Earlier this month the government approved a new winegrowing region in the Northwest called the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. The appellation—a term for a federally approved winegrowing region that can be used on a label—is a subregion of the Walla Walla Valley.
The Rocks District is known for its cobblestone soils. These fist-size stones, an ancient riverbed of the Walla Walla River, absorb heat during the day and then radiate that heat at grape clusters and into the soil. This is thought to contribute to the unique, mineral-drive style of the wines from this area, often referred to as “the Rocks funk.”
Grapes from this region—most notably those from Cayuse Vineyards—have created some of the highest-quality and most-sought-after wines in the world. To wit, wines from the Rocks region have landed at the top of our annual Top 100 wines list four out of the last five years.
While the strength of the Rocks wines has helped brighten Washington’s star over the years, every stone in the Rocks District is actually located on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, which straddles the Washington-Oregon border. Traditionally our state has owned the Walla Walla Valley brand, due to both the town of Walla Walla and the vast majority of wineries being on the Washington side of the valley.
The approval of the Rocks District changes this. Once wineries start using the Rocks District on their labels, Oregon will (rightfully) start to get credit for growing these wines, and Washington will have to share the Walla Walla Valley brand.
Don’t look for Washington wineries to start putting the Rocks District on their labels anytime soon though. By federal law, wineries can only use an appellation name on a label if the wines are made in the state in which the appellation resides. This means that, even though the Rocks District is a subappellation of the Walla Walla Valley, only Oregon-based wineries can currently use the designation.
The government has a proposal to address this, and most Washington producers are optimistic the problem will eventually be solved. Meanwhile look for the first Rocks District–designated wines from Oregon producers to start hitting shelves later this year.