Rocks region pioneer Christophe Baron didn\u2019t set out to discover a new wine-growing territory when he first moved to the Walla Walla Valley from his native France in 1993. In fact, he didn\u2019t really look to live in the Walla Walla Valley, which straddles the Oregon-Washington border, at all.\r\n\r\n\u201cBeing crazy about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy, my goal really was to work in the Willamette Valley,\u201d he says. But the only job he could find there was working harvest.\r\n\r\nWhen a friend told him about a longer-term position opening up in Walla Walla, he did what any person might do in those pre-internet days. He looked at an atlas.\r\n\r\n\u201cI looked at Walla Walla, and I looked at the Willamette Valley, and said, \u2018Sure,\u2019 \u201d he recalls. \u201cI thought it was very close. I figured I\u2019d be going to the Willamette Valley every weekend.\u201d\r\n\r\nWhat Baron didn\u2019t realize at the time, however, was that the two areas are more than five hours apart.\r\n\u201cI didn\u2019t know anybody. I didn\u2019t have any equipment. I came with all of my savings, and thankfully, I was able to get some vines. I was starting really from scratch as a French guy coming to Walla Walla.\u201d \u2014Christophe Baron\r\n\u201cMy first weekend off, I drove my convertible from Walla Walla to the Willamette Valley, and I realized for the first time how big the country was,\u201d he says with a laugh.\r\n\r\nBaron spent a year there, followed by a series of stints in the Willamette Valley, Australia and New Zealand. In the spring of 1996, he returned to the U.S. to purchase land in the Willamette Valley\u2019s Dundee Hills. On the way, he made a fateful stop back in Walla Walla.\r\n\r\n\u201cEverywhere I went, I brought my French wine atlas,\u201d Baron says. \u201cI showed a friend the stones of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape. He said, \u2018I know where there\u2019s stones like that.\u2019\u201d\r\n\r\nBaron was intrigued. Early the next morning, he and his friend made the 20-minute drive down to the town of Milton-Freewater, on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. They came to a field littered with cobblestones.\r\n\r\n\u201cI bent over and grabbed a few stones and said, \u2018Well, this is it,\u2019 \u201d says Baron. \u201cI knew right then I was going to buy the land and plant a vineyard.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nRocky beginnings\r\nBaron\u2019s knowledge of the stones of Ch\u00e2teauneuf-du-Pape and experience with cobblestone soils in New Zealand told him he was on to something.\r\n\r\n\u201cI knew I had something special in front of me,\u201d he says. \u201cI knew that the stones would produce great fruit and be able to create great wines.\u201d\r\n\r\nNot everyone was so sure.\r\n\r\n\u201cI remember many people saying, \u2018I don\u2019t think he knows what he\u2019s doing.\u2019 \u201d says Richard Funk, owner of Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla. \u201cPeople thought he was crazy.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nThe area, which would later come to be referred to as The Rocks, is a former riverbed of the Walla Walla River. The soil is studded with fist-sized basalt cobblestones washed down from the Blue Mountains to the east. Long known for its apple and cherry orchards, wine grapes hadn\u2019t been planted in the area for generations.\r\n\r\nPlanting the vines wasn\u2019t easy. The rocky soil required 50-pound crowbars to pry through the stones.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt was a lot of work,\u201d says Baron. \u201cI didn\u2019t know anybody. I didn\u2019t have any equipment. I came with all of my savings, and thankfully, I was able to get some vines. I was starting really from scratch as a French guy coming to Walla Walla.\u201d\r\n\r\nAt his first vineyard, Baron focused on Syrah.\r\n\r\n\u201cThat was the new thing at the time in Washington,\u201d says Baron. \u201cAnd I knew that it would grow well there, because Syrah transpires terroir.\u201d\r\n\r\nInitially, people didn\u2019t support Baron\u2019s efforts, but opinions changed once they tried his early wines.\r\n\r\n\u201cWhen I tasted those first Syrahs, I thought,\u2009\u2018It must be some French technique,\u2019\u2009\u201d says Funk. \u201cThere was an aromatic profile that was so different and so unique from anything else that I was tasting.\u201d\r\n\r\nBaron\u2019s wines inspired more people to plant vineyards in The Rocks, which Baron prefers to call The Stones. The area would become known for its distinctive aroma and flavor profile.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cTypically, when people talk about wine, they talk about the fruit,\u201d says Trey Busch, winemaker and co-owner of Sleight of Hand Cellars in Walla Walla. \u201cWell, fruit is like the eighth or ninth adjective when you\u2019re smelling Rocks wines. It\u2019s all savory characteristics. It\u2019s meat and brine and olive and saline and mineral and bacon fat.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe wines are also notable for an earthy quality initially referred to as \u201cCayuse funk,\u201d after Baron\u2019s first winery, Cayuse Vineyards. Now, it\u2019s simply known as \u201cRocks funk.