Wine Tasting Dinner: Pacific Northwest Syrah

By Kori ~ August 20th, 2008.

We have had some exceptional Syrahs lately, and our tasting dinner last Friday evening continued the trend. This tasting featured six Pacific Northwest Syrahs, four from Washington State and two from Oregon. Both Oregon wineries represented, Watermill and Cayuse, are in the Walla Walla Valley AVA just a few miles from the Washington-Oregon state line.

The Wine Peeps always look forward to our monthly wine tasting dinners. They provide an opportunity for us to enjoy six wines throughout a four-course meal and spend quality time with wonderful friends.

We found five of the six wines to be excellent. They all paired well with Mom’s roasted beef tenderloin, chipotle-lime mashed sweet potatoes, and seasoned green beans. The one wine that fell short was the 2004 Cayuse En Chamberlin. While Cayuse routinely receives rave reviews from critics, so far I have found their wines disappointing. This was the second bottle that I’ve tried. Unfortunately, the first bottle I had a few months ago was a bad bottle so I would not use it for evaluation purposes. I do not believe that the bottle we had on Friday was a bad bottle and neither did the other seven people at dinner; however, it received last place votes from all eight of us in attendance. I realize that some may say that Cayuse is just a different style, but it was certainly not to our liking.

I continue to be amazed at the quality of Syrahs coming out of Washington State and northeastern Oregon. In this tasting, my rankings and the group rankings were the same except that I reversed #2 and #4. However, you’ll notice that the first five wines all received a 4.5-star quality rating because they were all excellent. Only the Cayuse failed to impress in this bunch.

From 1st to last in the group consensus rankings:

2005 Watermill Reserve Syrah (Walla Walla Valley): My favorite from the first sip right on through the meal. Beautiful bouquet of black fruits, especially blackberries, and black pepper. More black fruits and cocoa come through on the palate. Smooth tannins, extremely well-balanced, and a long, lingering finish.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $35

2005 Stephenson Cellars Syrah (Washington State): Black cherry, chocolate mint, and a hint of bacon come through on both the nose and the palate. Has a smoky component. Smooth tannins and a nice long finish. Improves the longer the bottle is open.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $32; Compass Wines (Washington), $31.99

2005 Chatter Creek Syrah, Clifton Hill Vineyard (Wahluke Slope): Seemed a bit lighter in stature than the others at first. A very pleasant sipper, but holds up surprisingly well with food. Really makes a nice transition and picks up intensity throughout the meal. Green peppers and dark chocolate highlight the nose. Smooth tannins and a nice finish.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $40; (California), $40

2005 Sequel Syrah [Long Shadows] (Columbia Valley): A dense, deep red with aromas and flavors of black cherries, chocolate, and buttered popcorn. This wine really improves with food. Still very young; should improve with some age. Well-balanced with a smooth finish.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $55 (Sold Out); Available elsewhere, $45 to $65

2005 Gilbert Cellars Syrah (Wahluke Slope): Luscious black fruits and pepper along with a vegetal component on both the nose and the palate. Full bodied, velvety mouth-feel, and a lingering, smooth finish.
Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5)
Where to buy: Winery, $26; Village Wines (Washington), $26

2004 Cayuse Syrah, En Chamberlin Vineyard (Walla Walla Valley): The nose reeks of olive juice, pickles, and rotten food. This wine tastes like a locker room smells. A definite pass!
Quality: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
QPR: NR (not recommended)
Where to buy:, $70 (No longer available)

Filed under: American Wine, Five-Bangs For Your Buck Wines, Oregon Wine, Red Wine, Shiraz/Syrah, Washington State Wine, Wine Tasting Dinners, Wines NOT To Buy (1 & 2 Star), Wines Over $25

Reader's Comments

  1. Jared | August 27th, 2008 at 9:04 am

    It doesn’t surprise me that you guys didn’t like the Cayuse. Most people that have simple palates (Aussie shiraz fruit bobb lovers usually) mistake the nuances of Cayuse for brett or what you describe as “pickles or olive juice.” Cayuse wines may not be for everyone, but simply dismissing the En Chamberlin (96 Jared points) as not a well made wine is just wrong.

  2. Kori | August 27th, 2008 at 9:16 am


    Thanks for your comment; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, it is simple minded to assume that someone who does not agree with your tastes has a simple palate. All of us have different palates which is one of the things that makes wine tasting so interesting. At this tasting dinner, there were 8 of us in attendance (all with different palates and different tastes) who unanimously agreed that the Cayuse was the worst of the bunch.

    When you gave the Cayuse your 96 Jared points, were you tasting it blind? As with all of our monthly wine tasting dinners, we tasted these wines blind and had no idea that the wine in last place was the Cayuse until we unveiled them at the end of dinner.

  3. dougk | March 12th, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    I’ve been a dedicated buyer of Cayuse since the 2002 release, and buy as much as I can get. En Chamberlin has never been a favorite, esp. with my wife who prefers bigger fruit. However, I’ve rarely been disappointed with a good bottle of any of his wines. Are they 98 points? Who knows – frankly, I don’t know why we need a 100 pt scale, when most of us would never drink anything below 80.

    Christophe crafts wines in a more unique way than anyone else in WW; if you have the chance, go for Frog, Camespelo or En Cerise.

    Regardless, my master of wine suggests a minimum of 5 years past release, but maxing at 9.
    give it time…

  4. Kori | March 13th, 2009 at 8:28 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Cayuse. Christophe definitely has his own style, a style that most people will either love or hate. Unfortunately, I have not had one of his wines that has been to my liking yet. But I hope to have the chance to try some of the ones that you recommend.

  5. Neil J | June 20th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    I agree that Cayuse may not be to everyone’s palate. I’ve found that those who like N. Rhone Syrah (in blind tastings)–tend to like the offerings from Cayuse. While it’s not for everyone–it is understandable why it stood out from the rest of the NW wines at this tasting. The reason I like Cayuse (I’m on the wait list) is for those distinctive savory qualities–I dig it….and i’m glad there are are people who differ with me–I only hope I score a place on their list soon!