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Raising a class of wine in Milton-Freewater

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Christophe Baron  (top) was attracted to the stony soil that can be found in the Walla Walla Valley near Milton-Freewater. The self-described recovering “pinot freak” grows syrah grapes.

Photo by Tyson Koffer

MILTON-FREEWATER— Forget the frogs. Milton-Freewater may just be the next hot wine destination the rest of the world has never heard of.

Where the Walla Walla Valley spills over the state line into Oregon is some of the best soil for growing wine grapes in a region that is fostering a growing national reputation for its red wines.

Cayuse Vineyards, for example, has been lauded in the national press for making some of the best wine coming out of Washington, irritating the legalists in the wine community who are quick to point out that Cayuse grows its grapes and makes its wine on the Oregon side of the valley.

For 37-year-old Frenchman and Cauyse proprietor Christophe Baron, the state line is imaginary. “It really doesn’t matter to me, though I suppose the people who collect taxes think otherwise,” he says. Baron planted his first vineyard in the valley in 1997 — after he discovered a plot of land with the stony soil he deemed perfect for syrah grapes — but originally had his winemaking operation in Washington. He moved his wine studio to Oregon, a move he says costs him 10% more in taxes, in 2005. “To me what’s most important is to have the facility on the vineyard as it is in France,” Baron says.

Not far from Cayuse’s operation is Zerba Cellars, which got its start in 2000 when Cecil Zerba, a longtime produce farmer and Milton-Freewater native, started planting wine grapes. His original plan was to sell them to other winemakers, but a few years into it Zerba decided to start making his own. “With everything we’ve ever grown our strategy was always get as close to the consumer as possible,” he says.

“My friends think I’m nuts,” Zerba says. But whether his farming buddies want to see it happen or not, he predicts that  the wine business that has turned Walla Walla into a trendy weekend getaway for wine-loving urbanites will also make its mark on Milton-Freewater. “There is not a cannery left in this valley. Sawmills are gone. There’s not a whole lot else happening. The grape deal is really saving this whole valley.”

Norm McKibben, former member of the Oregon Wine Board and owner of Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla, is working to get approval to plant 1,200 more acres of wine grapes in Oregon, a move that would mean the majority of Walla Walla grapes would come from Oregon. McKibben has been watching the wine business grow across the valley and figures it’s only a matter of time before a cluster of wineries turns Milton-Freewater into the next wine town. “They’re looking across the state line at 100 wineries,” he says. “The dam has got to burst at some point.”

— Christina Williams

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