|Cayuse Vineyard's Christophe Baron. These are, literally, The Rocks of Milton-Freewater|
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."