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Cayuse Loses a Vintage Due to Bad Corks

Cayuse Winery Logo

It’s not every day, or thankfully every year that a winery as well known as Cayuse, loses an entire vintage because of bad corks.  But, here we are. Some more information on what happened, why no one could have caught it and the solution (or lack thereof)

Video Transcription:

Hi guys, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures. The big news of the week in the wine industry, and I’m sorry I don’t have a bottle of Cayuse Syrah lying around the house, I kind of wish I did, was that Cayuse lost almost an entire vintage of wine due to faulty corks.

The closure issue when it comes to wine is always very much debated. You have folks that believe in real cork, you have folks that believe in screw tops, and you have people that believe in the artificial stuff. Positives and negatives of cork, this is the negative. It does ruin some wine and that’s 100% fact, so this was, so you’ll see the press release, or the email that went out to the Cayuse Wine Club, and these guys are 100% mailing list at this point. There’s basically almost nothing that goes into the three tier system, there’s almost nothing that goes out to retail.

So far, Walla Walla’s one of my favorite places to taste wine, actually. It’s one of my favorite little Wine Country destinations. When you walk down what, in essence, is main street in Walla Walla, Cayuse has a tasting room, but it’s never open. They just keep it for the mailing address, and it’s kind of like one of those small, humorous aspects to the wine industry that other vintners who would love that space to actually sell what they are having trouble selling can’t get it. And Cayuse has no plans to let it go I don’t think, or to really have it open. They’re, in many ways, the quality leader and so what happened was when a natural cork is bonded. You know, cork, they shave the cork tree and everything’s processed. Corks are, in essence, coated with a paraffin wax, which is a petroleum derivative and that’s where much of the issues come from.  This, the coating was starting to slip off of the cork into the wine, which is obviously not supposed to happen. In essence what it creates is this kind of shiny, oil film on top of your wine as you pour it out. It’s obviously disgusting, and it also ruins the bottle.

Cayuse is looking at a loss of $3 million bucks or so. Granted, it sounds like they have some good enough insurance to cover the majority of it, but 90% of a vintage is likely gone. I just wanted to take a second and talk about bottling. A lot of people have already said, “Hey, how can this happen? Why wouldn’t you catch it?” I’ve seen bottling at four, different scales. On the first, and I don’t know how Cayuse does it, but I can make some assumptions based on the amount of money going into the project of where they are, and we’ll talk about that in a second.

At the beginning of the scales, if you made a barrel of wine, yourself in your garage you’d be hand-corking everything. Hand-bottling, hand-corking, literally you’d be taking a beaker and pouring into the bottle and then using a, basically, your own strength to put the cork in. Done. It’s miserable. I’ve done that at least twice for a full day, and it is 100% miserable, and you don’t make much progress. There are semi-automated things where I was out in Livermore a few days, and we saw one we hadn’t seen in practice, but they, a machine will fill a couple bottles at a time, and you really are doing most of the manual work, but you’re not actually inserting the cork or the wine in. It’s a slow process, and it’ll take you a day to do a couple hundred cases, but you can get it done.  The third level where a lot of the folks are at these days is a bottling truck that comes attached to say, F150, and that can bottle a few hundred cases with a minimum amount of effort from you, other than dumping the wine bottles out and having them go through the conveyor belt. Lastly, how the big boys do it, and I’m sure this is Cayuse, a major bottling truck comes in the form of an 18-wheel semi. They have a complete team. There’s literally nothing for the winemaker, or the winery owner to do other than to hang out and have a glass of wine and chat. That’s kind of, for lack of a better term and I hate to say it, but that’s the fun way to do bottling, and that’s probably the right way to do it.  At all the levels you really get a chance to see everything before it goes into the wine. The corks are something that usually comes separately, even at the bigger places, the bottling truck isn’t providing the corks. You’re having to order that and all the glass separately, and so they would have a chance to look through everything. I’ve seen at least 25 or 30 different cork deliveries over the years. I’ve never seen anything that looked any different.

I don’t think there’s any way that anybody could have guessed that the paraffin was going to slip off the cork once it was met with any liquid. It’s a manufacturing defect and that’s kind of just about it and it sucks. In any case, Cayuse they lost the vintage, luckily they have insurance. There’s some other issues that’ll crop up.  Their release party is kind of a major event in Walla Walla so you’re likely to see other folks that are kind of injured by this in a secondary kind of manner, although I suspect that some of the quote, unquote, “Second-tier wineries,” in Walla Walla that really do make some great juice, especially Syrah are going to be able to pick up some sales over the course of the year, because those 3,000 cases and 3,000 magnums that were ruined aren’t going to be able to be sold. In any case, given the fires and everything that’s happened here in Northern California in the last couple weeks it’s hard to read too much and be too upset about it. It definitely … it’s something that I think it’s fair to say that it sucks for the winemaker, it sucks for the winery owner, and it sucks for folks that have put in a year of work and they’re not going to necessarily get anything out the backside of it. But, luckily, there’s insurance that will pick up the pieces and Cayuse will be back at it next year. Once again, Mark Aselstine with Uncorked Ventures, have a good one.

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