Written by Angela Ashberry
For most wine aficionados, Eastern Oregon’s Milton-Freewater doesn’t register as a wine tasting destination. Its location puts it far from anywhere convenient and 300 miles from the Willamette Valley. Its climate seems more suited to peppers and corn than wine grapes. Its hyphenated name sounds like a corporate law firm. Yet this small town with a population of 7,050 that’s 5 miles south of the Washington state line and 10 miles south of Walla Walla is emerging as a destination for those who are as adventurous with their travel as they are curious about a wine’s terroir. Welcome to The Rocks!
Start your day with an ambitious hike about 37 miles east of Milton Freewater. Head to the South Fork Walla Walla Trailhead 15 miles southeast of town. The Table Springs/Bear Creek Trail is a 14.6-miles long, which can be done nicely in shorter segments. It gets steeper after a gentle introduction. Be sure to bring water and check with the Umatilla National Forest for fire warnings and closures. This hike into the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness should get your blood pumping for the rest of the day’s events.
What makes the Milton-Freewater wine-growing area worth the trip is the soil that earned it its own wine-growing appellation or AVA (American Viticultural Area). The Rocks District is defined by cobblestone land that stems from deposits of the Walla Walla River as it fans out coming out of the Blue Mountains. The cobblestones are believed to absorb the heat of the sun and transmit it to the roots of the grape vines and radiate heat to the grape clusters to enhance the production of phenols, which influence the wine’s color and feel in your mouth.
Though last alphabetically in the AVA, Zerba Cellars should be one of the first to visit and taste in The Rocks District. Cecil and Marilyn Zerba started growing produce and plants as part of a nursery before transitioning to growing wine grapes in 2001. Try the award-winning syrahs or cabernet sauvignons.
Tero Estates, on Windrow Vineyard, the oldest commercially planted vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley has distinctive single block cabernets and an enterprising super Tuscan cabernet-sangiovese red blend to truly savor local terroir.
For dinner, head north to Walla Walla’s Brasserie Four French bistro for steak frites or bouillabaisse. Sip another local wine from just outside The Rocks District and notice the difference between AVAs.
Start the morning with a hearty breakfast at Wee Bit O’ Heathers, a true American diner experience in a family-owned venue that serves breakfast all day. Don’t be food-shy at breakfast because you’ll need the energy for the ensuing 18-hole challenge.
After breakfast, make way to the Milton-Freewater Municipal Golf Course, but leave your clubs behind. The city of Milton-Freewater nailed it with an 18-hole footgolf course, played with your feet and a soccer ball. For $10.50 per adult round, your day will be filled with long drives, chips and putts toward a 21-inch cup. The best rounds can get Messi.
For the day’s tasting, start with The Rocks District syrahs from Watermill Winery, a small winery just two blocks from the footgolf course. Watermill, which began as an apple-growing operation, carries forward that tradition with its Blue Mountain Ciders. Bring a picnic lunch and sip syrahs under sunbrellas on Watermill’s patio.
Spice things up a little in the evening with a visit to Castillo de Feliciana and their Spanish-style wines. The reserve tempranillo is a blend of grapes from The Rocks District and surrounding Walla Walla area. Likewise with the cabernet sauvignon. Make a reservation and transport yourself abroad from this pastoral setting in Milton-Freewater.
For dinner, make reservations at Hattaway’s on Alder in Walla Walla. Start with the local heirloom tomato salad, followed by Pacific oysters, braised beef cheeks and a Hatty’s old fashioned.
Before you leave, be sure to ogle the Frazier Farmstead Museum, listed on the National Register of Historical Sites, open Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. The past and the history of Milton-Freewater is well preserved here and perhaps can answer how the soils of Milton-Freewater became the basis for its wine appellation and how the city earned its hyphenated name.
If Walla Walla is on your way, hit the Walla Walla Bread Company for coffee and breakfast tartines, and toast the farewell to your AVA destination getaway in The Rocks.
Castillo de Feliciana
Hataway’s on Alder
Walla Walla Bread Company
Wee Bit O’ Heathers
Marcus Whitman Hotel
Out West Motel
Frazier Farmstead Museum
Milton-Freewater Golf Course