Friday, February 6, 2015

News: TTB to approve AVA that will change the image of Oregon

Cayuse Vineyard's Christophe Baron. These are, literally, The Rocks of Milton-Freewater
The U.S. government will announce approval of a new wine region on Monday, according to the man who wrote the petition. And while it's geologically simple to understand, legally it's the most complicated AVA yet.

Moreover, the geologist who wrote the petition says it will forever change the image of Oregon wine.

The region is The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. It's most famous currently as the home of Cayuse Vineyards, which produces some of the most-sought wines in the Pacific Northwest. Bet you thought Cayuse was in Washington, because that's where its mailing address is. But it isn't, and neither is Milton-Freewater.

Here's the complicated part. The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater -- wow, what an unwieldy name -- is entirely within the state of Oregon. It's also entirely within the Walla Walla Valley AVA, about 70% of which is in Washington. The wineries that make wine from this region, like Cayuse, are associated with Washington, not Oregon.

Legally, it's a conundrum because U.S. wine label law is different if you pick grapes in one state and make them in another. Cayuse, which has its winery inside the M-F Rocks AVA, could label its M-F Rocks wines differently than most wineries that make wines from the grapes and drive them 15 minutes to their crushpad in Walla Walla.

Geologically, though, it's one of the most visually obvious wine regions in the world. The region is covered with a deep layer of cobblestones. Kevin Pogue, who wrote the AVA petition, said, "There's nothing most people would call 'soil' on the surface. It's just covered in rock."

"I can walk you back and forth across the boundary, and the difference is as clear as the nose on your face," said Pogue, a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla. "How many places can you do that: where you can look at the boundary and see that it's different?"

Cayuse founder Christophe Baron discovered the region in 1996, when he was driving from Walla Walla to Willamette Valley, where he hoped to buy land to plant Pinot Noir. He saw the stones and changed his career path: he would buy land cheaply and plant Syrah.

Cayuse makes some of the most interesting Syrah in the country, very complex and savory. Baron's success at creating a mailing-list sensation for the wines led a few others to plant, but there's still room to grow. The AVA is about 3700 acres in size, but only about 220 are planted, Pogue says. Leonetti, Rotie Cellars and Dusted Valley also get grapes from the region, he says.

Parker haters, you might want to look away now. (Especially you, Tish.)

From the Wine Advocate, Cayuse has collected 1 100-point score, 5 99s and 15 98s. The highest score ever for the other 4805 Oregon wines that Advocate critics have tasted is a single 98.

"It's an Oregon AVA and it's gotten the highest-scoring wines from Oregon," Pogue says. "I don't care about scores, but some people do. You can easily make the argument based on scores that the Rocks District makes the best wines in Oregon."

"The Oregon Wine Board has found it very convenient to ignore the wines of Walla Walla Valley," Pogue says. "They promote the wines of Willamette Valley because that's where all the money is and where all the power is. They can't ignore it anymore. People outside of Oregon who think Oregon is only the Willamette Valley are going to have to change their impression of Oregon."

Pogue says the TTB sent him an email this week informing him the approval of the AVA will be announced Monday. It also said a solution to the legal complications of the label will be announced, but he doesn't know what that means. Possibly this new AVA will result in a slight rewrite of the TTB's laws for wineries making wine across state lines.

It will be interesting to see if getting an AVA changes the economic fortune of the Milton-Freewater region. Currently the economy is noticeably stronger on the Washington side of the border, where the great majority of Walla Walla Valley wineries are located. However, Cayuse wines are not cheap, and if others from the M-F Rocks prove as distinctive, it might lift the county's fortunes.

"My friend Steve Robertson has a winery here. His brother is sheriff of Napa County," Pogue said. "Steve sees Milton-Freewater as St. Helena in 20 years."

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Douglas Trapasso said...

I’m still a wine newbie, and one concept I have difficulty wrapping my arms around are the minutely complex AOP requirements (yes, different countries use different acronyms, but work with me here). The idea that a Federal Government defines what you can call your wine, and how you must make it always has made the Ron Paul side of my personality cringe.

But here in the states you establish street cred and box out your competitors by convincing a bureaucrat that your Plot A is vastly inferior to that Plot B across the street.

Tell me you’re thinking about any of these rules and political strategies when you’re enjoying a glass of wine.
Maybe I’m just an outlier; but all this minutae gets in the way of my tasting.

Jack Everitt said...

Just redraw the Oregon and Washington borders, putting Walla Walla in Oregon. All done, all in, all out.

(Still waiting for NJ to redistributed amongst its neighbors.)

Kevin Pogue said...

A point of clarification. I didn't say Leonetti "gets grapes" from the area, I said that they had a vineyard there. That vineyard is relatively new and as far as I know they haven't used any grapes from that vineyard to make wine.

Kevin Pogue said...

I believe my comments concerning the Wine Board were taken out of context - perhaps to juice up the report with a bit of controversy. Just to clarify - although the Oregon Wine Board may not have focused a significant percentage of its resources on promoting the wines from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, they have not actually "ignored" them either. My impression is that the OWB has always been frustrated by the confusion resulting from all wines from the Walla Walla AVA being included in the Washington section of wine mag reviews. I'm sure they are excited that the new AVA will help to distinguish these wines as being from Oregon, which will make their jobs much easier. In my own interactions with the OWB the members have expressed great enthusiasm for the wines from the Rocks District and they were VERY supportive of the petition. They even held their annual meeting in Milton-Freewater this year to highlight the impending approval of the new AVA.

Kyle Schlachter said...

There is always the option of putting "For Sale in ___ Only," applying for a COLA exemption, and using the Rocks AVA on the label. Not ideal, but a method used elsewhere...