It looked like if I just kept walking, I might come to the edge of this new viticultural frontier. It looked like it might end abruptly, like a cliff. But I walked toward what I thought was the edge, and it slowly sloped downward, pulling me forward and down toward the valley, never ending dramatically, just rolling on softly for as far as I could walk before I had to turn around so as not to miss the ride back to Walla Walla.
During a wonderful wine blogger excursion to Force Majeure, a winery in Walla Walla Washington that sources its grapes from the Red Mountain district of Washington and the Rocks of Milton-Freewater district of Oregon, we were treated to a ride out to what might be the next AVA, North Fork of Walla Walla.
This corner of the Northwest, the area around Walla Walla is a wine region that dips down into Oregon. Walla Walla is an AVA in both states. The Rocks District is in Oregon and North Fork of Walla Walla, when it does become an AVA will be in Oregon. Winemakers in this area are used to sourcing grapes from both states.
The newest AVA in Oregon is the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, created in 2015. It is the only AVA in the US that is predicated on its soil. Rather than having a variety of soil types, this AVA is 96% Freewater soil series, a basalt lava soil. The largest area of basalt lava on earth is right here in the low desert of Northeastern Oregon.
North Fork is at a higher elevation, at almost 2000 feet. It’s in what geologist Kevin Pogue referred to as the ‘brown zone.’ Higher elevations are cooler, but also, lower elevations are cooler. This brown zone is a bit of a Goldilocks, just right in temperature, with nicely sloping hills, and a nice cross-section of soil types.
On the ride back to Walla Walla, Paul McBride, the owner of Force Majeure, which translates to ‘force of nature’ told us a bit about his vision for this frontier vineyard. It’s tied into what brought him to wine. Having previously worked in the tech industry, Paul became dissatisfied with how quickly things changed. He’d spend a great deal of time mastering something, a language perhaps, and the next thing came along and replaced it. But wine is different. You can ‘put your heart and soul into wine and a vineyard. That’s something that lasts and outlives you.’
It will be at least four years before any wine comes out of North Fork, and more years after that before it gains AVA status. But being on this viticultural frontier is what excites Paul McBride. ‘Nobody quite knows what a North Fork Grenache will be or should be. But we get to be the people who first define it.’