamic Farming

“Horsepower is the way to close the circle,” explains Baron. “We switched from organic to biodynamic farming in 2002, and since then have only used all natural products in the vineyards. In addition to horses to plow between the vines, we also have goats, cows, pigs and chickens.” Farm animals are part of the biodynamic farming system, because they provide natural fertilizer and assist with tilling and weed control.

The horses are especially important at Cayuse, and Baron hires specially trained ‘horsemen’ to operate ancient plows that are harnessed to the massive work horses.

“With horses there is no compaction of soil,” Baron continues. “They have a lower impact, which is better for vines longevity, and helps to create more complex and interesting wines.”

And the Cayuse line-up of wines is especially interesting, with excellent concentration, complexity, and a literal taste of the basalt from the stones. Currently, there are five brands in the portfolio: Cayuse, Horsepower, Hors Category, no girlsand an imported Christophe Baron Champagne that Baron makes from his family vineyards in France. All of the wines retail for $100 or more per bottle, with some of the older vintages (if you can find them), fetching up to $600 per bottle.

At Cayuse they have also adopted the tight spacing between the vines that is common in Europe. “We use 3.5 feet times 3.5 feet spacing in some of the blocks,” reports Baron. “You reach ripeness at a lower brix with tight spacing, which results in more tension and grip to the mouthfeel of the wines. Tight spacing also provides more shade to the grape clusters, which protects them from the hot sun.”

Baron admitted that he first noticed global warming in the very hot summer of 2003, and then again in 2005, 2007, and 2009. Since then they have planted new vineyards to drought tolerant rootstock, and have increased the amount of foliage to provide shade. “I’ve also raised the height of the trellis to 5.6 feet,” said Baron, “because I’m 5.6 feet and higher trellising provides more shade to the clusters.”

But in the Washington State wine industry, they don’t just have to worry about hot summers, but very cold winters as well. “There is snow and it is very cold in the vineyard today,” reports Baron, swiveling his zoom screen to show the white shrouded vineyard, “and because of this we must bury the vines every year to protect them.” It is, indeed, a lot of work that goes into tending these special vines.

Limited Production and a Team of Powerful Female Winemakers

In the early years of Cayuse’s production, it was very common to find a hand-written sign taped to the front door of the small tasting room in Walla Walla (the actual wine studio is about 15 minutes outside of town). The sign would say, ‘Sold Out of Wine in 3 Weeks. Check back with us next year.’

This is the type of sign that many winery owners would love to be able to post, but few wineries are lucky enough to be so successful from the very beginning. “The secret,” says Baron, “is to produce great quality wine and to keep your production small.”

He said they were fortunate enough to receive very high scores on their wines from Harvey Steiman at the Wine Spectator. “Harvey put us on the map,” Baron explains. “Plus we’ve always kept our production low. First it was 350 cases, then 500. We have grown very slowly.”

Today the Cayuse brand is still only around 4500 cases per year, with the other brands hovering around 1000, depending on the vintage. There are 45 employees, and Baron has recently promoted Elizabeth Bourcier, assistant vigneronne for many years to the head role Resident Vigneronne.

“Elizabeth and Karin Gasparotti, assistant vigneronne, are basically running the wine studio now,” reports Baron. “Women have better palates than guys, and they don’t have as big egos as guys. It is a real joy to have a team of women in charge.”

Bourcier is responsible for launching the no girls wine brand at Cayuse, which despite its off-putting name at first reading, has a very positive meaning. This is because, historically, women were excluded from the key stages of wine production, because it was thought to be ‘a man’s work.’ like that no girls, celebrates women breaking into professions where they were excluded in the past. It celebrates the strength and resilience of women.

Today, due to limited production and high demand, there is a waitlist for all 5 of the Cayuse brand name wines. Therefore, potential customers must sign up in order to be able to purchase wines from the winery. However, a few select bottles may be found at fine wine shops.

The Future at Cayuse and Some Creative Wine Pairings

When asked what was next, Baron smiled and said he had another project in mind that he couldn’t talk about yet. However, when asked which food he would pair with the wines we were tasting on the Zoom call, he was quite loquacious.

Cayuse Cailloux Vineyard 2019 Viognier with Grilled Scallops and Ponzu Sauce

Horsepower Fiddleneck Vineyard 2018 Grenache with Jack Rabbit, Truffles and Foie Gras

No Girls 2017 Tempranillo with Roasted Goat on a Stick with Herbs

Cayuse Vineyard 2018 Flying Pig (Bordeaux Blend) with Grilled Duck Breast and Herbs

Hors Category 2019 Syrah with Roasted Lamb or Pork, Potatoes and Herbs

2016 Champagne Christophe Baron (100% Pinot Meunier in magnum) with potato chips, crème fraîche and caviar

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