The King Of The Stones
Christophe very graciously received us at the studio, and finished regaling us with the official story already started by his able assistant, Trevor. Christophe comes from an old winemaking family in Champagne. Unfortunately, this Champagne is not available in the States. Christophe earned his stripes in Burgundy and came to the U.S. planning to make Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. He visited a friend in Walla Walla and "on his way" to the Willamette Valley, " just happened upon" the stony soil in the southwest quadrant of the Walla Walla AVA.
"Cailloux!", he exclaimed excitedly upon seeing the stony soil of the apple orchids along Sunneyside Road (Actually there were already plantings of grapes in the stones when Christophe arrived. The old Seven Hills vineyard, now called Wildrow was there along with some others). That was the beginning of the end for Christophe - no more Willamette Pinot for him. Roughly thirteen years ago he set down roots among the stones of Walla Walla AVA and has never looked back. I asked him if regretted not going on to the Willamette. His answer - not at all. I would have been just one of many Frenchmen making Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and here I am unique." Kathy Tovey remembered Christophe as a somewhat scrawny young man peddling his wine at a country fair in Oregon in the mid-90s. Christophe has come a long way since then.
Now, Christophe has a domain consisting of many vineyards, and has recently discovered "biodynamique." This suits him perfectly, since in its purest form, biodynamique is about an ecological microcosm, a self-sufficient domain. Christophe took us on a tour of his home base,
Armida Vineyard. He told us that he has 25 full-time permanent employees to maintain the vineyards and in the winery. Most of them probably work in the vineyards and in keeping with the sustainability ethos of Oregon they have health insurance. My guess is that, as usual, they are Hispanic , and to produce my own stereotype, hard-working. conscientious and productive. Walking on "cobblestones" trodden by others, one still has a wondrous sense of something "sauvage" and yet "pastorale." As we walked among the stones, Christophe regaled us with tales of his conquests in Walla Walla. Christophe told us that others had said he would break his machinery on such rocks, but the "Bionic Frog" persevered. Finally, we arrived at a plot of Grenache planted 3ft.X3ft. Rows with spaces not wide enough for most overweight Americans, let alone a motorized cultivator. Horses! Christophe will cultivate this plot with the help of several Belgian horses. Beyond this plot, piles of manure, excuse me, organic fertilizer.
And then, the producers of this fertile pile - les vaches (the cows). To the south, an organic cherry orchid rejected by commercial buyers because the cherries didn't conform to grade. Perhaps this is the best description of Christophe. He doesn't conform to grade. This non-conformist thinks and lives outside the box.
Back to the studio/atelier/winery. As we entered the "studio" we had a lively discussion of order and disorder. This was triggered by the incredible flying pig hanging from the ceiling of the winery. Starting with a pinata purchased by Christophe, his artist friend painted it over, adding two jet engines and other paraphernalia. Christophe insists they are Boeing engines and not Airbus. My guess is that Airbus represents the uptight, buttoned up, stultifying cadre of France with their inhibiting rule-bound society as opposed to the fresh air of America for a French person. Disorder is "necessaire" for creativity, originality and limnality. On the other hand, order is a necessary foil for disorder and it is necessary to define "a thing." So we enter the inner sanctum - a frigid place of order! Rows of barrels, "eggs," cement fermenters, neatly laid out. But many of the barrels are turned with their provenance and stats unavailable to the naked eye. Christophe is both ebullient and charismatic, on the one hand, and private and secretive, on the other.
As he explained early on, "terroir" is everything. He described himself as primarily a "vigneron," a grapegrower, but the implication was of an artist united with the soil (see my D.H. Lawrence quote on the masthead). Christophe, the artist, reminded me of Picasso and Gauguin. I asked him if he was a guardian of the vineyards. "Not at all! Maybe in a hundred years, in a thousand years." Now he is a pioneer, a discoverer, an explorer, an experimenter, an adventurer. Christophe has the personality of Lewis Hyde's "Trickster." Hermes, he is! Egoist, narcissist, yes, but his charisma is real, not some put-on persona. I once heard a French teacher describe her job as "seduire." To seduce, is to teach. Christophe is very seductive, very charismatic. A seller of Gentiane at a market in southwest France, once told us that his product would make anyone "drop his pants" or was it "her pants." That's Christophe!
You were wondering about the wine? Exceptional! These wines are giants. Bigger than most California wines, yet not jammy. Bigger than most Australian wines, yet not linear. Bigger than most French wine, yet not classic. Bigger than most Washington wines, yet not soft. These are big wines in big bottles, but really they are amazingly over the top, really nothing like them in intensity. Huge expansive wines, just like Christophe! How does Christophe do it? Apparently he has many secrets, but the most obvious trick is in the vineyard - keeping the yields low, dropping clusters down to five or six per vine, or in the case of the 3x3 Grenache maybe three per vine resulting in yields of significantly less than two tons per acre, like 1.2 or 1.5 tons per acre. This is amazing when you consider that three tons per acre is considered low by the mere mortals growing grapes in other vineyards.
From the cask - '06 Grenache - Armida, '06 Syrah -Armida, '06 Syrah -Cailloux, '08 Bionic Frog. The 2006 Armida Grenache is big, dark and inky, smelling of spices and tar, tasting of rhubarb and strawberry. A huge, smooth, seamless wine -plus d' agreable. 2008 Armida Syrah - incredibly dark, perfection in a bottle, deepest, darkest Walla Walla. The flagship Cailloux vineyard was founded in 1997 - super-intense, liquid tar, somewhat like the tar and roses of a traditional Barolo, but so much more intense. This is not your average aperatif, maybe an acquired taste. For me, incredible! The 2008 Bionic Frog blend is from the Coccinelle vineyard and has a pretty nose - complex, spicy and herbal, in the mouth - round, soft, seductive and approachable - closest to the gout Americain, thus very popular. BTW, Coccinelle means ladybug in French, but also is the name of a pioneering transsexual and a line of handbags.
From the bottle - 2007 Widowmaker, 2007 Bionic Frog, 2007 Impulsivo. The 2007 Widowmaker is a killer Cabernet Sauvignon from the En Chambertin vineyard. Once your man drinks this liquid cassis and blueberry pie that tastes like a spice rack, it won't be long 'til you get to finih the bottle in peace and quiet by yourself. The 2007 Bionic Frog is big, spicy and complex. The 2007 Impulsivo is 100% Tempranillo from the En Chambertin vineyard. Deep, black, incredibly intense, without being jammy. The beautiful image on the label says it all - the last tango, to die for, or from! Truly a tour de force.
Are the wines representative of the terroir. Without a doubt! They are so different from each other.. This was especially illustrated by four different Syrahs from four different vineyards. Are they only terroir? I don't think so. As usual, the winemaker has left his stamp, his signature, on the wine. Christophe is both a terroiriste and an artiste - a "vigneron!" Christophe's wines are gigantic like Christophe who is un geant de la terre. I was forced to read Giants In The Earth in high school and hated it. Now the name has served me well in describing this amazing French winemaker who has spread his seed in the fertile soil of Walla Walla. The "Rock" Star exceeded my expectations and his reputation. Stones R Us, or rather, Stones R Him.
Christophe tells me he has 4500 people on the waiting list, but I have a feeling people are dropping off the mailing list like flies due to the horrendous economy. Sign up, you never know, you might get to the head of the list faster than you think, and by that time maybe your finances may have recovered enough to be able to pay the price for a bottle paradise (or is it hell?) in a bottle. Trust me, it's worth it. Spend your last red cent on an impulse and die happy. Despite my reticence I was totally seduced by Christophe and his incredible wines. Cayuse rocks!