A week in Walla Walla, The Rocks District

I spent last week in Walla Walla focusing in particular on Syrah and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. It’s one of the most distinctive growing regions in the United States that has been quite interesting to follow these last several years, and it was especially insightful to return and again put it in context with Syrah of Washington and Oregon more broadly. The Walla Walla AVA follows the geographical expanse of the Walla Walla Valley, which falls across parts of both eastern Washington and Oregon.

For quick clarification: The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA sits nestled entirely within the larger Walla Walla AVA on the Oregon side of the valley. According to currently defined laws, producers from either Washington or Oregon can source fruit from the Walla Walla AVA and label the resulting wine with that AVA. That is because the recognized growing region naturally occurs in both states. However, since The Rocks District sits only in Oregon, that legal AVA designation can only appear on wines produced and bottled within the state of Oregon. Many of the wineries that bottle wines made from fruit grown within The Rocks District are found on the Washington side of the valley but cannot bottle with the nested AVA on their label. Most then choose to bottle instead with Walla Walla on the label. For that reason, if you are looking for wines from The Rocks District, it is important to know your producers and their designated bottlings.

Following are photos and information I shared via Instagram during my trip to the region.

 

 

 

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The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Walla Walla – the Walla Walla AVA crosses through eastern Washington and Oregon almost evenly split by the two states. Nested within the larger appellation of Walla Walla stands The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA, known for its deep and substantial deposit of alluvial basalt cobbles. The region was formed by layers of repeat basalt flows, then powerfully broken and carved by the Missoula floods. The Walla Walla River then eroded and carried basalt stones settling it through the southern part of the valley in a broad alluvial fan. The Rocks District is unique as an AVA within the United States in that it was defined most fundamentally by soil. Its borders circumscribe the area most clearly defined by the continuity of this basalt cobble deposit. Here, the cobbles that are the AVA’s signature at the base of a vine of Syrah in the Funk Vineyard on the southeastern side of The Rocks District. The Rocks District AVA falls entirely within the state of Oregon. The fruit is substantially used by wineries in the Washington side of the larger AVA. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @oregonwineboard @canvasbackwine

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Funk Vineyard, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater – talking through the impact of number of growth points on a vine in relation to a naturally vigorous variety such as Syrah with Canvasback winemaker Brian Rudin. While growing conditions in The Rocks District are challenging, the soils here also encourage vigor on an already naturally vigorous cultivar, Syrah. Farming choices then become important for balancing vine growth to fruit production. Here, Funk Vineyard has chosen to increase growth points on the vine through a Geneva Double Curtain style of split canopy as well as two reserve canes kept for burying in the winter in case of possible freeze. By essentially giving the vine more to do, the growth of the vine in any particular cane or portion of the canopy is slowed. In the second photo you can see the internodal growth is a desirable fist-width bringing greater overall balance to the vine. At the same time the split canopy spreads the fruit zone and increases cluster count while reducing cluster and berry size, thus retaining concentration in the fruit. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @oregonwineboard @canvasbackwine

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The Walla Walla River, South Fork – coming out of the Blue Mountains, the Walla Walla River powerfully moves rocks and soil through the region creating an alluvial fan of eroded basalt cobbles as it changes course through the southern part of the valley. The power of the river is important for how it feeds and changes the landscape as well as for how it rounds and changes the rocks it deposits along the way. While the South Fork portion of the river is East of The Rocks District it reveals the source of the AVAs unique cobbles. Here, along the Walla Walla River on the South Fork further basalt cobble deposits are visible. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @oregonwineboard

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Long Shadows Syrah Vertical, Sequel from 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2012 Bin 898, 2016, and Cote Nicault 2015 (Washington) – Long Shadows portfolio stands unique among wineries in that for each Long Shadows wine the Director of Winemaking & Viticulture, Gilles Nicault, partners with one of the world’s iconic winemakers to mentor and make the wine. Each wine a different winemaker mentor. For Long Shadows Sequel Syrah, Nicault works alongside John Duval, the famed Barossa winemaker at the helm of Penfolds for 29 years and now for his own eponymous wines. Since 2003, Duval and Nicault have married Duval’s vast library of technical knowledge to Washington’s unique growing conditions to craft Sequel. It is a pleasure to taste the wine back to its founding vintage to see how very well it ages. Seeing the wines side by side a clear evolution emerges but on their own the oldest wines here, now 16 and 13 years old, would appear far younger. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @long.shadows

