Seven Hills Winery uses Oregon wine to shine in Walla Walla

By on September 30, 2015
Casey McClellan and his wife, Vicky, founded Seven Hills Winery in 1988. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Casey McClellan and his wife, Vicky, founded Seven Hills Winery in 1988. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Establishment of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area by the federal government has created an identity crisis in the Walla Walla Valley, and perhaps no one knows more about that than Casey and Vicky McClellan of Seven Hills Winery.

More than 35 years ago, the McClellans helped establish Seven Hills Vineyard near Milton-Freewater, Ore., and later spent a decade creating wine for their Seven Hills Winery label in a former bomb shelter. However, while the McClellans were making wine from one of the most acclaimed vineyards in the Pacific Northwest, their place in the industry was confusing, especially for wine publications.

“We went through this 10-year process of making wine on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley,” Vicky told Great Northwest Wine. “We would submit the wines, and then we’d hear, ‘Well, you’re not a Washington winery, but you are making Washington varietals, so we’re going to put you in the Washington issue.

“So then the Washington issue would come out, and there would be no Seven Hills,” she continued. “They would tell us, ‘We decided to put you in Oregon.’ And then the Oregon issue would come out, and we wouldn’t be there either. So I guess we didn’t really train ourselves to submit for reviews.”

Acclaim follows Seven Hills from Milton-Freewater

Seven Hills Winery shares a brick building with Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, just a block from the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Seven Hills Winery shares a brick building with Whitehouse-Crawford Restaurant, just a block from the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel in downtown Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Those experiences and frustrations might explain why Seven Hills Winery missed out on some of the media attention that helped burnish the reputation of those first wineries associated with Walla Walla — Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole No. 41 and Waterbrook.

“I remember being at events in the early years standing next to L’Ecole and they would be pouring their Seven Hills Vineyard wines, and I’d pour my Red Mountain wines,” Vicky said. “I was an Oregon winery pouring Washington fruit.”

In some instances, the provenance of those wines was the same, but the stories for those Walla Walla wineries were easier to tell. And wine tourists didn’t need to drive south of the stateline to taste those wines.

“We left Milton-Freewater in 2000, and after we left, other wineries started moving in,” Casey McClellan said. “We’re not self-conscious about that, but were people waiting for us leave?” he added with a chuckle.

The McClellans made a wise choice. Seven Hills Winery moved into a historic brick building with one of the Pacific Northwest’s first wine-country restaurants, Whitehouse-Crawford. And a recent library tasting continues to prove that Casey McClellan’s early efforts — his first two vintages were crushed at Eric Rindal’s Waterbrook Winery in Lowden — were worthy of more attention than they received from those perplexed publications.

And these days, Casey can smile as he recalls some of the novel features of that vinification facility in Milton-Freewater, which he and Vicky leased from a local food processing company.

“You went into the basement into the old fallout shelter, which is Watermill Winery now, and they still had some of the old equipment there — the bicycle-driven ventilator fan, drums you could put water in and some very stale crackers,” he said with laugh.

Pentad blend leads to McClellan Estate Vineyard

Some of the fascinating geology that's a part of the wines from McClellan Estate Vineyard is on display in the tasting room at Seven Hills Winery in downtown Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman)

Some of the fascinating geology behind the wines Casey McClellan makes from vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley are displayed in the tasting room at Seven Hills Winery in downtown Walla Walla, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The move to downtown Walla Walla has allowed Seven Hills Winery to increase annual production to 25,000 cases. Back in 2000, however, the McClellans were just happy to have room to create their Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Wine and Meritage-style Pentad.

“It wasn’t until we moved into this building that we had to space to do the two blends,” Vicky said.

This year, Seven Hills Winery released a dozen bottlings to customers, and it plans to add one more to the lineup — the 2013 Artz Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It serves as a tribute to the late Fred Artz, vineyard manager at Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain prior to establishing his site.

“It was a joy working with Fred for all those years at Klipsun,” he said. “He was pretty old-school, but he grew kick-ass fruit and did so pretty consistently.”

