Friday, September 26, 2014

Love on the Rocks: The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater

Was it a Frenchman’s folly the day young French vigneron Christophe Baron ventured across the Washington state-line and made a discovery that reminded him of the famed cobblestones of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region in France?

As Baron was roaming the countryside between Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater, OR, he couldn’t help but take notice of the ancient rugged bed of the old Walla Walla River. The land was scattered with acres of stones the size of an apple. From the days of the local orchard pioneers, such as A. B. Roberts and Dr. Nelson Blalock, the stony beds were known for its orchards and vineyards from the mid-1800s, to the Depression era. Since that time these 10 acres had been neglected and dismissed through the years. While local farmers saw land that could not be used due to traditional farming methods for such as row crops of wheat, peas, and even onions, it was Baron who saw potential that only a vigneron from France could distinguish at the time of Walla Walla’s budding wine region. While this Oregon land was designated within the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area as appointed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, wine produced from the unyielding earth would eventually show its characteristics, which are distinct from the other areas of the Valley's AVA. 
Cayuse Vineyards in Oregon

The ancient land, strewn with cobblestones, is similar to that of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region in France. The village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which translates as “The Pope’s new Castle”) France, and is one of the most renowned European wine appellations. Cobblestones have been noteworthy through time for providing proper drainage, yet restricting nutrients, which pushes the grape vines to struggle. Their struggle limits the vines’ yield, while concentrating and enhancing the flavor of the grape. The function of the rocks assists in retaining the heat from the sun and releasing its heat during the night, therefore producing a faster ripening of the wine grapes. 

Baron founded his Cayuse Vineyards in Milton-Freewater, OR, in 1997, and since then, other winemakers from the Walla Walla area have followed.

Oregon's soil gained its current profile when the Missoula Floods ravaged Eastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon, more than 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. These powerful floods would cover the Valley at least 35 times. As the flood waters would recede, leaving behind layers of sand and silt, the Walla Walla River would force its way back, replacing the area with rocks of all sizes, from pebbles and smooth cobbles to rounded, worn boulders that were produced from the basalt of the surrounding Blue Mountains. The secret these stones bring to the finished wines flavors is unlike grapes sourced from the Blue Mountain foothills or northern vineyards in the designated Walla Walla Valley AVA. The wines of Cayuse, as well as other wines from the stony area, are known for their savory and meaty flavors, and often with “gamey” notes. Many Francophile wine lovers find these local wines, such as Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvèdre, to have very similar flavor components as those produced in France. 

Due to the noteworthy differences of wines produced between the cobblestoned area in Northeastern Oregon near the state borders, a newly proposed AVA was submitted to the TTB in 2014. “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” will be a sub-appellation of the existing Walla Walla Valley AVA. The proposed area will encompass 3,767 acres or 4.9 square miles. Dr. Kevin Pogue, geology professor at Whitman College, submitted the proposal in February 2014. Pogue also owns and operates VinTerra, a vineyard site and terroir consulting and marketing company. Pogue had been approached by a group of vineyard owners and winemakers who thought “the rocks” deserved its own American Viticulture Area. After they group asked Pogue to write the petition he said he would do it if he had total control on the boundary lines and could draft them to correspond as closely as possible to the limits of the area's rocky soils. 

 “I wanted the AVA to be controlled by the terroir as much as possible, free from the influences of marketing and politics that have strongly affected the placement of the boundaries of many, if not most AVAs,” says Pogue. 

The group agreed and the proposed area includes the already 250 acres of vineyards, known for Syrah and other red Rhone-style wines. The proposed petition names 19 wine producers that have vineyards within the proposed AVA. Four of the 19 wine producers are Cayuse Vineyards, Don Carlo Vineyard, Watermill Winery and Zerba Cellars,already have winery facilities within the proposed AVA. 

Wineries with vineyards include Beresan Winery, Buty Winery, Cayuse Vineyards, Charles Smith Wines, Delmas Wines, Don Carlo Vineyard, Dusted Valley Vintners, Figgins Family Wine Estates, Proper Wines, Otis Kenyon Wine, Rasa Vineyards, Reynvaan Family Vineyards, Riverhaven Cellars, Rôtie Cellars, Saviah Cellars, Sleight of Hand Cellars, Watermill Winery, Waters Winery and Zerba Cellars. At this time, the establishment for “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” AVA is in the current state of TTB Regulatory Timeline of waiting on the final ruling. Pogue expects the “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” to be official in December of 2014. 

 Yesterday’s pioneers of the orchards and vineyards would have never believed the acclaim and the love of the wines that these old rocks would assist in producing.


Follow Up as of February 6, 2015It is now official. This Monday, February 9th, 2015,  The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA (American Viticultural Area) will be official and published in the Federal Register. The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater will be the first sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. This new region, located across the Walla Walla County border at Oregon, will also be able to claim Oregon's 18th AVA, as per the Federal Register. Congratulations to Dr. Kevin Pogue, Steve and Mary Robertson of Delmas/SJR Vineyard and the other vineyards and wineries in the new Rocks District of Milton-Freewater! 
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