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The North Fork, Walla Walla – in the southeastern reach of the Walla Walla AVA the North Fork of the Walla Walla River cuts a winding canyon between high elevation slopes of fractured basalt. The area is one of the newest, exciting developments of the region with still only two vineyards planted and more slowly on the way. Set closer to the Blue Mountains and at higher elevation (here in this photo standing at 2000 ft) the area gets more rain than much of the valley and has a longer, more even growing season with cooler days and slightly warmer nights. Soils are derived of eroded and fractured basalt. Zoom in on this photo and follow the treeline on the canyon floor to see the river route of the North Fork. The North and South Forks converge not far from this area to become the larger Walla Walla River, which feeds and carved the southern Walla Walla Valley on the Oregon side. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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The North Fork of the Walla Walla River, 2000 ft elevation Autumn flora on uncultivated land – really beautiful, and varied micro flora at high elevation growing over very shallow soils on fractured basalt. Like a forest of miniaturized plants all growing in intense diversity together. Walking these uncut landscapes gives so many clues as to what is underneath – the change points from wild grasses to wild sage or wild flowers, to mosses and lichen all indicate differing depths of soil (and so also moisture availability), as well as changes in exposure, mineral availability, and soil pH. Love eyeing such details. The beauty in little things. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater – the alluvial basalt cobbles that make up The Rocks District. Here, a soil pit down to about 3 meters that shows how incredibly stony the soils of The Rocks District are. Laid down by the movement of the Walla Walla River, the basalt cobbles have been smoothed and rounded by water erosion. These cobbles descend tens of meters into the earth here, spread in a broad fan through Northeastern Oregon in the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley by the movement of the river carrying the stones downstream from the Blue Mountains and the descending landscape of the valley itself. The Rocks District stands at around 850 ft elevation. As the eastern side of Washington and Oregon are desert and a continental climate, with its cold winters and shorter growing season, vines are not farmed below 800 ft generally as temperatures are not adequate for ripening and winter at lower elevations brings frost concerns. Some frost issues remain still in Walla Walla above this elevation but are threats every few years rather than every winter. During the growing season the basalt stones absorb heat during the day helping to encourage some fruit development at night as well, this extending growing hours in a short growing season. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Winter Freeze Protection, Burying Canes or Burying Buds, The Rocks District, Walla Walla – winters in the Walla Walla Valley on the eastern side of both Washington and Oregon readily get below freezing temperatures and cold enough to sometimes freeze damage vines. There are two key means of protecting vines from such potential damage, both of which consist of burying part of the vine after harvest and before winter. Here in the first photo, burying a cane or two per vine can be done generally for vines trained with the head of the vine, or base of its canopy, starting a few feet above the ground. A cane from a bud low on the vine trunk was allowed to grow parallel to the trunk and into the canopy during the season. (Some people also use this to address vigor issues by essentially giving the vine more to grow.) After the season, the extra cane is then pulled down and laid flat on the ground under the vine. Soil is then piled over the canes to bury them, often in two stages. Here, the first stage has been buried most of the length of the cane. In the second stage people will shovel dirt over the still exposed part of the cane seen here near the trunk. In the second photo, the vine has been trained with its head, or canopy height, low to the ground. Here, instead of burying canes two buds low on the trunk, at the start of the vine head are buried. Here, the burying process has already been complete and the buds are already buried. In the spring the cane or buds will be uncovered. If any freeze damage has occurred the upper trunk will be removed and the canes or buds will be used to restart the vine. Vines are trained close to the ground as in the second photo to capture more radiant heat from the stones and encourage more savory notes as a result. Vines are trained high to escape more of the radiant heat and retain more fruit character. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Force Majeure Rhone wines from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater and Red Mountain, plus The Walls from The Rocks District – awesome tasting Syrah from Red Mountain in Washington grown between 900 to 1250 ft elevation in fractured basalt alongside Syrah from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in Oregon grown around 850 ft elevation in basalt cobbles. The regions are about an hour drive apart. The wines from Force Majeure are full of beautiful transparency and sophisticated delicious yes-ness. The Syrahs from Red Mountain versus The Rocks District are insanely different. Impressive transmission of place from winemaker Todd Alexander. #wallawalla @forcemajeurevineyards @metodd @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Cork Sensory Trials – before bottling producers who bottle under cork receive batch samples to select from by doing sensory trials checking for TCA. Corks from each batch are tested simultaneously, separated by batch. The corks are soaked separately (or as here in pairs) in either water or wine (wine usually shows more) and then multiple people independently smell the soaking-glasses in randomized order. Sometimes the corks won’t show TCA character but will still smell off or musty, though with contemporary cork practices and newer technologies this is now relatively uncommon. Here, Valdemar gets ready for bottling later this month, doing their sensory cork trials in preparation. #wallawalla

