• Napa Valley has a new All-Pro team in the vineyards. Super Bowl–winning former NFL coach Dick Vermeil announced this week that Thomas Brown, one of Napa's most highly sought winemakers, is joining the Vermeil Wines team as a consultant. Brown's career in Napa includes a long list of top winery names, including classic-rated Cabernets at Schrader Cellars and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Tom Seaver's GTS. Vermeil, whose coaching career included tenures with the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, turned his love of wine from a hobby into a career after retiring from the St. Louis Rams, but later ran afoul of the NFL as head coach of the Chiefs when he promised a bottle of Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1999 to wine-loving kicker Morten Andersen if he made a forthcoming field goal, which would have been a salary-cap violation. Winemaker Andy Jones, who has been working under Brown at Outpost, is also joining Vermeil Wines. "Thomas has a well-known passion for wine," Vermeil said in a statement. "I look forward to tasting his work in the upcoming year as he helps us finalize our wines for the 2013 vintage."
• The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater was approved as a new American Viticultural Area (AVA) Feb. 9 by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The AVA, which will use the shorthand of Rocks District or The Rocks District, is a subappellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which in turn is entirely within the Columbia Valley AVA. The distinguishing characteristic of the new AVA is, unsurprisingly, the rocks. Kevin Pogue, a professor of geology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, proposed the AVA on behalf of seven wineries that have vineyards there.
“It is all about the rocks,” he told Unfiltered. “There is an alluvial fan there, which, in geological terms, is essentially a place where a river has dumped gravel on the surface of the land.” The large basalt stones found in the soil ensure good drainage, encouraging vines to reach for water, and also absorb heat, radiating it to the vines and ripening clusters. “The soil series is called Freewater very cobbly loam,” said Pogue, “so I basically tried to draw a ring around that.” The resulting area is 3,770 acres with approximately 250 acres of commercially producing vineyards shared by 19 wineries. Steve Robertson of Delmas, one of the growers to petition the government to establish the AVA, said that “no one had previously ever taken on the prospect of defining AVA boundaries via a single soil series.” This makes it, he said, “the most narrowly defined AVA in U.S. history.”
Some of the highest rated Syrahs in the region have come from grapes grown in The Rocks District. Christophe Baron of Cayuse was the first to champion the area when he planted his Cailloux Vineyard in 1997. The resulting wines encouraged other producers such as Charles Smith, Reynvaan and Buty to plant nearby. This is Oregon’s 18th AVA and the first approved since Elkton was approved in February 2013.
The new AVA has also prompted the TTB to propose a dramatic rule change in labeling laws. The line between Oregon and Washington divides the Walla Walla Valley AVA with about 70 percent of the appellation lying to the north, in Washington. The Rocks District is the first subappellation in the Walla Walla to exist entirely within Oregon. Most of the wineries that use the grapes from The Rocks District have their winery in the town of Walla Walla, which sits on the Washington side of the border. Milton-Freewater, the town from which the new subappellation gets its appendage, is in Oregon, a short 15-minute drive to the south. Current TTB regulations require a wine labeled with an AVA as an appellation of origin to be fully finished within the state in which the labeled AVA is located. This rule restricts those making wine in Walla Walla from using The Rocks District designation on their labels. To circumvent this, the TTB has proposed to allow wines labeled with an AVA as an appellation of origin to be finished in any state adjacent to the state in which the AVA is located. The wider repercussions of this become clear: A winery in Nevada could use Willamette Valley or Napa Valley if that is where the grapes where from. Pogue believes that the TTB will amend the proposal to be less sweeping. He says, “they would say something like: "If an AVA is a sub-AVA of a larger two-state AVA then wine from the sub-AVA could be finished in either state of the larger AVA and still utilize the name of the sub-AVA." This would allow Walla Walla wineries to use The Rocks District designation while excluding Nevada from using Oakville. The proposed rule change is open for public comment until April 10.
• Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute has gained yet another valuable asset, thanks to a $3 million donation from Sonoma County vintners Pamela and George Hamel. Their gift funds the Hamel Family Faculty Chair in Wine Business, and Dr. Damien Wilson, currently of Dijon's Burgundy School of Business, will be its inaugural chair. "The reasons for being honored and excited to join the team at Sonoma State are almost too many to list," Wilson said in a statement. "For starters, there's a crack team of wine-focused faculty working here and the school leadership is keenly focused on strategy and growth. The Wine Business Institute is in just a perfect position to build on its success and play a key role serving both the U.S. and global wine industry." The Australia-born Wilson holds four degrees in wine business, specializes in digital marketing, and says one of his goals at Sonoma State will be to bring together different arms of the global wine industry. The Hamels' son, George III, recently completed his MBA in wine business at Sonoma State, and currently manages the family's Hamel Family Wines. The family's gift comes on the heels of a donation last month from Bouchaine Vineyards' Tatiana and Gerret Copeland, who will establish a terrace and gardens within the Wine Spectator Learning Center—itself the result of a $3 million donation from the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation.