First off, a warning: this is going to be a long offer, as milestone offers tend to be. Second, let’s cover logistics nice and early: a) Our normal policy about trying to ship in full-case increments will not apply to La Rata. If you end up allocated 2 or 3 or 4 bottles and want those shipped during our upcoming autumn shipping window, we will accommodate that. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible to get these beautiful wines into happy homes; b) This wine is in the warehouse already; c) There’s not much of it: just 98 cases produced, and the next vintage will be just as small; and d) We’re going to do our allocations one week from today, so please try to get all order requests in no later than next Tuesday (Sept 29).
Now the good part. What is La Rata, and how does our list have the good fortune to end up with all of it? Well, La Rata is a wine dripping with serendipity. Let’s zoom in and out of the serendipitous moments that bring us to the shimmering present:
October 2012, Cayuse Production Studio outside Milton-Freewater
It’s harvest. Spine-tingling, adrenaline-fueled, exhilarating/exhausting harvest. Harvest lunch at Cayuse involves a ritual of choosing bottles, blind, to crack open and drink with lunch. Elizabeth Bourcier, Cayuse’s Assistant Vigneronne, plucks a bottle, which turns out to be Clos Erasmus Laurel. Clos Erasmus is a wonderful estate in the Priorat region of Spain planted to Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. It’s one of a very few places in the world where Grenache and Cabernet are blended. The wine strikes a nerve over lunch. Elizabeth is inspired by the wine itself, by the winemaker Daphne Glorian. She remembers that – at Cayuse Vineyards – Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon often ripen at the same time, could be picked on the same day.
An experiment is born. Grenache and Cab together. Grenache from Armada Vineyard; Cabernet from En Cerise. A Priorat-style blend. What is written on the puncheons? Maybe it starts out as “Priorat.” But it’s soon shortened to “The Rat.” And then Spanglish-cized: La Rata.
The name resonates. Elizabeth’s zodiac sign is the rat (spirit, wit, alertness, delicacy, flexibility, vitality; it fits). She still, despite having one of the most coveted roles in the Walla Walla Valley, thinks of herself as a cellar rat. But she has been with Cayuse since 2008, and she is much more than that. Titles and terms are important at Cayuse. Elizabeth is not an assistant winemaker; she is an assistant vigneronne. She touches every aspect of the wines at Cayuse, from vineyard to winery to bottle. She is a farmer. An artist. And a winemaker.
Spring 1996, a 10-acre open field that would become Cailloux Vineyard (the first site to be planted on the stones of Milton-Freewater, OR)
Christophe Baron is staring at a field of galets (large cobblestones). He has already discarded his birthright destiny, and he is about to discard his chosen destiny. The birthright: to join the family business, Champagne Baron Albert. To follow generations of his ancestors. Like, a lot of generations, and a lot of ancestors. 1677 is the first year where there is evidence of Barons working in Champagne. The chosen destiny: to make Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley. He’s supposed to be heading there now. But he’s a Frenchman staring at a field of galets, and he knows that this terroir is meant to be more than just a pain-in-the-ass place to grow apples.
By the end of 1997, Cailloux Vineyard is in the ground. In 1998, Coccinelle is planted, as is En Cerise (source of La Rata’s Cabernet Sauvignon). En Chamberlin follows in 2000, and then Armada (source of La Rata’s Grenache) in 2001. Wines are released. Acclaim and buzz follow soon thereafter. The word “cult” is tossed around. The mailing list is closed. The waiting list is begun. Legions of wine lovers receive their “Happy New Year From Cayuse Vineyards” e-mails each January and dream that this is the year they can taste the wines from this special piece of terroir.
June 2011, Cayuse Production Studio, outside Milton-Freewater, OR
My first visit to Cayuse, and it is entirely thanks to Sean Sullivan, who lets me tag along on a press visit. At this point I’ve been in the wine trade long enough to have developed a mild cynical edge. A few visits to wineries where the real story doesn’t match the PR story. Some emperor-has-no-clothes moments. This visit is the opposite. The emperors have lots of clothes. Like t-shirts and sweaters and fleeces, covered by raincoats and parkas.
The first thing I notice is that we’re greeted outside, and it’s more than an hour before we go inside. Before we do anything else, we walk the vineyards, because at Cayuse, that’s where it all begins. It is obsessive farming, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. This is not an easy place to farm. The rocky-as-hell soils, yes; but also the area’s susceptibility to frost. Farming shortcuts must be tempting, and those temptations are stubbornly, consistently resisted by Christophe and Elizabeth.
This is the first time I get to experience the yin-yang relationship of these two. Christophe: immediately disarming. T-shirt and hoody, shorts and boots. Chatting to his farming team in Spanish. Talking to us in English. Muttering occasionally in French. He’s exuberant. The passion is infectious and threatens to spill over. Sometimes it’s like the words can’t come out quite as quickly as the thoughts, and he kicks one leg out backwards to keep the momentum moving. At those moments, he is less bionic frog and more coq gaulois (or better yet, knowing Christophe’s love of food, a poulet de bresse). He makes me laugh out loud on multiple occasions. His term for Armada’s Grenache vines – somehow derogatory and affectionate at the same time – has me in stitches for days after the visit.