While the McClellans maintain ties to Red Mountain, their underlying passion is McClellan Estate Vineyard, a site managed by Leonard Brown as part of a long-standing partnership with Earl Brown & Sons, Inc. in Milton-Freewater.

“Our vision was that we would plant a vineyard you could make Pentad from and be 100 percent estate,” Casey McClellan said while standing in McClellan Estate Vineyard. “The only thing we don’t have here is Carménère.”

The 80-acre parcel adjacent to Seven Hills Vineyard was established in 2003 and is gradually being transitioned from apples to wine grapes. This year, they expanded the vineyard section to 25 acres by planting 5 more acres of Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We been working together since 1979 as families,” he said. “We’re the second generation. It started with my dad and Earl Brown — Leonard and Ron’s father.”

So what about some Carm for McClellan Estate Vineyard?

“I’ve been thinking about Carménère more and more,” he said. “I know there is a strong market for Cab, and I have to think about both the winery and farm. I may try to drop in an acre of Carménère at some point. I’m thinking about apples for there, but we might be able to push in an acre of Carménère. That would give me all six Bordeaux reds and a bit more flexibility on blending the reds.”

Seven Hills Winery library tasting notes

A library tasting at Seven Hills Winery offers a look into the rich history of winemaking by Casey McClellan. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

A library tasting at Seven Hills Winery offers a look into the rich history of winemaking by Casey McClellan. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Seven Hills Winery 2002 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot, Walla Walla Valley: McClellan’s work with Merlot in the Walla Walla Valley can be described as historic in many aspects. It starts with these Merlot vines he planted in 1982, which inspired him to ultimately abandon his University of Washington degree in pharmacy. His technical notes described the 2002 vintage as “a moderately warm ripening period and rain-free harvest weather.” He chose a barrel regimen of French, Russian and American oak, which helped create a wine that — more than a decade later — oozes with finesse. Black currant jam, sage, ground savory and minerally aromas are realized on the palate. Tannins slowly emerge on the second pass as the finish focuses on black cherry, Craisins and more savory notes. It wouldn’t be difficult to convince someone this was a 2012 Merlot rather than a 13-year-old wine.

Seven Hills Winery 2002 Pentad Vintage Red Wine, Walla Walla: The term “suspended animation” came up during the discussion of this edition of McClellan’s coveted Meritage-style red. He led with Cabernet Sauvignon (62%) and built support using Merlot (12%), Malbec (12%) and Petit Verdot (4%) while reaching for Carménère (10%) rather than Cabernet Franc. The wine is 13 years old and would only now seem to be on the threshold of adulthood. Fruity aromas of Damson plum, black currant and Marionberry taffy pick up hints of lime, lilac and minerality. This vintage followed up the 2001 debut of Pentad, and, as with the 2002 Merlot, the theme is one of finesse as flavors of Bing cherry and lavender make for a remarkable drink. Pentad remains 100 percent Walla Walla Valley and it is not produced each year. In fact, no Pentad was released in the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011. The McClellans recently released the 2012 Pentad, but they’ve already chosen to declassify the 2013. Winemaker notes: “It’s about charm and seduction and intensity of flavor and aromatics and length and breadth,” Casey said. “It shouldn’t overwhelm you. It should sort of draw you into the center. And it doesn’t age in a linear way. … I’ve heard Pentad called, ‘The Pinot lover’s Bordeaux blend.”

Seven Hills Winery 2001 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Vintage Red Wine, Red Mountain: This marked the beginning of McClellan’s association with Jim Holmes’ storied site, and the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot received barrel aging in French oak. The nose offered hints of dried strawberry and raspberry with cinnamon bark, cedar and concrete. Its structure fits the age-worthy model of Red Mountain reds as bright flavors of red currant and Montmorency lead the way and while the tannins have begun to settle in for the ride, there’s still lots of time to travel. This was the second vintage made in Walla Walla, but there was little media attention upon release for the debut of this blend. Winemaker notes: “Both of these blends are middle-aged. I think the Pentad has a slight longevity edge right now.”

