New Walla Walla AVA Faces Rocky Road

Washington vintners who use grapes from "The Rocks" won't be able to put it on their labels
Feb 28, 2013

A new American Viticultural Area is being considered for one of the most distinctive terroirs in America, one that has produced unmistakably great wines. Unfortunately, most of the actual wines won't be able to use it.

On an old riverbed south of the town of Walla Walla, cobblestones litter the ground, in some areas totally obliterating any view of the soil. Locals have taken to calling this part of the Walla Walla Valley AVA "The Rocks." Vines struggle to grow, resulting in tiny grapes of amazing flavor intensity. And yes, the wines show the sort of flavors that fall under the heading of "minerality," although to my taste it's more like black olive and tar.

The stones drew Christophe Baron to plant grapes in the region, just north of the town of Milton-Freewater, Ore., starting in 1997. He named the vineyard Cailloux, French for stones, and planted six others in the area. They produce the grapes for his highly coveted Cayuse wines, no stranger to the Wine Spectator Top 100.

Now Kevin Pogue, a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla and a respected vineyard consultant, has joined with newly minted vintner Steve Robertson of Delmas Vineyards to apply for an official, U.S. government-approved AVA, Rocks of Milton-Freewater. Because these stony vineyards make such distinctive wines, these vineyards may be the strongest evidence in favor of true terroir in America. It seems like a no-brainer.

But there are prominent dissenters, including three winemakers who make the most compelling wines from these grapes today. Baron, ever the perfectionist, worries that the limits of the AVA include land that lacks the stones. Charles Smith, whose K Vintners wines include several single-vineyard bottlings from the area, also worries that vineyards on non-distinctive soils would get a free ride. Mike Reynvaan, who owns a vineyard called In the Rocks, next door to one of Cayuse's, could not use the AVA on his label under current regulations. He's not alone. A Catch-22 in the labeling rules bars any winery in Washington from using the AVA, even if all the grapes came from these vineyards.

Labeling rules for AVAs that straddle more than one state, such as Walla Walla Valley, require only that the winery be within one of the states. But the proposed sub-AVA lies entirely in Oregon, and wineries that crush the grapes across the border in Washington could not use the designation. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that the Washington-Oregon border here is an arbitrary straight line along the 46th parallel. It's a line on a map, not a geographical barrier like a river or a mountain.

K Vintners and Reynvaan are among those who have their wineries in Washington but bottle Syrahs from The Rocks. Wineries such as Domaine Serene in Willamette Valley (which bottles them under its Rockblock label) and Fausse Piste in Portland, hundreds of miles away, can and do make wines from these grapes. They could legally use the AVA.

"That rule is ridiculous," fumed Smith. "It potentially segregates the Walla Walla Valley and the wineries that have been producing from these vineyards for years. If this proposal were to ask for my vote I would give it a big thumbs down."

So if big names like Cayuse, K and Reynvaan won't use the AVA, will it fly?

"Everyone involved wants Washington to be able to use it on the label," said Pogue. "But it would involve a separate rule change, and that sort of rule-making takes years longer than an AVA application. The group decided to try for the AVA first, then petition for the rule change."

But even then there's no guarantee that the decision would come down the way the vintners hope. And no, there's no way to extend the appellation into Washington. The closest boundary is 2 miles from the border.

I can suggest another path, modeled on Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand. The area in Hawkes Bay even looks a lot like Walla Walla's Rocks, with vines poking through layers of cobbles on an old riverbed. In the 1990s, the growers and wineries there realized they were getting their Syrahs and Cabernets riper on the stones than surrounding vineyards did. As distinctive as the wines were, according to the rules in New Zealand for Geographical Indications, an appellation cannot be restricted to certain soil types. (The same is true in America; geographical features, such as rivers, ridges or elevations, define an AVA's boundaries, not soils.)

So the Kiwis created a trademark (much as California did earlier with its Meritage designation, which member wineries can use to label blends made entirely from Bordeaux varieties). Self-imposed rules limit the vineyard locations that can use the trademark.

A trademark, which could be defined by the cobbly soils and would not limit participants to Oregon wineries, could be a better answer for Walla Walla. 

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