One of the first life-changing wines I drank in my 20s was a Guigal Côte-Rôtie “Brune et Blonde.” I was in a New York steakhouse and the sommelier I was with just stood there awaiting what he knew would be my wide-eyed reaction. It was a primal scream of a wine—explosive, gamey, gutsy, full of blood, rocks, and a fistful of pepper, white and black. A sensory grenade had just detonated in my mouth. Reluctantly, I swallowed. By the end of the bottle, I was hooked on Syrah for life.
Until about three years ago, I would have said that the most dramatic, primordial Syrahs in the world come from the northern Rhône Valley of France—especially from the small enclaves of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and Cornas.
But then I tasted a slew of Syrahs that were so unleashed and unhinged, it was unnerving. They weren’t French; they weren’t even European. They were from a remote geologic phenomenon that straddles eastern Washington and Oregon. It’s called “The Rocks.”
The Rocks District of Milton Freewater (its official U.S. government-decreed name) is a 6 square mile area south of the town of Walla Walla—an area that, until 20 years ago, was almost exclusively known for its onions. The vineyards are on the Oregon side of the border, but most of the wineries are in Washington. Listing just “Walla Walla” on the label means wineries can skirt the frustratingly complex issue of what state the wine “belongs” to.
The soil (if it can be called that) is composed of softball-sized stones of blackish-colored cooled lava hundreds of feet deep. The cauldron of rock was deposited some 15,000 to 12,000 years ago by the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic floods that resulted from collapsing, refreezing, and recollapsing of glacial ice dams thousands of feet high. So powerful was the force of the water as it raced to the Pacific Ocean that more than 50 cubic miles of earth and rock were moved, scouring out the entire Columbia River Valley and reshaping the Pacific Northwest.
The first vineyard in The Rocks was planted in 1997 by a stocky Frenchman named Christophe Baron who, in his I-don’t-give-a-f**k way, decided to forego the family Champagne business and strike out on his own in America. Baron’s wine—Cayuse—is still consider the godfather of Rock’s Syrahs.
Cayuse—and its sister brands Horsepower and No Girls (yes there’s a story there)–are hard to get (collectors snap them up) and breathtakingly expensive. But if you see one on a wine list, nab it. These wines are howling screams of gameyness and minerality. You have to taste them to believe them, and drunk with, say, roast lamb or any kind of game, you’ll be in heaven. Although a loner, Baron and his wines inspired a slew of other winemakers. Now a small handful of top producers make dramatic, artisanal wines in The Rocks. They aren’t “easy” wines. But you’ll never forget one after you taste it.
Among my favorite wines from Christophe Baron:
- CAYUSE “Bionic Frog” Syrah
- CAYUSE “God Only Knows” Syrah
- HORSEPOWER VINEYARDS “High Contrast Vineyard” Syrah
- NO GIRLS “La Placiencia Vineyard” Syrah