The Women of Walla Walla wine
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is unique in place and people
By Julie Arnan
To be a woman is to adapt and pivot upon necessity, and women in the wine industry are bringing millennia of expertise to the Walla Walla Valley. Women have contributed transformational innovations in the vineyard and the winery — from trellising techniques to people-management systems. They have their work cut out for them in the tiny 5.9-square-mile winegrowing district in Northeastern Oregon known as The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, where growing conditions can be challenging.
Nestled at the base of the basalt-rich Blue Mountains, cobblestones fill the valley floor to a depth of 100 vertical feet. This Flintstones-era ball pit, known geologically as an alluvial fan, is evidence left by the Walla Walla River as it wandered through the valley eons ago. Hot summer temperatures are magnified as the stones absorb the heat and reflect it back onto the fruit, leading to quick ripening. Conversely, winter can be brutally cold, forcing vineyard managers to adapt with cutting-edge techniques.
A Goblet to Fight the Cold
Brooke Robertson, director of winegrowing at Delmas in Milton-Freewater has pioneered a new growing technique to help vines survive the challenging conditions. Instead of using the standard trellis system, where vines snake along horizontal catch wires, Brooke revamped the “goblet” style often seen in Zinfandel vineyards — essentially little individual grape “trees.” Her twist keeps the trunks ultra-low cut so the entire plant can be completely and easily buried in the ground in winter, protecting the vine against freezing. Brooke uses this “mini-head-trained” system on her Syrah and Grenache vines at SJR Vineyard, her family’s estate vineyard, which is now in its tenth vintage. Some of her fellow Rocks District vineyard managers have also been inspired to adopt some of the same technique.
Buried goblet vines at SJR Vineyard
Buried goblet vines in snow
A Workforce of Women
Innovation isn’t just happening on the agricultural side. Sadie Drury, general manager of North Slope Management — which includes overseeing farming at famed Seven Hills Vineyard in Milton-Freewater — has implemented a big shift in how she manages her crew of 48, roughly half of whom are women. That’s uncommon in the industry, but Sadie has made it a practice to work with the women’s schedules, offering flexible hours to accommodate family obligations. “Because I work with their needs, I have good buy-in. They trust my decision and we’re really a great team,” she says.
Winemaking on Her Own
Toby Turlay became hooked on wine-tasting and winemaking with her husband, Chris Dukelow, in the early 2000s, before they decided to put down roots in Walla Walla. Toby learned the trade while they both raised their six children and built Ducleaux Cellars, a small estate winery making Rhône-inspired wines. The couple ran the winery together at first but found that their styles clashed. So Toby took over the winemaking at Ducleaux, while Chris helps out as “chief bottle washer” and “cellar rat,” in addition to making his own wines (in a pouch) for his own label, Irreverent Wine. Toby is just one of the growing number of the region’s up-and-coming women winemakers.
How to Sip the Stones
A wine-tasting experience in The Rocks District is truly unique because this terroir is like no other.
The Walla Walla Valley AVA lays across the Oregon/Washington border, and The Rocks District is both entirely inside the AVA and entirely inside Oregon. In fact, The Rocks District is the only winegrowing district in the United States whose boundaries were determined by a single soil series — so for wine drinkers interested in terroir, The Rocks of Milton-Freewater is a special place.
Toby Turlay and Chris Dukelow
And yet, Mother Nature dealt The Rocks vines a tough hand — they have to work hard to reach the water table deep beneath the stones. But thanks to the rich mineral content of the “soil” (aka cobblestones), red wines from The Rocks exude a distinct aromatic fingerprint. Syrahs in particular are redolent with a savory combination of smoked meat, bacon fat, briny olives and herbs swirled together with red and black fruit. Here’s where to sip in The Rocks District.
- Ducleaux Cellars operates a small tasting room next to the family home in Milton-Freewater, with unobstructed views of the Blue Mountains. Grab a glass and gather round the fire pit. Better yet, stay the night at their brand-new guest cottage.
- New in 2021, Rotie Cellars opened a beautiful tasting room in Milton-Freewater, where guests can taste Rhone-style wines. They’re open daily by appointment, and club members can also reserve a vineyard tour and tasting experience.
- Watermill Winery first planted vines in the Rocks back in 2006 — nine years before the area was officially designated as a winegrowing region. The Milton-Freewater tasting room, housed in a 1940s art deco building, offers outdoor seating for guests.
- Or go back even further in architectural history with a flight at Zerba Cellars’ log-cabin tasting room in Milton-Freewater. Zerba sources grapes throughout Oregon and offers a Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah made solely from grapes grown in the Rocks.
- In Walla Walla, WA, Saviah Cellars pours wines grown in its acclaimed Rocks District vineyards — Stones Speak Estate Vineyard and Funk Estate Vineyard (named for both the Rocks’ famous bouquet and, serendipitously, the owner/winemaker’s last name). The tasting room is open daily with indoor and outdoor seating available.