Food & Drink

Milton-Freewater is the Pacific Northwest’s newest American Viticultural Area

The federal government has approved Oregon's 18th American Viticultural Area — Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.

The 3,767-acre area is in the Walla Walla Valley but is entirely within Oregon.

Because of a quirk in federal law, Washington wineries may not use "The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater" on their labels unless they also have a licensed winemaking facility in Oregon.

However, the Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau — the federal agency that regulates the wine industry — will issue a proposed ruling Monday that would allow Washington wineries to use the phrase on their labels.

Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance told Great Northwest Wine that there will then be a 60-day comment period before a final ruling is made.

The Rocks District is Oregon's second-smallest viticultural area. The smallest is Ribbon Ridge near Newberg with 3,350 acres. Fewer than 250 acres of wine grapes are planted in The Rocks District.

The Rocks District is considered one of the most unusual and distinctive grape-growing regions in the Pacific Northwest.

Its primary feature is an alluvial fan formed by the Walla Walla River at the end of the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago. The result is miles of cobblestone that, as it turns out, are perfect for growing wine grapes.

The Rocks District has long been used for agriculture, particularly orchards. In April 1996, French native Christophe Baron came through Walla Walla to visit a friend. He'd planned to move to the Willamette Valley to make wine there but was staying with his buddy Scott Byerley.

“I came with my wine atlas,” Baron told Great Northwest Wine. “I was going through photos and showed him Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a region in France's southern Rhône Valley whose red wines are made with such grapes as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. And it's famous for cobblestones that cover the ground.

Byerley told Baron he knew of a place that looked like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so they drove south toward Milton-Freewater.

“This is where I first met the stones,” Baron said.

He quickly understood the opportunity before him and bought the land. By March 1997, he began planting Syrah between the grapefruit-sized cobbles. This was the first commercial vineyard in the area for at least 40 years.

“Several farmers here in the area said the little Frenchman was crazy to plant a vineyard in the stones,” Baron said. “But in the years after, some of these farmers pulled out orchards and planted vineyards. Not so crazy! Without the stones, I would not be here in Walla Walla.”

Baron launched Cayuse Vineyards, and his wines have become some of the Northwest's highest-scoring wines with such publications as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate.

Since then, other winemakers have bought land and planted vineyards in The Rocks District, including Rich Funk, owner of Saviah Cellars south of Walla Walla. In 2006, he bought land, planting 10 acres of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Funk uses grapes from throughout the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley, and he said grapes from The Rocks District are distinctive.

“The Rocks are all about savory,” he said. “It's like walking into a delicatessen, with crazy aromatics and a savory quality I don't see anywhere else. It doesn't trip everybody's trigger, but it certainly tripped mine.”

Also intrigued by The Rocks District was Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla and expert in how soil can affect grape growing. He joined with several winemakers and grape growers who wanted to petition the federal government to form The Rocks District.

During the process of his research, Pogue found Cinsault grapes growing wild in fields that were abandoned in the ‘30s. He also found that nearly all of the new AVA has the same soil type.

“I don't know of any other AVA that has 97 percent of the soils in one soil series,” he said.

He said the nation's smallest AVA — Cole Ranch in California's Mendocino County — is just 175 acres in size, yet it has eight distinctive soil types.