The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is a distinctive wine region. Small in size, it is defined, more or less by an alluvial fan. The rocks go very deep and draw vine roots down with them. To provide perspective To Kalon, the famous Napa Valley vineyard that is the source of many cult wines including Opus One, is also an alluvial fan. Terroirist territory to be sure.
Early settlers to the Walla Walla region and those who followed planted fruit trees in the rocks. Grape vines? Some for sure (see Kevin Pogue’s comment below — and a few of the Cinsault vines are still there), but things really took off when Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards came along and drew attention to the area’s potential. Cayuse, Horsepower (another Baron project), Reynvaan Family Vineyards and others made the rocky region a focus of intense interest among wine-makers and wine lovers.
The wines can be amazing. Sue and I visited Cayuse a few years ago and I was prepared to be disappointed. Clearly the wines themselves could not live up to the hype that surrounded them. But I was wrong. Powerful, aromatic, elegant. Terrific. The Horsepower wines, which come from some of the most densely-planted vineyards I have ever seen, are powerful, too, and intimidate me a bit.
A recent visit with the Reynvaan family reinforced our enthusiasm for the wines from this area. The Reynvaans purchased the land for their “In the Rocks” vineyard from Baron and started making wine with his help. Now Matt Reynvaan makes the wines and his sister Amanda (who was my student at the University of Puget Sound) handles operations. Rich, elegant — that’s what my notes say for Syrah co-fermented with Viognier. A classic Cabernet blend from the “In the Rocks” vineyard blew my mind with its finesse and surprised me because I tend to think of the rocky vineyards here in terms of Rhone grape varieties. Think again.
Cayuse and Reynvaan command Napa-style attention and critics’ praise, but if you are thinking Napa Valley when you visit Milton-Freewater to see the rocks, you will be very disappointed. Although it is part of the Walla Walla AVA, The Rocks District sub-appellation is over the border in Oregon, away from the fine-dining restaurants and tasting rooms of Main Street Walla Walla. Milton-Freewater is what it has long been, a real agriculture town that serves the needs of farmers and workers more than tourists.
We visited Watermill Winery, which has one of the few tasting rooms on the Oregon side of the border. You almost can’t miss the big Watermill Building, which once stored fruit from the owners’ orchards and now houses cider production (and associated tasting room) and the winery, too. Watermill’s owners are fortunate to have considerable acreage in The Rocks District and are intent on expanding wine production in the next few years. The wines are excellent — Sue is especially fond of the “Hallowed Stones” Cabernet Franc — and they are more available and affordable than cult wines.
Far From Napa
The small footprint of The Rocks District limits wine production in the long run, but many new vineyards are in the works today. Water is an issue, of course, and so is profitability. High quality tree fruit from The Rocks District exported to Asian luxury markets can be more profitable than wine grapes at this time according to one source.
Land prices and grape prices here are far below Napa levels. $45,000 buys an acre of vineyard land with secure water rights, we were told. How much prime vineyard land do you think $45,000 buys in Napa these days?
Driving through the rocky area presents a different scene from Napa, too. Orchards, vineyards, a few residential houses, and open fields. I wonder what it will look like in twenty years? Very different, I think!
The Milton-Freewater local leaders want to encourage wine-fueled economic development in order to capture value-added beyond grape production. So, in partnership with Willamette Valley Vineyards, who have vineyard interests in the area, the city is working to develop a shared-use wine production facility and high-end tasting room.
If You Build It They Will Come
The tasting room is intended to draw wine tourists across the border with the hope that they bring some cash with them. The shared-use concept, where several wine “studios” exist under the same roof, takes advantage of a quirk in wine regulations that currently limits the number of wines that can use “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA” designation.
Most of the local wineries are located on the Washington side of the border, but the grapes are in Oregon. A Washington winery can use Walla Walla Valley to designate its wines from The Rocks District because the WW appellation spans the border, but the wines actually need to be produced in Oregon to use “The Rocks District” designation.
Most wines that come from “The Rocks District” today therefore cannot say they are from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater appellation, which limits the AVA brand’s value. Investors in The Rocks District are caught in a sort of Catch 22 situation and Milton-Freewater hopes to break the deadlock by attracting a critical mass of producers, who can use the AVA name by producing at the new facility. It’s kind of a “if you build it they will come” business strategy and marketing studies are in progress to see if the idea as promising as proponents believe.
Force Majeure has built production facilities on the Oregon side and Rotie Cellars, which is known for its Rhone Blends, is just finishing a production and tasting room facility. Everyone we met is watching these projects closely to see how they are received along with a handful of other serious projects currently in process.
Steve Robertson, President of the Rocks District Winegrowers, is an enthusiastic advocate of the AVA he helped create. He writes that
As you know, there are only 340 prox. planted acres today within the AVA, and most of that is controlled by estates. Additionally, today’s modest volume of Rocks District wines are highly sought after in the marketplace….many of which are allocated. This will all begin to change over the next handful of years. New vineyard development will push planted acres to over 500 within this time frame. And a majority of those planned-to-be-planted acres will be delivered by new entities to WW Valley. Indeed, a couple hundred of those acres wine grapes will be available to other producers. A transition is surely in the making!
Robertson sees a critical mass of vineyards, wine grapes, and wineries using The Rocks District appellation on the horizon. Certainly there is a lot of excitement and interest. And the wines we have tasted merit the attention they receive.
Wine on “The Rocks” District? I’ll drink to that!