A new addition to The Wine Workshop: Weekly Wine Therapy!
The idea behind Weekly Wine Therapy is during these days of COVID one of the best things we can do to stay mentally healthy is to actively learn something new. So every Wednesday we will publish an article on something neat that you may not know about. A grape variety, a wine region, a winery, or an amazing story. Enjoy!
The Rocks at Milton-Freewater is one of the newest American Viticultural Areas, but good luck finding a bottle that says its from there. Here is a story of the formation of the AVA and the quirks in wine labeling laws that keep it off wine labels.
The establishment of a new American Viticultural Area (AVA) is no easy feat. There has to be documented scientific proof that wines from one spot are different from another spot. And it can’t just be “the taste different,” for you need scientists involved to explain why they taste different.
A fascinating case study on how and why to design an AVA can be found in Oregon, in a wine region most associated with Washington, where an obscure and passionate Frenchman crossed paths with a rockstar geologist.
The Rocks District at Milton-Freewater AVA is not only one of the longest names for a wine region, but it is also one of the most distinctive. Located just south of the Oregon-Washington border, not too far away from the town of Walla Walla (which translates to “Water Water” … the natural springs in the town have led to one park having some of the largest trees in the state of Washington), it is a region historically given to apple farming. But in 1996 when French winemaker Christophe Baron was driving around the area and spotted a plowed up field revealing a field of rocks reminiscent of the legendary vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône Valley, he knew he was onto something special.
It’s an area totally unlike the surrounding wine region. Walla Walla Valley is comprised of two massive alluvial fans of ancient river rock. One of the fans is literally under the city of Walla Walla. You excavate for a building or a new home, and it’s just rock, rock, and more rock for over 300 feet down. The other alluvial fan is where The Rocks District at Milton-Freewater is today.
To make this particular AVA, the official submission fell on geologist Kevin Pogue of Whitman College in Walla Walla, which also happens to be one of the top winemaking schools in the country. Dr. Pogue is a bit of a celebrity in his field, even having been profiled in the New York Times for his work on unlocking the science of terroir.
But here’s the rub: you’re going to have a hard time finding any wines with The Rocks at Milton-Freewater AVA on the label. You can find wines grown there, but most producers are not allowed to use the name.
Because of a twist in the federal wine labeling laws, you’re only allowed to use the name of an AVA if the wine is produced at a winery within the same state.
Most of the wineries of Walla Walla Valley are located on the Washington side, and if they harvest in Oregon then they have to bring the grapes over the border, and therefore they lose The Rocks designation. The Rocks at Milton-Freewater is within the boundaries of the Walla Walla AVA, which crosses the state lines, so most wines from this very special place are labeled as part of the wider, bigger area.
A final twist to the story
Chistophe Baron, the celebrated winemaker who essentially revived the interest in The Rocks district, has his winery smack dab in the middle of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA. Many would say this AVA exists because of him.
But he doesn’t put it on his labels.
Why? Because, as he explains it, the vineyards are not full of rocks. They tumbled down from the river, and therefore they are stones. So therefore, he doesn’t put the AVA on the label. For him it’s about accurate semantics. And maybe some cunning marking skills.
Finding these wines
As indicated, there are many wines from The Rocks, but often they are only labeled as “Walla Walla Valley,” so it’s important to do some research. The Stony Vine vineyard is one you can find with some hunting (Dusted Valley Vineyards makes a great one). Truth be told, many of these wines are only available at the wineries or in the area of southeastern Washington state. And in terms of Cayuse, you will occasionally find a tiny bit in wine shops, but most is sold via mailing list to restaurants.