What follows is a Focus Report on The Rocks of Milton-Freewater. Download a .pdf copy here. Read previous Focus Reports here

For years, winemakers and wine lovers alike have discussed the distinctiveness of the wines coming from the section of the Walla Walla Valley commonly referred to as ‘The Rocks.’ If Walla Wallans Steve Robertson and Kevin Pogue have their say, the area will soon become its own appellation – one that is almost entirely based on soil type.

“I would be very surprised if there was a more terroir-driven AVA in the country,” says geologist Kevin Pogue, who recently submitted an appellation application to the TTB.

If approved, the area – which would be a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley and wholly located on the Oregon side of the border – will be called ‘The Rocks of Milton-Freewater’ after the small town located in the area. Made famous by vigneron Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards who first planted in the area in the late 1990s, ‘The Rocks’ is currently a hotbed of activity with 250 acres under vine and more plantings going in each year.

‘The Rocks’ soil types are distinct from the rest of the Columbia Valley. Whereas most of the Columbia Valley’s growing regions are defined by their relationship to the Missoula Floods – a series of large, powerful floods that swept through the area tens of thousands of years ago – ‘The Rocks’ region is not.

“The primary material from which the soil is derived is not flood material,” says Pogue, a Ph.D. geologist who teaches at Whitman College and also consults for wineries and private parties through his company, VinTerra Consulting.

“It’s alluvial material washed down the mountains by the Walla Walla River. That makes it very different from most Columbia Basin vineyards where the vines are rooted in wind-deposited silt derived from Missoula flood sediments.” What is left is a remarkably uniform soil type consisting of large cobblestones.

“I would bet that there is no other AVA in the country that has that level of consistency of soil,” Pogue says. “It’s one alluvial fan that has a really consistent topography.”

Distinctiveness from Soil to Grape to Glass

Pogue says there are three aspects that make the soil in ‘The Rocks’ distinct for growing wine grapes. “The soils are chemically distinct because they are basalt derived; they are texturally distinct because it’s incredibly coarse and well-drained which forces deeper roots; and they are thermally distinct, which may be as important as any of them.”

In terms of the latter, Pogue says that the rocks absorb and radiate heat during the day, warming nearby grape clusters during peak hours. “Each grape is like a little bag of water,” he says. “I found that if the clusters were within a couple of feet of those rocks, they would heat up a few degrees centigrade above what the clusters would be if they were sitting over grass.” Pogue also notes that the rocks facilitate the transfer of heat to deeper layers in the soil and that warmer soils in the root zone invigorate the vine and encourage ripening.

Robertson says the effects are easily seen in the vineyard. “Veraison takes place early in ‘The Rocks’,” he says. “At SJR (Robertson’s vineyard) this transmits to physiological and phenolic ripeness and an early harvest.”

Perhaps most importantly though, these differences show up in the resulting wines. Pogue – whose interest in the connection between geology and viticulture extends into the glass – told of recently tasting a flight of Syrahs. “There were four Rocks wines out of the twenty-two,” he says. “I nailed the four of them as from ‘The Rocks’ blind.” Indeed, anyone who has tasted wines from this region cannot mistake the area’s distinctive earth and mineral aromas as well as flavors.

The Process

Robertson’s interest in ‘The Rocks’ began when he purchased a vineyard in the area in 2009. This vineyard, named SJR after the initials of his son, is being used to produce a single estate wine, the first of which was released last year for Robertson’s Delmas Syrah.

Robertson says, “It became super clear to me that, of everything that I knew about wine growing regions, this region had something that no other wine region that I was aware of had, and that was a consistent geology that produced a product that was distinguishable.”

Robertson and Pogue worked on the application along with a small, supportive group of well-respected growers/producers from the region for nearly two years before recently submitting it to the TTB. “It was our goal from the onset to be inclusive,” Robertson says of their approach. “We took the time to gather up people’s thoughts; critically from within, but also from outside the region. We didn’t rush. We were very sensitive to make sure everybody had time to provide their input and to be as active within the discovery process as desired.”