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Fractured Basalt, McQueen Vineyard, Walla Walla – while stones eroded by water (also known as alluvial erosion) gain rounded edges and smoothed surface, rocks eroded by fracturing such as those broken by earth movement, or being sloughed downhill (also known as colluvial erosion) retain rough edges and surface, as shown here. McQueen Vineyard stands at the southernmost reach of Walla Walla Valley at 1440 ft elevation. Soils here are incredibly shallow and the vines are planted directly into fractured basalt. In most places the soil is no more than 6” deep and throughout, basalt rocks like this appear among the rows and vines. McQueen Vineyard is owned by Doubleback #wallawalla @doublebackwine @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Brooke Robertson, SJR Vineyard, The Rocks District, Walla Walla – winters in Walla Walla include winter freeze that can readily freeze vines and cause lethal damage to the exposed vines. As a result, producers here bury portions of their vines as an insurance policy against such possible freeze. Most bury canes so that if freeze occurs the trunk is cut off and the buried cane is lifted and trained for the new trunk. Repeated trunk cutting of this sort can encourage wood diseases and risks shortening overall vine life even as it protects against total vine loss. Brooke Robertson, viticulturist for SJR Vineyard, has been working to generate a different solution that removes the need to bury canes and cut the trunk. Here, she talks through her MHT training method in front of the already buried vines. She has trained the vines at SJR as head-trained, that is, goblet-style, vines low to the ground so that the full height of the trunk is several inches from ground level (rather than the couple feet height more commonly seen for cordon or cane trained vines). At the end of harvest, then, the entire head of the vine is buried so that all of the spurs of the goblet are covered by the insulating protection of the soil. In Spring, the soil is cleared and flattened again and the vine is pruned in a typical goblet shape but very low to the ground. Here, in SJR Vineyard on the western side of The Rocks District the basalt cobbles are prevalent but soil includes around 20% eroded-basalt loam. The additional soil in the site makes burying the entire head of the vine possible. Robertson developed her MHT training system and burial practice through a combination of studying old bush vines in Europe and Australia while also studying winter pruning and protection techniques for both other vine plants and rose bushes in continental climates around the world. #wallawalla @o_delmas_o @mary_delmas @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Max the cat lives in Walla Walla and is a real nice cat. Hi, Max! 👋🏽! #wallawalla

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Saager’s Shoe Shop, Milton-Freewater – in exploring a wine region it is important to get to know the cultural history of the place too as that informs the farming culture, which influences what is possible in the wine culture. Plus, it is often just charming and fun. Behold! Saager’s Shoe Shop in the heart of the tiny little town Milton-Freewater has been open more than 100 years offering shoe repair and shoes. Walking through the door it had the very same smell as my favorite shoe shop in Montreal that also offered both shoe repairs and shoes. It ‘s a shoe polish, sole glue, and leather kind of smell. The local town includes only about 7000 people, which you wouldn’t think would be enough to support this local shoe shop for more than 100 years, and it ‘s not. People drive to the tiny little hamlet of Milton-Freewater from across the tri-state area – Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – to buy and repair shoes. I took the local’s advice, and stopped into Saager’s. Then left with a pair of the cutest dang rubber boots. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Milton-Freewater, aka Muddy Frogwater, Walla Walla – turns out Milton-Freewater had a complicated name and a complicated reputation. To make fun of it people used to call it Muddy-Frogwater. Eventually the locals decided to reclaim the name as a jovial positive and set about holding the annual, all local, Muddy Frogwater Festival. Over time, sculptures and paintings of frogs began to crop up all over Milton-Freewater too in celebration of the festival and the goofy name. (Just to be clear, there are no actual frogs in Milton-Freewater. There is plenty of river but it ‘s also a desert.) More recently, though, the success of wine in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA has shifted public perception enough that the annual festival has changed with it. These last couple years it’s been renamed The Milton-Freewater Rocks! and slowly slowly the frog sculptures have begun to disappear. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Hiking into the Walla Walla River with geologist Kevin Pogue – the Walla Walla River carries chunks of fractured basalt down from the Blue Mountains into the Walla Walla Valley. As the rocks are carried by the river they are tumbled, made round and smooth, until they eventually deposit along the base and edges of the river, creating stone bars that move the course of the river as the deposits increase. Over time the river undulates back and forth over the landscape depositing these alluvial rocks in fan shape, feeding stones into the landscape, and continuously moving its own channel along the way. In the last photo here you can see the water is moving in its channel all the way to the left side of the image (where the water shows more texture). As the swiftest movement flows along this path, more stones will be deposited through that channel, but as stones are deposited there by the river, the stones left there will also change the river’s path. The channel will move away from the deposits and a new channel will form, then also becoming the flow for greatest deposits. Over and over the river flows and deposits, always moving its own path. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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1930s-planted Cinsault, The Rocks District, Walla Walla – while contemporary grape growing started in The Rocks District in the late 1990s, we know grape growing was being done early in the late 1800s as well. In fact, the wealth of cherry trees in the area give a clue as cherries often grow well in regions that also do well for grapes. Here, vines planted by the Pesciallo family in the 1930s, then known as the Black Prince, or Black Malvosie, and today more commonly known as Cinsault. The vines were left untended for decades, then mowed over repeatedly so that their roots remained intact but their tops were gone. Then around 10 years ago, when the family didn’t mow that section of the yard one year the vines were rediscovered and today are trained up on stakes and tended to by different producers of the region, the oldest vines of The Rocks District. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Mill Creek Geology, Walla Walla – this road cut far up Mill Creek brilliantly shows the layers of soil deposit and parent material influence common through much of the Walla Walla Valley, and even further in the Pacific Northwest. Zoom in to each of the layers to check out the texture. The oldest layer on the bottom, layer (1), is entirely fractured basalt, set down by partially melted mantle being uplifted as it melts then hardened as it cools closer to the surface. Much of the Pacific Northwest is built on this layer. Then, here, in level (2), the influence of local rivers and streams has eroded and rounded some of that basalt into a layer of alluvial stones often referred to locally as the old gravels as they are deep in the soil. This sort of alluvial old gravels will appear only in specific areas with river influence. Then, a new parent material appears. In the eastern side of Washington and Oregon, and all the way to the eastern face of the Chehalem Mountains even, we see demonstrated here in layer (3), a thick layer of wind blown loess, a silty soil formed from eroded granite then moved far across the landscape by wind. Granite is not native to the Pacific Northwest and instead is blown into the region from further East. This is a fine particle soil but with rough edges as it has not been polished by water. Finally, we see, in layer(4), another localized layer of alluvial stones, more basalt rocks eroded and rounded out of the Blue Mountains, then carried downstream and deposited in this case atop the loess. The depth of the loess layer varies significantly through the greater region, even disappearing in places with significant alluvial influence as the water continuously washes it away. The young gravels alluvial top layer in those areas is much deeper. In many areas of lower elevation, instead of loess or younger gravels, the top layer instead includes a section of Missoula Flood soils overlaying basalt. #wallawalla

