Spending an hour of so over lunch with Cypher Winery’s self-proclaimed “Winemaker, Troublemaker, and Firestarter” Christian Tietje is a bit like experiencing a small vinous indoor dust devil. In the wake of this whirling dervish of a man, you are left with remnants of well-crafted comfort food, open bottles and empty, stained glasses strewn about, and a lingering sense of bewilderment at the bold (some might say egotistical) pronouncements such as “yeah man, this is totally gonna be a 95, 96-point wine when the press gets a hold of it.”
Yeah, man – and this article is totally gonna win me some James Beard awards, you know, after they judges all wise up and stuff.
My whirlwind tour through Christian’s wines took place last week at Paso Robles’ Farmstand 46, a restaurant partnership between Tom Fundaro and the owners of Four Vines Winery. Christian is probably best-known as the principal winemaker behind Four Vines’ high-octane, high-scoring releases. But his new venture, Cypher, has Tietje stretching out a bit and – dare we say it – maturing. Certainly the single varietal Cypher bottlings have a lot of promise, which you’d probably expect from a talented winemaking team – but what you might not expect is that they also display a good deal of craftsmanship and… restraint…
This is not to say that Cypher’s wines are subtle. As you might suspect, Tietje – and his wines – are not really (well, not at all really) for the timid. Four Vines in particular are about as full-blown, all-out, balls-to-the-wall-Accept-style as you can get. On the slightly-overblown side, this results in wines like the 2008 Four Vines Monarchy: 50% Petite Verdot, 50% Malbec, and 100% boorish tyrant king. But the bold approach is also the genesis of the 2008 Four Vines Anarchy – roughly a third each of Zinfandel, Mourvedre and Syrah, it’s long on fun, and on spicy / jammy fruit, and is just as charmingly over-the-top as Tietje himself.
Christian’s Cypher releases seem to have toned down the vinous volume a bit, much to the benefit of the wines; instead of going to 11, they go to about 8 or 9, but have quite a bit more to say than their shouting Four Vines cousins; think more Queensryche’s Hear In The Now Frontier than Grim Reaper’s See You In Hell. In one case – teasing out the best of Paso Robles Mourvedre – Cypher may yet have no real equal.
Based on a brief visit, I’m quite sure that this maturity has had little mellowing effect on Tietje’s bombastic personality (and coming from me, that’s probably really saying something); here’s how one of his staffers told me that Tietje describes the Mourvedre that wowed me:
“You can make ‘Missionary’ Mourvedre, or you can make ‘reverse cowboy’ Mourvedre. This is ‘reverse cowboy’ Mourvedre!”
Allllriiiiighty, then. If it’s reverse cowboy Mourvedre, then crack open the Kama Sutra and get ready for a ride, I suppose…
2009 Cypher Mourvedre “El Pelon” (Paso Robles)
Free lessons in sexual expression aside, Cypher’s “baldy” (a slang play on the state of Tietje’s hair growth) was far and away the best expression of Mourvedre that I tasted in Paso Robles. It’s at once floral and jammy, obnoxious but vibrant, spicy and viscous, and generally just beautifully done. More modest examples of Paso Mourvedre exist, no doubt, but sometimes the brashest artist in the lineup can be the most expressive and genuine as well.
2009 Cypher Dante Dusi Vineyard Zinfandel (Paso Robles)
Somehow in all the recent hubbub over red blends and Rhone white varieties, the grape that put Paso Robles on the wine map – Zinfandel – turned into the red-headed stepchild and got left all alone in the corner while everyone else partnered up and hit the dance floor. Which is a shame, really, because Cypher’s Dante Dusi Zin shows what Paso is still capable of when it comes to Zin. This wine is jumpin’ – a bit jammy with the black fruit for sure, but wonderfully peppery and lively and not forgetting to bring the pretty red fruits that round out the better Zins.