Among the many people Robertson and Pogue talked with was, of course, Cayuse’s Christophe Baron. Robertson says of Baron, “He was very careful – which he should have been – and he asked all the right questions about motivation and why we were doing this.”

Robertson says that his answer to these questions were as follows, “The most meaningful thing you can do for the benefit of all is to shine a qualitative light on this very unique geography, the wine grapes that are grown on it, and the people who are making wine off it.”

While creating a sub-appellation of ‘The Rocks’ has long been discussed – and truly was inevitable given the uniqueness of the soils and resulting wines – there has been concern over the years about what effect a sub-appellation might have on the Walla Walla Valley brand, particularly with ‘The Rocks’ located entirely on the Oregon side of the valley – to date Washington has owned the Walla Walla Valley brand.

“You have very passionate, wonderful people with different points of view about what should be done in the Walla Walla Valley to accomplish recognition outside the Northwest,” Robertson says of the discussions that he’s had. He says that ‘The Rocks’ are and always will be an integral part of the valley and its story. Importantly, ‘The Rocks’ provide a sense of place that consumers seeking ultra-premium, distinctive wines are very interested in understanding. ‘The Rocks of Milton-Freewater’ is a byproduct of the Walla Walla Valley. It expands the conversation and provides deeper context to what is unique about the Walla Walla Valley.”

The AVA & Fine Print

The proposed appellation would be 3,767 acres or 4.9 square miles. It currently has 250 acres of vineyards planted and four wineries. It would be located just northwest of Milton-Freewater and is shaped somewhat like a tadpole with a shortened tail facing west (that tadpoles grow into frogs only adds to the necessity of this analogy). Unlike most appellations in the country, the area was defined almost solely based on its soil type.

“What was driving the AVA boundary was trying to include as much cobbly ground as possible,” Pogue says. Pogue used soil maps and then corresponded these maps to various boundaries to create the proposed AVA. Once he had done so, he checked his work.

“I actually drove the whole area to visually inspect to make sure that the ground had cobbles visible on the surface, and that all that ground was in the AVA,” Pogue says. In the end, he says,“96% of ground within the boundaries has soils that belong to the Freewater Series,” – the soil series type found within ‘The Rocks of Milton-Freewater’.

The location of ‘The Rocks’ on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA creates some nuances for wineries looking to use the appellation designation on their front labels. Regulations require that a wine has to be ‘fully finished’ within the state in which the AVA is located in order to use it on the front label. For this reason, licensed Washington wineries would not be able designate their wines as ‘The Rocks of Milton-Freewater’ on their front label unless their production facilities were in Oregon and/or they were also licensed in Oregon. Currently, the only wineries using ‘Rocks’ fruit that would appear to meet this requirement are Cayuse, Otis Kenyon, Watermill and Zerba.

Despite this limitation, Robertson believes that creation of ‘The Rocks of Milton-Freewater’ AVA is important, both personally and for the area. “My pitch to myself was, okay, you’re 60 years of age,” Robertson says. “In your life, how many times have you stumbled on something that was so obvious and that no one has yet done? What an opportunity.

Robertson believes that the new AVA will have a profoundly positive effect on the Walla Walla Valley in general and Milton-Freewater in particular. This would be the first sub-AVA in Walla Walla Valley. He says, “I have never been involved in an endeavor that is this important; to work with growers and producers to help create something truly unique and that will positively effect a whole bunch of people as well as supporting the brand of Walla Walla Valley.”

A decision on the AVA application is expected in approximately one year.

Pictures courtesy of Steve Robertson and Kevin Pogue. Recently reviewed wines using a majority of fruit from vineyards in the proposed AVA include the 2009 Cayuse Vineyards an No Girls releases2010 Reynvaan Family Vineyards releases (with the exception of the Foothills Reserve), 2010 Proper Wines Syrah2010 Delmas Syrah, and 2010 Sleight of Hand Funkadelic Syrah.