MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. – What is quickly developing into one of the Pacific Northwest’s most important new wine grape vineyard sites has a new winery partner.
Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., has purchased 42 acres of land in SeVein, a young but impressive Walla Walla Valley development that already is producing some of the world’s top red wines.
“We’re really happy to join them,” said Jim Bernau, founder and CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards. “They’re really on to something. We’ve been making warm-climate varieties from the Rogue Valley since 1996. We are absolutely convinced there’s another part of Oregon that has a lot to offer.”
Christine Collier, winery director for Willamette Valley Vineyards, told Great Northwest Wine that the SeVein property will be one of the foundation pieces of its newly formed Oregon Estate Vineyards.
“Jim is such an entrepreneur,” said Collier, who oversees production, direct sales and marketing. “He says this is his most rewarding and best time in the company. It took him 30 years to build this platform where we now have the resources and experience with vineyard sites and operations. He’s really energized.”
Oregon Estate Vineyards
Oregon Estate Vineyards will start out with two brands: Pambrun, which will be the SeVein project, and Elton, which will focus on Elton Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills.
Willamette Valley Vineyards has had a long-term lease on Elton since 2007 but has been using grapes from there since 1989. The 60-acre vineyard is owned by Dick and Betty O’Brien and was one of the most-prized vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley. Starting in 2007, Bernau began purchasing some of the surrounding land and began planting in 2013.
That same year, winemaker Isabelle Meunier left Evening Land Vineyards. Bernau hired her to provide consulting services on the new plantings near Elton.
“From that, we’ve developed a deep relationship with her,” Collier said.
Collier said Meunier informed Bernau that she was interested in doing her own project, so Bernau quickly became an investor. Meunier also will make the wine for the Elton project.
SeVein’s history in Walla Walla Valley
SeVein, which includes historic Seven Hills Vineyard, is in the southern Walla Walla Valley, not far from the town of Milton-Freewater. For years, the vineyard developments have involved some of Washington state’s most famous winemakers, including Gary and Chris Figgins (Leonetti Cellar), Marty Clubb (L’Ecole No. 41), Casey McClellan (Seven Hills Winery) and Norm McKibben (Pepper Bridge Winery).
Until 2004, an intriguing piece of nearby land was planted to wheat by Mormon families. Because of the nature of wine grape growing and its resulting alcoholic products, the owners of the land had no interest in selling it when they were approached by the owners of Seven Hills Vineyard. But in 2004, the land came up for sale, and a group of investors led by McKibben orchestrated the acquisition through a blind cash offer.
SeVein is 2,700 acres in size, and there is enough water to plant 1,527 acres – which would effectively double the amount of acreage in the bi-state Walla Walla Valley.
SeVein has some of the most fascinating soils in the Pacific Northwest. While most of the Columbia Valley is on top of basalt bedrock from lava flows that took place 15 million years ago, SeVein is on fractured basalt that allows vines to work their way down.
“I’ve looked very carefully at the soil structure – if you want to call it that,” Bernau said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Elevation also is a plus. In the Walla Walla Valley, frost damage is a regular occurrence because of its position against the Blue Mountains to the east. Lower-elevation vineyards are especially prone to freezes and frosts, but SeVein starts at 850 feet at the bottom of Seven Hills Vineyard and rises to 1,480 feet at the top of Ferguson Vineyard, which is owned by L’Ecole No. 41’s Clubb.
Early successes for SeVein grapes, wines
Wineries such as Doubleback (owned by retired NFL star Drew Bledsoe), Cadaretta and Leonetti quickly began to notice the high quality of fruit coming out of SeVein’s young vines. All of this thinking was quickly solidified a year ago, when L’Ecole No. 41’s 2011 Ferguson Vineyard red blend was named the top wine for Bordeaux varieties over £15 at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards in London.
That wine, using grapes from just four years after the vines were planted, was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Nearly a year later, Clubb is still stunned by the award.
“These are young vines,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “Usually, you have to wait through the adolescent period of your vine growth to really say, ‘Man, we’ve got really solid quality.’ But we’re seeing solid quality on fourth- and fifth-leaf fruit.”