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Vietti 2015 Ravera, Barolo – a total joy to drink this wine. So much love for Vietti. On wine trips to various regions I think one of the most important things we can do to pay respect to the region being visited and consider the wines seriously at a global level is occasionally taste or enjoy well respected wines from other parts of the world. The primary focus should be on the local region itself, but then accented by these occasional forays into other wines. Doing so keeps your palate and perspective working at a global level and in doing so keeps open the dance between digging into the details of the local region and considering how that region plays beyond its own local community. #wallawalla @vietti_winery @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @oregonwineboard

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Bartolo Mascarello 2010 and Stella di Campalto 2011 Riserva Brunello di Montalcino – such gorgeous counterpoints. #wallawalla

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Cayuse 2014 Bionic Frog Syrah, Walla Walla – opening up the Bionic Frog. Grown entirely within what is now The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Bionic Frog from Cayuse is one of the wines that helped first turn attention to the alluvial stones of the old Walla Walla River bed on the Oregon side of the southern Walla Walla Valley. In the late 1990s Christophe Baron was one of the first in the area’s current iteration to plant in the stones, initially struggling to establish vines as standard vineyard equipment was inadequate to the density of the stones. Originally from France, Baron made a simple commitment. Every year he would return to France to meet with producers from the Rhône (where such cobbles also famously appear) and to attend trade fairs to examine new sorts of farming equipment. With these studies he would then bring back to Walla Walla every year one new farming technique, and one new piece of farming equipment in an attempt to continuously, steadily evolve his understanding of growing in his rocky sites. The trick being to maintain a balance of continuity year to year with still intentional improvement. Today, 22 years later, Cayuse proves to be the longest-standing winegrower in the still young sub-zone of the Walla Walla Valley, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @oregonwineboard @wa_state_wine

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Autumn in Walla Walla – Fall in Walla Walla is quite pleasant, though much of my week here has been dominated by heavy ice fog that has prevented any sense of the open vistas that otherwise inform this landscape. Trees here include a mix of seasonal species and those that remain green year round, allowing a more textured view through the change towards winter. Spending an abundance of time along the river systems here helps alleviate the anxiety I get being away from water. I grew up along the waterways of Alaska after all. It ‘s hard to shake those foundational needs. Most of all though as the town of Walla Walla has filled in these last few years with a new quality of restaurants to add to those charmers already established (each featuring international wine lists), a bakery, and even a wine bar with an Old World perspective, there is an even greater sense of community warmth, people sharing space together throughout the town over food and wine. There has been an unmistakable increase of excitement and global perspective in the wine community here in even just the last four years. A surge in producers and viticulturists with experience in other parts of the world moving into the region and adding to the tenacity and hard work the founding wineries have put into establishing Walla Walla. It ‘s a feeling of the energy building, on the verge of an elemental shift like water as it heats just before the bubbles begin to pop from boiling, or a sprinter in the blocks with their body pulling tight as the starter counts down to launch the race. #wallawalla @wwvalleywine @wa_state_wine @oregonwineboard

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