\u201d The naturally high pH gives the wines a distinct mouthfeel.\r\n\r\n\u201cThey\u2019re soft and silky and plush and lush,\u201d says Chad Johnson, co-owner and winemaker at Dusted Valley Vineyards. \u201cVery hedonistic.\u201d\r\nThe Science of Stony Soils\r\nWhy exactly are these wines so distinctive? It\u2019s the stones, of course.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt is a fundamentally different soil type than the surrounding agricultural area,\u201d says Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, and head of VinTerra, a vineyard consulting service. \u201cMost of the surrounding soils are granitic in nature.\r\n\r\n\u201cBecause the Rocks and the surrounding soil are derived from basalt, the soils are much higher in iron, magnesium and titanium,\u201d he explained. \u201cSo it\u2019s chemically different, it\u2019s texturally different and it\u2019s also excessively drained, because it\u2019s pretty much all coarse-grained material.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nPogue says that the rocks have unique thermal properties, too, their dark color absorbing the sun\u2019s heat and transmitting it into the deeper layers of the soil. This leads to an earlier budbreak than the surrounding areas of the valley.\r\n\r\nThe stones also radiate heat up toward grape clusters during the day.\r\n\r\n\u201cI measured temperatures in grape clusters in grapes trellised a couple of feet above the rocks, and the grapes get considerably warmer than grapes trellised two feet above grass-covered vineyards in the surrounding hills,\u201d says Pogue.\r\n\r\nThat contributes to the unique ripeness and structure obtained in the region\u2019s wines.\r\n\u201cIt was my desire to make it the most terroir-driven appellation in the country.\u201d \u2014Kevin Pogue\r\nWhile Rocks Syrahs have telltale aromatic and flavor characteristics, the wines also show some intriguing variations. These differences are best explored through the single-vineyard Syrahs that Baron produces for his three wineries, Cayuse Vineyards, No Girls and Horsepower Vineyards.\r\n\r\n\u201cFor me, it\u2019s all about each site and the personality and individuality of each site,\u201d says Baron. \u201cThat has been my goal since Day One. That\u2019s what I am completely obsessed by.\u201d\r\nHarnessing the Terroir\r\nThough The Rocks are distinctive and capable of making wine of stratospheric quality\u2014more than 50 of Baron\u2019s wines have earned 95 points or more from Wine Enthusiast\u2014working there presents challenges.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s very expensive to plant and farm in the area,\u201d says Funk. \u201cYou\u2019re beating the tar out of your equipment, and it\u2019s hard on your people.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nJohnson agrees. \u201cEverything is literally almost twice as hard, because you can\u2019t drill anything and it\u2019s hard to drive posts. Everything costs that much more.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe area is also susceptible to spring and fall frosts and hard winter freezes. As a result, wind machines, which help prevent frost damage, are common, and some growers bury vine canes to protect them from harsh winters.\r\n\r\nWhile Syrah is unquestionably the star, varieties like Grenache, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon have also excelled.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe Grenache is more distinctive than anywhere else in the world,\u201d says Baron. \u201cIt\u2019s completely unique.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn 2015, The Rocks area was awarded its own appellation, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area (AVA),\u00a0named after the closest town. A subappellation of the Walla Walla Valley that\u2019s wholly contained in Oregon, the 3,767-acre area now has 300 acres under vine.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\u201cIt was my desire to make it the most terroir-driven appellation in the country,\u201d says Pogue, who was contracted to write the AVA application by a group of local winery and vineyard owners. \u201cIt\u2019s 97 percent one soil series. It\u2019s remarkably consistent in terms of soils, aspect, slope and elevation\u2014all of the principle characteristics that come together to make terroir.\u201d\r\n\r\nWhile dozens of other producers now make wines from The Rocks, Baron has a years-long waiting list to purchase his wines. Still, he continues to innovate.\r\n\r\nFor his recent Horsepower Vineyards project, the vines are planted at three-foot intervals, which makes for a vine density of 4,840 vines per acre. That far outdistances the 1,000 vines per acre that\u2019s typical in the Northwest. Because of the tight spacing, the rows are ploughed by draft horse.\r\n\r\n\u201cI am always trying to push the boundaries,\u201d says Baron. \u201cPush and push and push and push. Trying to really see how far we can go in terms of creating true vin de terroir, a wine of terroir.\u201d\r\n\r\nNow, 20 years in, Baron believes he\u2019s just getting started.\r\n\r\n\u201cAs a vigneron, I\u2019ve just scratched the surface. For me, the wines are very good, but they can be so much better.