Saturday, December 18, 2010

2006 Cayuse Bionic Frog

I had the chance to try the 2006 Cayuse Vineyards Bionic Frog today.

As has been noted earlier on this blog, Christophe Baron's Cayuse Vineyards create wines of some great controversy. People love them or people hate them, but there is always an opinion to be had. I'm personally a fan of the wines, but even I admit that they're not something that you want to have on a regular basis. They're very rich and very lively; the way that they come across is vivid and inescapably showy. However, it has to be admitted that the pH of every bottle of Cayuse I've had has seemed remarkably high. The softness of these wines can be pleasant and appealing sometimes, but isn't the style that I like on a regular basis.

The Bionic Frog showed a meatiness that I've come to associate with Cayuse; it was very gamy and even had an element of cured meats, like salami. It also had notes of green olive, though not as much as in the bottles of En Chamberlain that I've had. The oak treatment was noticeable but not prominent; it stayed in the background and was quite enjoyable. The fruit of the wine also played a supporting role; there was a figgy note that was very nice, but it was nowhere near the focus of the wine. Think of a small fig wrapped in a big piece of panchetta and drizzled in balsamic vinegar. Sound good? You'll probably like Cayuse wines.

The pH on this wine seemed very high; it was lush and extremely soft in the mouth. There was also no perceivable tannin structure. These two elements made for a velvety concoction with no rough edges. It must be noted as well that I (and most of the palates at the table) detected a noticeable level of volatile acidity in the wine. Normally this is a big turn-off for me, but there was so much going on in the glass that it actually supported it well.

Why are these wines so intriguing? I think it has something to do with the fact that they undeniably push the envelope. The levels of grape ripeness evident in these wines has created a phenolic content that is in itself rather volatile. Hence, there is a lot of perceivable sensory elements in the glass, and they are more exotic than the standard monolithic big fruit and oak that is the profile of many Washington wines. Is this a good thing? It's certainly an interesting one.

Do these wines justify a) their price points and b) their hype? I always hate when someone asks me whether a wine is 'worth the money.' The answer is such a subjective one; if you make $20 million a year, then sure, shelling out $70 or $100 for a bottle of Cayuse is probably an easy thing to do, and so for you it would be worth the money. If, on the other hand, you make $25,000 a year at McDonalds then you might want to look more closely at the really value-driven products. Personally, I understand why these wines are as expensive as they are. Firstly, their production is expensive. The yields on Christophe's vineyards are famously low, he does all biodynamic production (which is expensive), and those vineyards are young; there's no way they've paid for themselves yet. Also, the production out of that winery is tiny, somewhere around 3000 cases I'm told. At that level of production it's impossible to turn a profit and remain liquid (no pun intended) without charging high prices. Is the wine worth the money? It's the price of admission to try something from a producer that is uncompromising in his principles and dedicated to small production wines.

Whether or not the wines justify their hype is a completely different question, and I think a difficult one. A lot of what makes Cayuse so appealing to many of its consumers is the press. This is for me a bit of an irritation and also a paradox. I despise the fact that a handful of palates so control the Washington wine industry, especially when those palates are so skewed in favor of ultra-rich wines- as is the case with The Wine Advocate's Jay Miller, for instance. I also think that these scores being the be-all-end-all for so many consumers pushes other producers to produce wines in this style, thusly reducing the diversity of the Washington wine scene and forcing producers to make wines that they perhaps might not even like themselves. At the same time, high Washington scores bring the state further into the consciousness of drinkers around the country and around the world, and that is a stated goal of mine.

The other thing that creates the hype around Cayuse is the limited availability. The unparalleled demand for these bottles of Cayuse is a natural consequence of combining high scores with extremely limited availability, and it is part of what makes them a viable enterprise. If these wines were familiar sights on wine shop shelves, customers would be far less inclined to put up with allocation from the winery. Supply and demand is a simple concept, and the invisible hand is doing its work here for Christophe.

I'm rambling now, so I'll stop. Was this wine a great experience? Yes, but it was in spite of some flaws. Do I think that it's for everyone? No, not at all; in fact, half of the people at the table tonight hated it. One of my cohorts poured it out. But am I sad that I have a bottle in my cellar? Far from it.

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