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Northwest Wine Industry | The Next Phase | The Visionaries

"How are you going to standout? You must have a distinctive terroir. That's the story, it's about the place. It's not the producer." Steve Robertson, SJR Vineyards 
Steve Robertson, SJR Vineyards, at Force Majeure construction site.

The Vision for the Future of Northwest Wines

Last month I attended the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. Wines were impressive as expected, and I was introduced to many talented winemakers. What I did not expect, was to have a new jolt of excitement for and about the future of Northwest wines. There are some cool things percolating inside of the Walla Walla Valley AVA.

Mentally, my thinking towards Washington wine is merging with thinking about Oregon wine. We share three AVA’s (Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley), numerous vineyards, the Columbia River and many talented and passionate growers and makers. Last month, this view was re-enforced by Steve Robertson of SJR Vineyards and backed up by the team at Force Majeure Vineyards. They spoke of coming changes, challenges and a shared vision for Northwest wine. And a legacy for the future.

Steve Robertson, SJR Vineyards, discussing the future of Northwest wine country.

Steve Robertson of SJR Vineyards shared a great deal. What stuck out in my memory, was that he said, "I can't afford Napa. I can afford Walla Walla Valley." and "At 66 years old, this new project is not for me, I'm too old. It's a legacy I'm leaving for my daughter." Yes, instant like.

Paul McBride, 2011 Revelry on Red Mountain.

I've been a fan of Force Majeure wines since I first met owner Paul McBride at the 2011 Revelry on Red Mountain. This was before he was Force Majeure, originally the brand was named Grand Reve Vintners. I was impressed at first taste of Grand Reve Vintners. Force Majeure is even better.

"Force Majeure" "Unstoppable Force"

Today, Force Majeure is recognized as an ultra-premium winery located in Washington State. They specialize in estate-grown, single-vineyard Bordeaux and Rhône-inspired wines. Force Majeure winemaker, Todd Alexander, is former winemaker for Napa's Bryant Family Vineyard.

Force Majeure wines at a recent wine tasting.

Next year, Force Majeure Vineyards will be breaking ground on one of the most exciting sites in the Northwest. It's called North Forks. I'm eager to share what I learned. And why I'm so excited about this site and a shared Northwest wine country.

(left to right) Steve Robertson, Paul McBride, Todd Alexander and Kevin Pogue.

Let's put winery growth in the Northwest in perspective. 

When I have discussions with guests visiting Washington wine country, one of the points I like to deliver is that, "These are early days." The Washington wine industry is only just four decades old. And if I'm honest with myself, entered the world psyche barely a decade ago. Early days, with tremendous unrealized potential.

Growth has increased dramatically over the last decade. When you combine the number of Oregon wineries, with the number of Washington wineries, they equal almost half the number of California wineries. California has 3,674 wineries. Washington state has almost 1,000 wineries, and Oregon is not far behind. The Northwest wine region is growing quickly. Consequently, there's more and more competition. Washington state alone is adding 40+ wineries per year.

Force Majeure makes ultra-premium wines.

How do you stand out? Terroir!

Force Majeur owners are inspired by Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, their goal is to create single vineyard wines, at the highest level of integrity to expressing vineyard site. No matter how difficult the terrain. This is a fairly new concept for the Northwest. We've had it rather easy.

Note: Washington wine grape growing comes out of a commercial farming approach: easy to farm vineyards, flat terrain, mechanized farming mentality.

While touring the Walla Walla Valley AVA with Force Majeure Vineyards, I began to realize they were taking the road less traveled. They are growing wine grapes in some of the most difficult terrain on Red Mountain and The Rocks District. They are obsessed with terroir. They are passionate about place. They are making truly stunning wines. And their obsession is not abated. They are taking things up a notch.

Rendering of Force Majeur winery and tasting room. To open in 2019.

With a new winery under construction in the Walla Walla Valley (on the Oregon side), established vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA and their vineyard in the Rocks District, Force Majeure is soon to break ground on a new vineyard site in the hills of North Forks, east of Milton-Freewater, Oregon. This new vineyard site will be part of their triumvirate of terroir.