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nRock Out With These Bottles\r\nHorsepower 2013 The Tribe Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $120, 96 points. This wine is aromatically brooding but precise, with notes of umami, black olive, smoked ham, crushed violets, funk and peat. The flavors are hefty and concentrated\u2014with notes of fire pit and wet stone\u2014while showing earth-shaking depth and intensity. The finish stretches out as long as you care to count. This is a complete knee buckler.\r\n\r\nCayuse 2013 Cailloux Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $80, 95 points. The aromas are perfumed and expressive, with notes of crushed flowers, brown stems, black olive, sea salt, smoked meat and funk. The flavors are dense and intense, but still with a silky feel. It\u2019s a classic example of this producer, with a finish that just won\u2019t quit. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nDelmas 2014 SJR Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $65, 94 points. Viognier makes up just over 8% of this wine and it shows itself with perfumed aromas of flowers and orange peel, along with brown stems, freshly ground herb, black olive, mineral and whiffs of smoked meat. The palate is all about texture and layers, while never losing its exquisite sense of balance, gliding on the extended finish. Superb stuff, with an emphasis on elegance.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nK Vintners 2013 Rock Garden Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 94 points. Coming off The Rocks District, this wine displays high-toned aromas of brown stems, crushed violets and black pepper along with a light meat and olive streak. The flavors are poised and layered, showing a mixture of red and black fruits with abundant savory accents. The crazy-long finish flat out impresses.\r\n\r\nNo Girls 2013 La Paciencia Vineyard Grenache (Walla Walla Valley); $75, 94 points. The aromas pop with notes of fresh flowers, smoked meat, stems, mineral, smoke, white pepper and an earthy funk. The flavors dance on the palate, with mouthwatering fruit and savory notes that lead to an outrageously long finish. It\u2019s equal parts elegance and intensity.\r\n\r\nSaviah 2013 The Funk Estate Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 94 points. The aromas of this wine pop, with notes of fresh flowers, green herbs, olive brine, coffee, grilled asparagus, gravel and a touch of smoked meat lurking in the background. The fruit and savory flavors are plush and palate-coating in feel, with floral and smoked meat notes persisting on the finish. It\u2019s a very pretty interpretation of the area, with a compelling sense of balance. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nLa Rata 2013 Red (Walla Walla Valley); $70, 93 points. Grenache takes the lead, making up 60% of this wine, which was co-fermented with Cabernet. Generous aromas of earth, white pepper, herbs, flowers, funk, smoked salt and crushed strawberry lead to a palate chock-full of smoked meat and savory flavors. It shows a beautiful sense of elegance and grace that belies the richness and length of the fruit and savory flavors. Editors\u2019 Choice.\r\n\r\nDusted Valley 2014 Tall Tales Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 92 points. Coming from the winery\u2019s estate vineyard in The Rocks District, this aromatic brooder shows notes of crushed flowers, wet stone, orange peel, brown stems and dark fruit, along with light smoked meat accents. The palate boasts generous fruit and savory flavors that linger on the finish.\r\n\r\nProper 2014 Estate Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $48, 92 points. The aromas jump up, with mesmerizing notes of fresh herbs, green olive, violets, orange peel, smoked meat and huckleberry. The palate shows a light but pillowy texture alongside flavors that carry on the finish. It\u2019s all about subtlety.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nReynvaan 2013 In the Rocks Vineyard Estate Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $70, 92 points. The aromas pop with notes of wet gravel, mineral, funk, olive tapenade and high-toned flowers. The flavors are palate coating yet light and restrained, with generous savory and umami flavors that draw out on the finish. It has a very pretty sense of texture and precision\u2014all about elegance.\r\n\r\nSleight of Hand 2014 The Psychedelic Stoney Vine Vineyard Estate Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 92 points. Coming off The Rocks District, this wine displays somewhat reserved notes of ember, smoked meat, green olive, wet stone and smoke, leaning hard into the savory. The charcuterie, smoke and licorice flavors coat the palate, stretching out on the finish.\r\n\r\nButy 2013 Rediviva of the Stones Rockgarden Estate Red (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 91 points. A blend of Syrah (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (14%) and Mourv\u00e8dre, this opens with aromas of wet gravel, herb, smoke, funk, nori and black olive that are followed by plentiful, soft, generous savory flavors that bring a lot of intensity and appeal. The finish lingers.