Seven Hills Winery 2005 Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley: The youngest wine poured during this research tasting, its platform of the French oak barrels from Seguin Moreau, a style first developed for Château Haut-Brion, stood out front and center in the nose as chai spices, toast and patchouli lead to black cherry taffy. Those barrel notes are pushed into the background on the palate black cherry, Marionberry and black currant make for a juicy fruit profile and savory finish. And the structure would suggest more life ahead. Winemaker notes: “There’s more fruit in the nose,” he said. “There’s probably an element of barrel selection in there. Starting in 2001 with Seven Hills Vineyard — the Cab, the Merlot and Pentad — we started working some with Haut Brion-made barrels, but only Pentad was 100 percent aged in them. The Haut Brion barrel has a unique signature — an anise/licorice and fennel family components to that barrel. It’s a very integrating, very rounding oak style. It’s not aggressive. Also, Pentad is heavily weighted toward that Seven Hills Vineyard area, so you are looking at a lot of common terroir in there as well.”

Seven Hills Winery 1995 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley: The McClellans began purchasing grapes from Patricia Gelles in 1991, seven years after Klipsun Vineyard was established. Washington wine historians may recall that the federal government did not establish the Red Mountain AVA until 2001, and rather than use the Yakima Valley AVA, McClellan instead chose “Columbia Valley.” He noted that 1995 was a cool vintage and chose a program of French and Russian oak. One of the striking notes to this 20-year-old beauty is the lack of bottle bouquet as the theme carries notes of cassis, sage, soy sauce, ground savory and minerality. Adding to the enjoyment is the finish of cherry taffy. Winemaker comments: “When I got back up here in 1988, within a year or two I tasted some Klipsun Cab. Coming out of California with Rutherford Bench Cab firmly in my mind, when I tasted the Klipsun it was so different than anything else in Washington than I had tasted at the time,” said Casey, who received a master’s degree in winemaking from University of California-Davis. “It had that Rutherford Bench dustiness and was pretty distinctive. It has been a great site every since.”

Seven Hills Winery 1994 Seven Hills Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley: Entering its third decade of life, this displays its age more than the product from Klipsun. Aromatics of crushed brick, white pepper, charcuterie, ground savory and — again — minerality transition to a much more fruit on the palate, which brings Van cherry, dried cranberry and a pinch of white pepper.

Seven Hills Winery 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley

A tasting of 20-year-old wines indicates the age-worthy characteristics of Casey McClellan's work at Seven Hills Winery, which he launched in 1989. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

A tasting of 20-year-old wines indicates the age-worthy characteristics of Casey McClellan’s work at Seven Hills Winery, which he launched in 1988. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The McClellans founded their winery the year prior to this bottling, which provided context to the tasting and served as a touchstone to their work. Heck, the press they used to make this wine stands in their conference room, serving almost as an artifact. However, it still gets pressed into service for some small lots.

“This is the insurance policy,” Vicky said with a smile. “We used to have two of them, but we let one of them go to another winery.”

They made their 1988 wines in Lowden at Waterbrook, and this also was crushed at Eric Rindal’s winery, but the 1989 vintage was finished in Milton-Freewater at the one-time bomb shelter. That site has been transformed by the Browns into award-winning Watermill Winery and the Blue Mountain Cider Co., one of the country’s largest cider producers.

It’s 100 percent Cab from vines the McClellan and Hendricks families planted in 1980, and it stays true to the variety in a way that so many 21st century interpretations of the grape — at least in the U.S. — do not. The barrel regime was of American and French oak, and what this wine now offers are notes of black cherry candy, cherry pipe tobacco, candela leaf and earthiness of porcini mushroom. There’s still tannin and ample acidity left on its skeleton, keeping it very much alive. It’s a drink of history, a living example of Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington and serving as a window into the wine industry as it began to combine viticulture with farming.

Winemaker notes: “I find it the most intriguing wine of the bunch. It’s not the most exuberant, but it’s got this menthol note and soy underneath with this sweet palate that finishes dry. That sweetness is so secondary,” Casey said.

Vicky added, “You still say ’89 was your favorite year.”

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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