Force Majeure Vineyards: Red Mountain, Rocks District, North Forks


Force Majeure Red Mountain AVA Vineyard

Their estate Red Mountain vineyard site is 40 acres, with 23 acres planted to vine. This is a unique site for Red Mountain, soil tests identified nine distinct soil types. From deep sandy, chalky calcium carbonate, limestone, rocky basalt and some volcanic ash and clay. With a 35% slope at this site, all work must be done by hand. Not easy, not mechanized. At around 3,200 Heat Units, think Southern Rhone. A unique site for Washington.

One of the reasons this vineyard is so interesting to to me, is that it is on the steep section of  the Red Mountain AVA, on a SW facing slope. No mechanical harvesting here. This is an ideal location for Rhone varieties: Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache are planted. Think GSM.

They do have a limited production of Viognier from this site, at only 70 cases. The Viognier is used to some extent for a co-fermented Syrah. Because this location has such a steep hillside, the Syrah vines are Goblet trained (trained up a stick). The Force Majeure Goblet trained Syrah is the first planted this way in Washington. A high density planting at 3x4 spacing.

And they have bush vine Grenache too. Vines are grown closer to the ground. Tough work, because you have to bend over to manage and harvest this Grenache. Who does that? Force Majeure.

Their Mourvedre is planted in a similar method to Goblet, it's a head-trained Mourvedre. This variety needs a lot of heat, planting this way keeps the radiant heat close to the ground for ripening. I was told that, "The fruit zone is kept close to the ground this way."

FYI: Planted in 2007, the first crop of Mourvedre was stolen. It was professionally picked at 1/2 acre of 3rd leaf Mourvedre. Additional bummer, it was not fully ripe. It was picked a week too early. This especially pissed off the vineyard manager.

Cobblestones of the Rocks District AVA. Photo courtesy

Rocks District AVA Vineyards

Force Majeure is constructing their new production winery and tasting room in The Rocks District. A small Rocks District AVA vineyard was included with the purchase of this site.

The Rocks District AVA is a Sub-AVA of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. Since it is on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, only Oregon wineries, by law, are allowed to put on the front label of wine bottles, "The Rocks District AVA." Washington wineries using fruit from the Rocks District, are only allowed to put on their front labels, "Walla Walla Valley AVA." Though they are free to be creative on the back label. 

Located in the outskirts of the formerly sleepy town of Milton-Freewater, OregonThe Rocks District AVA is the second smallest AVA in Oregon, and smaller than any in Washington state. This place is distinctive to an extreme. Some have said that it is the most distinctive in the USA, and possibly the world. It's all about the place. And very limited availability, think Cayuse Vineyards. This region is just waking up to their potential as a significant player in the wine world.

"The boundaries of the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater are based on the geographical distribution of soils of the Freewater series, which are derived from the cobblestone-rich gravels deposited by the Walla Walla River. The cobblestones consist entirely of basalt, a dark-colored volcanic rock (that was) derived by erosion of the Blue Mountains."

The Rocks District AVA is only 3,750 acres in area, and so far, only 10% planted (338 acres today). Established in 2015, the AVA will have 500 acres planted within 3 years. I learned that more vineyards are going to be planted by California wineries, including Duckhorn Vineyards, and a Spanish winery will also be planting vineyards, Bodegas Valdemar from Rioja (the first international player). They are now on the world's radar.

This area is only beginning to see change, a lot more change is coming to the Milton-Freewater area. As I stated above, these are early days. Now is the time to invest. Interest is being driven by excitement over the quality of the Rocks District AVA. The wine world has noticed. So has Force Majeure.

Geologist Kevin Pogue talks about North Forks site.

North Forks Vineyard Site - Triumvirate of Terroir

The potential of North Forks was first recognized by Geologist Kevin Pogue. 

Force Majeure believes in superior quality. They seek that quality among the best, and most challenging sites in Washington and Oregon. It should be no surprise they are going even further in that pursuit of quality. North Forks is the third special place in their triumvirate of terroir.

Last month, Force Majeure showed me the location for their next vineyards. Located east of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, I believe this will be the start of a new phase for the Northwest wine industry. I instantly thought of Priorat, and their rugged, steep vineyards. My heart soared at the rugged beauty of this location. What I wrote two years ago about Priorat, I believe will apply here too.

"I often say that the more the vines struggle the better the fruit. In Priorat I believe the same can be said for the people. Truly humbling physical effort is needed to tend these vineyards on slopes steeper than I could manage." Culture of Catalunya, July 2016

View from North Forks site, looking SW towards Milton-Freewater, Oregon.