And Elizabeth. Quiet, especially at the beginning. Reserved. Thoughtful. And wickedly intelligent, which you realize every time she opens her mouth. One of those folks who causes you to lean in when they speak so that you don’t miss anything. Confident in her own way. Comfortable in her own skin.
When we finally do make it into the studio (filled with memorable rows of concrete tanks), we taste wine after wine after wine. It is an exceptional lineup of 2008s. Syrahs grown mere feet away from each other with completely different aromatic and flavor profiles. “Terroir is real!” is my last thought before falling asleep in the passenger seat of Sean’s car. When I wake up, another thought comes to me: there is no Cayuse secret. No silver bullet. The team there just works their collective asses off, eschews any and all shortcuts. “More power to the glory of the wine,” is something Christophe says on this visit, repeats on subsequent visits. He believes it. They all believe it. And they live it, in the vineyards and the production studio.
September 2002, Walla Walla, WA
Elizabeth enrolls in the first-ever class of Walla Walla Community College’s Enology and Viticulture Program. She is taught and mentored by the late Stan Clarke, a towering figure in the history of northwest wine. She is 18 years old. Her classmates are all older. Is this even legal? It isn’t discussed. She sets aside her anxiety about leaving Seattle and sets about studying the craft that will become her beautiful career.
May 2015, Cayuse Production Studio, outside Milton-Freewater, OR
So much is the same as the 2011 visit. I’m with Sean. We walk the vineyards first and then taste the wines. But look closer, and differences abound. Two new labels – No Girls and Horsepower – with a third project on the way. A new cave built under the production studio (“finally, after 17 years, a cave”), modern and beautiful, functional and industrial, with rustic exposed concrete you can’t help but reach out and touch. “More tools to reach the full potential of the fruit.” What a wonderful sentiment. Lunch and Champagne. Threats of an all-Pinot Meunier Champagne to come. Perhaps the birthright destiny will be fulfilled after all.
And a taste of La Rata. One of those wines where it is easy to say “of course” after the fact. Of course Grenache and Cabernet go together well here. Grenache and its plump, charming fruit; the insistent savory side it shows at Armada; its seamless attack and its plump mid-palate. Cabernet and its heft, its power, its toothsome structure. A happy marriage. The nose is outrageously complex, in the way that many wines from these Cayuse Vineyards are. A smattering of aromatic notes I jot down: salumi, cassis, raspberry, tobacco leaf, peony, gravel. Texturally vibrant (13.4% listed alc), this is a propulsive live wire, lighting up sensory receptors with wonderful umami tones, brackish salty olive notes, a gravelly mid-palate. The tannins are refined. This is graceful, polished, classy winemaking, and of course above all it is pristine fruit, farmed with so much care and love. More power to the glory of the wine, indeed.
February 2015, Bainbridge Island, WA
I’m out for a walk with my baby daughter. I know a phone call from Elizabeth and Christophe is coming soon, but it’s a sunny day in February, and when it’s a sunny day in February in the Puget Sound, it’s damn the torpedoes and out for a walk in the stroller. The phone call comes. I realize I’ve unnecessarily upped the degree of difficulty. Spotty cell reception on north Bainbridge. Elizabeth and Christophe yell-talking into Elizabeth’s cell phone set to speaker. A restless baby. And in the end, none of it matters, because it’s the best phone call I’ve received in Full Pull’s history. Elizabeth has a new project, called La Rata, and they’re looking for a sales partner. They already have three mailing lists (Cayuse, No Girls, Horsepower), and they don’t need another one. They want one exclusive sales partner for the entire production run of La Rata. They like our model. They like the list members they’ve met. They want to know if I can come out to Walla Walla in May to taste the wine, to have lunch. To talk. I’m doing soccer goal celebrations in the middle of the street while maintaining a sense of decorum on the phone. My voice isn’t quavering, is it? The baby looks at me and laughs.
October 1735, France
Henri and Francoise Bourcier walk their vineyards in Bordeaux. They taste Merlot, they taste Cabernet Franc. Almost ready, thinks Henri. Another year gone by, thinks Francoise.
Jean-Pierre and Clotilde Baron fondly anticipate the Champagne harvest to come. It’s going to be hard work, thinks Clotilde. Perhaps we should have another child, another set of hands, thinks Henri. He blows out the bedside candle and turns to his wife.
August 2015, Pegasus Coffee House, Bainbridge Island, WA
I consume three large cups of coffee and more than one pastry. I spend the whole morning doing the exact thing I began Full Pull wanting to do: writing about special wines, and the stories behind the people who make them.
I’m filled with a profound sense of luck. Of well-being. Fortunate to have wonderful list members who have brought Full Pull to this moment. Fortunate to have a friend like Sean Sullivan. Fortunate to have a happy and healthy family. Fortunate that Elizabeth Bourcier wanted to make wine for a living, and fortunate that she crossed paths with Christophe Baron. It really is the stuff of dreams, this.
This is uncharted territory for us, so we’re not going to set minimum nor maximum order requests. Please request what you’d like, and we’ll do our best to fulfill all requests. The wine is in the warehouse and ready for immediate pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.