- Associated Press - Friday, February 13, 2015

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. (AP) - Line up a thousand different Syrah wines from across the world and Steve Robertson is confident connoisseurs would be able to tell which come from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.

“It’s because the wines here are so distinctive,” Robertson said. “There’s a lovely perfumed bouquet, with a savory palate and prominent minerality on the finish.”

Robertson, 62, owns SJR Vineyard on the western boundary of The Rocks District. He said the region is unique for its cobbly soils that not only allow for better drainage, but absorb more surface heat to grow high quality grapes of different varieties.

On Monday, the federal government approved The Rocks District as Oregon’s newest American Viticultural Area, or AVA, which provides another tool for local wineries and vineyards to promote the special features of the Walla Walla Valley. The Rocks name can now be used on any wine bottle that uses grapes grown in the district and is finished in Oregon.

It was Robertson who first started gathering support to petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for the AVA designation more than three years ago. Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, joined in the research and submitted their petition in 2012.

Robertson was elated to hear the AVA was approved, which he said will draw in people from around the world and holds the promise of future economic development in Milton-Freewater - population 7,050.

“It’s my belief this district will reinvent Milton-Freewater,” Robertson said.

The Rocks District is defined geologically by an alluvial fan where the Walla Walla River exits the Blue Mountains and enters into the Walla Walla valley. Dark basalt stones are pocketed throughout the soil, which compared to the sandy soils befitting most of Eastern Oregon’s signature crops, is actually quite beneficial for wine grapes.

Water drains easier through the rocky ground, encouraging vines to root deeper. A little stress is good for the plants, forcing them to focus resources on the fruit.

Rocks exposed at the surface also act as miniature radiators, Robertson said, capturing heat and ripening grapes later in the season.

At roughly 3,770 acres, The Rocks District is Oregon’s second-smallest of 18 total AVAs. However, only 250 acres of those are currently planted in commercial production leaving plenty of opportunity to grow.

“You gotta believe more people are going to show up here,” said Robertson, who lives in nearby College Place, Washington. “And they will. Big guys, little guys, they’re all knocking at the door.”

Milton-Freewater is already anticipating the AVA will be a boon to development.

Randy Grant, executive director of the city’s downtown alliance, said residents are ready to embrace the district and are looking for ways to capture new business and tourism.

About 74 people attended a meeting Tuesday night at the Community Building as part of an overall project to improve Milton-Freewater’s economic development. Grant said they expect The Rocks District will play a big role moving forward.

“We are very proud of what Walla Walla has accomplished in the wine industry,” Grant said. “That said, we think The Rocks has the potential to be the crown jewel for wine in the valley.”

City Manager Linda Hall said the sky is the limit for new investment. She envisions custom grape crushing and bottling facilities could move in to take advantage of the product grown locally, along with tasting rooms and restaurants.

“We’re extremely excited,” Hall said. “It’s nice to see our quiet little area of the world recognized for its distinctness.”

Meanwhile, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is looking at changing its rules for naming AVAs on wine labels following its approval of The Rocks District. As it stands, winemakers can only label a particular AVA if the wine is finished in that state. That means Washington wineries that buy their grapes from The Rocks District cannot use the AVA name on their bottles, since The Rocks is located entirely within Oregon.

Now, the TTB is looking at broadening the rule for adjacent states. There is a 60-day comment period before a final ruling is made. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, recently applauded the proposal as a benefit to Oregon’s $3.3 billion wine industry.

When consumers learn to equate The Rocks District wines with their unique taste and quality, that’s when the region will really start to gain a reputation, Robertson said.

“It does so many good things, just by way of enlivening discussion about what is so special about the Walla Walla Valley,” he said.


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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