MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. — It was the first week in June, and Casey McClellan picked up a scent he’s known most of his life.
“You smell that smell?” he asked. “It’s a unique time of year. That sweetness in the air means it’s full bloom. It’s just a beautiful, sweet note.”
A walk through the historic plantings for the original Seven Hills Vineyard comes with signs noting the exclusive list of customers. L’Ecole No. 41. Pepper Bridge Winery. Leonetti Cellar. Seven Hills Winery.
Sometimes for some reason, Seven Hills Winery is not mentioned among those other stalwarts, but McClellan’s wines speak for themselves in blind judgings. Maybe now more than ever.
In the past eight months, Seven Hills Winery has earned Great Northwest Wine’s top rating of “Outstanding!” in blind judgings a remarkable six times. The list includes McClellan’s 2013 Old Vines Riesling, 2014 Pinot Gris, 2014 Dry Rosé, 2012 Carménère, 2013 McClellan Estate Vineyard Malbec and 2013 Merlot. It’s no coincidence that McClellan excels with Merlot, a variety he’s been working with since 1982 at the original Seven Hills Vineyard.
“In this oldest section with Leonetti, we split the Merlot and Cab 50/50,” McClellan said. “That’s been that way for 27 vintages now.”
The vineyard was established in 1981 by a pair of local physicians — Herb Hendricks and James McClellan. Dr. McClellan’s son, Casey, helped plant the vines.
“It was a handshake deal, and they were old friends,” McClellan said. “We established it, developed it and owned it for 15 years. There really have only been two managers of this property — Scott Hendricks until ’95 and Tom Waliser from ’95 through today.”
Original site divides into Seven Hills, Windrow vineyards
Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge purchased the eastern portion of Seven Hills Vineyard from Hendricks. What is now referred to as Seven Hills West Vineyard is managed by Waliser for Hancock Farmland Services, headquartered in Turlock, Calif. The Hendricks family held onto the other portion, renamed it Windrow Vineyard and sold it to Mike Tembreull and Doug Roskelley of TERO Estates in 2007.
“Back in the late ’70s/early ’80s, this was pretty remote, and try to imagine no other vineyard out here. Zero,” McClellan said. “There’s been a lot of change.”
In retrospect, the founding partners can now be viewed as pioneers.
“The original guys had great vision,” McClellan said. “It took a lot of guts to plant Bordeaux reds in 1980, and they did plant Riesling and Gewurz on this side. That got ripped out in the mid-’80s. They just liked red wine; Leonetti had just gotten into production, and they tasted what Gary (Figgins) was doing, and thought, ‘This is great.’ ”
And they wisely took advantage of the intermediary bench that sits above the The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area on the valley floor but below the cooler hills.
“There’s this perfect bench. There’s beautiful light exposure, and the magical thing that they didn’t know about was the wind-driven heat effect,” McClellan said. “You gain 2-3 degrees, on average, and while it doesn’t sound like much, it brings your season forward. A little more heat in the Walla Walla Valley is not a bad thing at all.”
“One of the exciting things about Walla Walla today is we’ve learned about the different mesoclimates and microclimates, and you can begin assembling a whole AVA wine with a broader range of components,” he said. “It’s a different game that it was 20 years ago. The majority of the fruit in ’95 was Seven Hills Vineyard, maybe a little bit of Pepper Bridge — it had just gotten started — Waterbrook had planted a vineyard and Woodward Canyon.”
McClellan switches from pharmacist to vintner
Casey McClellan grew up with in a home where good grades, quality wines and hard work were appreciated.
“We had wine in our home during those years, and Dad wanted to get back into farming. They had both gone to medical school and wanted to get back to the farm, but they didn’t want to grow wheat,” McClellan said with a chuckle. “They were done with that. They both worked very hard on farms as children, so they wanted to do something a little more fun — and that was wine grapes.
“They could see the future, and Herb was a great visionary,” McClellan added. “My dad lended more discipline and operational steadiness to anchor that vision into something that actually happened. It was a great combination. They worked well together.”
At the beginning, Casey was a pharmacy student at the University of Washington who would come home to Walla Walla and work harvest of various crops in the valley. He had an early appreciation for whites from the Mosel, and he’d recently experienced a bottle of late 1970s Cabernet Sauvignon from Robert Mondavi, but the summer of ’82 — his senior year — proved to be a bellwether.
“Dad and Herb said, ‘Why don’t you come out and help us plant a Merlot block,” Casey said. “This was in ’82, and that sounded like a lot of fun. Well, June 1 it was 100 degrees. I had done a lot of studying as time had gone by, and after working out here that summer, I said, ‘This is a great business,’ so I went and got a winemaking degree.”
Seven Hills Road leads to Seven Hills Vineyard
Those definitive Merlot vines were planted near Seven Hills Road, so they named the vineyard — and later the winery — accordingly. It would become the second winery in the valley to use a road as its moniker, following the path of Woodward Canyon.
“Back in those days, there were no road signs, so they had to ask a state trooper, ‘What’s this road called?’ and he said, ‘I think it’s called Seven Hills Road,’ “McClellan said. “Lo and behold in the late ’90s, when we finally got road signs, they read, ‘Seven Hills Road.’ ”
McClellan spent two years at the University of California-Davis, a year in Portugal and returned home as the first in the Walla Walla Valley with a winemaking degree. Seven Hills Winery became the valley’s fifth bonded winery, following the footsteps of Gary Figgins (Leonetti), Rick Small (Woodward Canyon), Baker and Jean Ferguson (L’Ecole) and Eric Rindal (Waterbrook).
“We started the winery in ’88 out at Waterbrook,” McClellan said. “Everyone was very generous and welcoming. We spent a couple of vintages there before we went to Milton-Freewater.
“And then — this is unique in our industry — back to Washington state,” McClellan added with a laugh. “If we had known back in the early ’80s where the center of the industry would be.”
Seven Hills Winery moved to downtown Walla Walla and adjacent to Whitehouse-Crawford. It immediately became one of the Pacific Northwest’s best examples of how wineries and restaurants complement each other.
Pride in Walla Walla growing ‘organically’
While McClellan was the first college-trained winemaker in the Walla Walla Valley, there continued to be a collegial feel to the region, and the founding winemakers staged regular tastings and discussions.
“I love that it developed organically from the people and the land,” he said. “It wasn’t like people were parachuting in to start a wine industry here. It was all local farmers or people who had been deeply involved in the community for a long time.”
He’s been trailblazing winemaker along the way, too, credited with becoming the first in the state to bottle Tempranillo and the first in the Walla Walla Valley to do the same with Malbec along his way to an annual production of 25,000 cases.
The progression and style of the wines McClellan develops with 30 years of winemaking knowledge shows elegance and balance. As the vines along Seven Hills Road have matured, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon from cuttings off Sagemoor Vineyards, so has the style of Seven Hills Winery.
“A little more restrained use of oak and not harvesting so late,” he said. “I think the wines have more complexity and a red flavor range that you get by picking a bit earlier. In the early years, I’d try to get everything we possibly can out of this grape with extraction. In the mid-’90s, I started backing off.”
And those original Merlot vines continue to soldier on despite some devastating winter events.
“We’ve retrained them at least four times over the years — maybe five,” he said.