About North Forks

This place is different. Historically, Washington and Oregon wine growers have had it relatively easy. Many of the regions vineyards are planted on flat to gently sloped sites. Mechanical harvesting is common. There has been little need to plant on more rugged terrain. North Forks is rugged. All the vineyard work and harvest, will be by hand.

Deer, elk and a wolf pack are part of North Forks charm.

Force Majeures new vineyard site at North Forks, sits at an elevation of 2,000 ft. It's a cooler site than the lower valley. They compare the location with the Northern Rhone region of France. Heat Units are around 2,600 - 2,800 degrees. Not as hot in summer as Red Mountain. But a longer, more temperate growing location. The lower valley will freeze before this site does. Annual rainfall is about 25 inches, the owners think they may be able to dry farm some years. Irrigation water is available, and will be needed, because it is going to help establish the young vines. Planting should begin in spring 2019.

Wild rose bush at North Forks, an indicator for dry farming.

Soils here have more clay and higher PH than Red Mountain. Vineyards will not be planted in squares, vineyards will be a series of Arcs and Curves, based on soil types. A great deal of planning has gone on here. After their site analysis, they have mapped out 26 Micro Blocks, to 23 acres. Plantings will include different trellising methods, and clones. The goal is maximizing potential. It is expected that North Forks will go toe to toe with the best wines of the world. The owners excitement about the potential for North Forks certainly affected me. I now share a bit of that vision and excitement.

About half of the Force Majeure North Forks site will be developed to vineyards. The remainder will be hiking and walking trails and parks. 

Force Majeur winemaker, Todd Alexander, at North Forks site.

Todd Alexander, Force Majeure winemaker since 2014, came to the Northwest from Napa. Todd left Napa because he's excited about the unrealized potential in the Northwest. Todd will be ready to craft even more distinctive wines next year in the new Force Majeure production facility. This new production winery is being built just outside of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, in the Rocks District. Construction on the 12,000 square foot winery will be completed in 2019. Capacity will be up to 5,000 annual case production. I've sampled wines made by Todd, they are pure quality.

Kevin Pogue (left) and Todd Alexander (right) at North Forks site.

Facts Geologist Kevin Pogue Wants you to Know:

  • Washington wine country is not High-Desert.
  • Elevation in Prosser is 700 ft. in Pasco it is 300 ft. We are Low-Desert because of the weight of all the basalt deposited 10 million years ago. Where I live in SE Washington, the basalt is three miles thick. That weight has flattened the Columbia Basin Plateau. 
  • Lava/Basalt - Has nothing to do with the Cascade volcanoes.
  • It has to do with the caldera under Yellowstone. 10 million years ago, that caldera was under Washington and Oregon. It spewed magma for several million years. Hence, the reason there is so much basalt in Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon.
  • Our powdery soil is not volcanic ash.
  • Our powdery soil is glacial derived silt from the Missoula floods of 12,000 years ago. We lost our native soils within the Missoula flood plain. They were flushed into the ocean and into Oregon wine country below Portland, Oregon.
  • 96% of the boundary of the Rocks District AVA is predicated on a single soil series.
  • Terroir is homogeneous. It is the most distinctive AVA in the USA based on this single soil type.

Force Majuere owner Paul McBride hosts a wine tasting.

Wine bloggers learning about delicious Force Majeure wines.

Final Words


Force Majeure is going to stand out even more than they already do. Today, they are well known for making impressive red wines. I've been a fan since 2011. They will survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive environment, because of quality and the terroir of their estate vineyards. And they are intentionally leaving a legacy for their children.

The Northwest already recognizes that Red Mountain and The Rocks District are special places. The rest of the world is finally catching on. Add to that the new North Forks site, and I'm even more excited about the future of Northwest wine.

Northwest wine country is already a region of realized quality. Yet, it is full of potential expression, at a level the world will covet, of that relished taste of place. And in about ten years, some of us will be able to evaluate that new North Forks terroir. After the vineyards are established, mature and North Forks wine is finally in the bottle. I look forward to the realization of that next, tremendous phase.

Maybe I should rename this blog, Wild 4 Northwest Wine?

Cheers to Northwest wine!


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