Wine on the Rocks

U.S. approves The Rocks District AVA on Oregon side of Walla Walla Valley

by Peter Mitham
The Rocks District gets its name from distinctive basalt cobblestones that litter the soil.
Milton-Freewater, Ore.—It’s official: the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA has been designated a subappellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, bringing joy to vintners in Oregon and Washington.

“This is a golden thread in the tapestry of the Walla Walla Valley,” said Rich Funk, winemaker at Saviah Cellars just north of the appellation, who worked with Steve Robertson and six other growers to petition the federal government to establish the new AVA. “This is as much about the Walla Walla Valley as where the next 10 years will lead us. It’s just a wonderful way for us to tell our story.”

The Walla Walla Valley AVA includes vineyards on both sides of the Oregon-Washington state border, which runs east-west a few miles south of the city of Walla Walla, Wash. But the new Rocks District of Milton Freewater is strictly in Oregon and named for the small town of Milton-Freewater. Wineries have long sourced grapes from the new appellation (effective Feb. 9), but now some of them have the opportunity to identify the source of those grapes as a rock-covered stretch of floodplain along the southern edge of the valley.

According to the petition developed by geologist Kevin Pogue, the Rocks District encompasses approximately 3,770 acres that sit on an alluvial fan where the Walla Walla River exits the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Situated between 850 and 1,000 feet above sea level, the AVA is less susceptible to winter damage than other parts of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

The Rocks
The distinctive basalt cobblestones that litter the soil give the district its name. The rocks ensure good drainage, encouraging vine roots to reach for water, and also absorb solar radiation that’s released into the canopy above, promoting growth in the spring and ripening after véraison. The growing season is approximately 197 days.

The distinctive qualities of the area were championed early on by producers such as Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards, who planted his ground-breaking Cailloux Vineyard in 1996. It was the first planting in the AVA and impressed people both with its daring and its results.

“We wouldn’t be here today without his vision on this,” said Funk, who remembers tasting some of the early vintages in Baron’s tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is so different from any Syrah I’ve ever tasted in my life.’”

It finally struck him that it wasn’t only Baron’s handling of the grapes that mattered, but their origin.

“This is terroir in its truest sense,” Funk recalls telling himself. “I said to myself at that point, if I ever have the opportunity I would love to grow some vines in those rocks. I didn’t imagine it would ever come true, but here we are.”

Baron has been joined by 19 producers now drawing grapes from approximately 250 acres of vineyard in the area (see box). Although just three of the wineries have production facilities in Oregon—Cayuse, Otis Kenyon and Riverhaven.

These wineries alone have the right to use the new AVA’s name on their labels, as the Rocks lies entirely in Oregon, according to federal regulations.

Comments on the petition pointed this out, with producers such as Rasa Vineyards of Walla Walla and Kerloo Cellars of Napa, Calif., objecting to the inability to identify their wines as having been made with grapes from the district.

Funk said he expects the matter to be resolved in short order.

“The TTB is definitely willing to work with us on a new ruling that allows Washington producers to use the AVA on their labels,” Funk says. “They’re going to go ahead and start work on that. So that’s pretty exciting.”

Both the Washington State Wine Commission and the Oregon Wine Board issued a joint press release welcoming the establishment of the AVA, which is Oregon’s 18th AVA and the first approved since the Elkton Oregon AVA’s recognition in February 2013.

Posted on 02.08.2015 - 13:34:18 PST
Great potential! Mineralities are sought after and can be found in these rock formations with a little help. During vineyard development, bring in a track rock crusher and rock rake all 12" depth rocks to a reduction to a 3" minus aggregate and place them back into the vineyard. This helps in several ways but to list just a few the cultivation is much easier and you will benefit from increased topical soil temperatures for colder climate regions. However the true benefit will come from the roots literally sucking the minerals from the fractured faces of the crushed aggregate! I have compared round rock to fractured rock root development, and the roots will literally glue themselves to the open minerals available from the fracture compared to no penetration to the round unbroken rock. You want to use beneficial organisms and available nutrients in the soils? Don't start the discussion that is a ten year waste of time, begin the process! The roots will tell you what they need!

Bruce Coulthard