MILTON-FREEWATER — Wineries already flock to the Milton-Freewater area to plant their vineyards in its uniquely rocky soil. Now the city wants to ensure the wine industry stays in Milton-Freewater to make its product.
The Milton-Freewater City Council voted unanimously this week to accept a $230,000 grant from Business Oregon to conduct a market assessment and design feasibility study for a wine production and tasting room facility that could be shared by several wineries.
What spurred this project is a lopsided give-and-take relationship.
Although wine grapes have long been grown in Milton-Freewater, the fruit is often trucked north of the Oregon-Washington border to be produced in Walla Walla. When the wine is bottled and labeled, it’s attached to Walla Walla and not Milton-Freewater’s American Viticultural Area, The Rocks District.
According to a city staff report, Milton-Freewater previously sought grants from Business Oregon for a feasibility study for a wine production facility, but they narrowly missed selection.
“The missing link for the project was a private partner,” the report said.
That missing link came in the form of Willamette Valley Vineyards wanting to work with the city on the project, Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall said Thursday. The private partnership was discussed and established last September.
Willamette Valley Vineyards is based in rural Marion County with additional vineyards in Salem and Forest Grove. When Willamette bought 36 acres of property in the Milton-Freewater area in 2015, it was its first vineyard east of the Cascade Mountains.
Winery Director Christine Clair said Willamette had just started an initiative to identify new areas where they could source wine, and the Walla Walla Valley rose to the top.
That same year, the federal government approved The Rocks District as its own distinctive AVA. The Rocks gets its name from the cobbly soil that vintners and wine connoisseurs say gives the wine produced from the region a distinctive taste.
“Much of the story of The Rocks you really can’t grasp until you see it for yourself,” she said.
Willamette joined forces with Milton-Freewater on the wine production facility project in 2018, and with the state grant secured, the pair will now determine whether such a facility would work in the region.
Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall and City Planner Laurel Sweeney said concrete details like the cost of the facility and its location could be determined by the results of the studies. Hall said as soon as the agreement is fully approved by the state, the city will move ahead with a request for proposals to select a company to do the study.
Sweeney said there is demand among local wineries for a production facility and tasting room, adding that some winery owners have told her that they would use one immediately if they could.
If the facility comes to fruition, Hall said Milton-Freewater has no plans to go into the winemaking business.
While the city plans to assist with the development of the building, Hall said Willamette will run day-to-day operations of the shared-use facility.
Clair said the wines Willamette produces in The Rocks aren’t grown in large enough quantities to justify going it alone with its own production facility.
Additionally, Clair said Willamette doesn’t view the other wineries in Milton-Freewater as adversaries.
She said Milton-Freewater would be aided as a wine destination if a cluster of wineries were all successful in the area.