This was the first release of the new Ferguson Vineyard wine from those young grapes, and it came from the cool and difficult 2011 vintage.
“It really showed that basalt minerality,” Clubb said. “I’m convinced the judges thought they had a real Bordeaux on their hands.”
L’Ecole’s victory spurred a lot of interest in SeVein. In December, Betz Family Winery owner Steve Griessel announced he was buying vineyard property in SeVein – though he’d already inked the deal before L’Ecole’s Decanter award.
A month later, Collier was sniffing around the Walla Walla Valley, spurred on by the success she saw at SeVein.
“I got in Norm McKibben’s car in the second week of January and drove around for two hours,” she said.
She and Bernau were then encouraged by Chris Figgins, as well as Clubb.
“They have the same collaboration and same spirit as we see here in the Willamette Valley,” she said. “We had our offer in by February, and we closed on the property in early spring.”
SeVein, Pambrun part of Bernau legacy
In addition to the idea of expanding his holdings, Bernau also has a deep and personal relationship with the Walla Walla Valley. His fifth grandfather was Pierre-Chrysologue Pambrun, a French-Canadian born in Quebec who emigrated to the Walla Walla Valley in 1832 to work at Fort Nez Perces for the Hudson’s Bay Co., his employer since 1815. He first crossed paths with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836 – 11 years before they were killed by native tribes in the Walla Walla Valley.
In 1839, Pambrun was promoted to chief trader. He died in 1841 after being injured while riding a horse. He was cared for during the four days leading up to his death by Narcissa Whitman.
“It’s wonderful to go back to where my roots are,” Bernau said. “It’s a fascinating pilgrimage. It’s wonderful to go to the archives in Whitman College and read the diaries from my family.”
There’s even a trench in Seven Hills Vineyard dug by the Hudson’s Bay Co.
The Pambrun wines will be made by Jon Meuret of Maison Bleue, and the wines will likely be made at Artifex, a custom-crush facility near downtown Walla Walla. Ultimately, Bernau wants to build a winemaking facility and tasting room on the property at SeVein.
In addition to the 42 acres Bernau has purchased, he also holds first right of refusal on an additional 45 acres.
“It’s another parcel that intrigues us,” Collier said. “We don’t really need it for production, but we’re keeping it as an option.”
Willamette Valley Vineyards has until the end of 2016 to decide whether it will purchase the additional 45 acres.
Meanwhile, Bernau doesn’t plan to plant grapes at Pambrun until 2016, partly because there is a severe shortage of grape plant material, but also because he wants to prep the land for a year before he plants it to red Bordeaux varieties.
SeVein helping bring Washington, Oregon together
For decades, the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley has been no-man’s land, even though some of its most important vineyard plantings have been there. Seven Hills Winery was located in Milton-Freewater for years before Casey and Vicky McClellan moved their winery to downtown Walla Walla more than a decade ago.
Clubb said that between SeVein and The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater (a new American Viticultural Area approved earlier this year), the Oregon wine industry is taking a greater interest in the southern Walla Walla Valley.
“For the longest period of time, the Oregon side was somewhat forgotten,” Clubb said. “And now it seems to be a territory that both Washington and Oregon are promoting. So it’s going from no attention to double attention.”
Bernau, whose publicly traded company posted a 2015 first-quarter profit, was quick to agree.
“It has taken time for us to recognize this part of Oregon,” he said. “There’s been a very quiet but studied approach to what’s happening there. There’s a lot of cross-fertilization going on right now. There could be some very interesting collaborations that will eventually become public. Not only is the Willamette Valley looking at the Walla Walla Valley, but Washington winemakers also are stomping around our hillsides.”
Regardless of how Bernau arrived in the Walla Walla Valley, Clubb said he’s excited to have him in the neighborhood.
“It was always clear to me that Jim was a leader, and it didn’t take him long to realize what an opportunity there was at SeVein,” Clubb said. “He was very quick to make a decision and move forward on it. We’re really excited to have him here as part of that growing collection of estates.”