WALLA WALLA, Wash. – A lot has changed for Casey and Vicky McClellan in the past 34 years.
They helped plant one of the Walla Walla Valley’s original vineyards. They helped launched one of the valley’s oldest wineries, moved it to Oregon, then moved it back to Washington. And they continue to enjoy tremendous success and acclaim.
Now they’ve sold Seven Hills Winery to a high-quality California company and remain focused on crafting great wines.
We recently caught up with Casey McClellan, founding winemaker for Seven Hills Winery in downtown Walla Walla to chat about the origins of this famed producer to talk about the past, present and future of the operation.
Here’s the interview:
Planting a vineyard, starting a winery
In the early 1980s, Casey’s father, James McClellan, and fellow physician Herb Hendricks decided to plant a vineyard near the Walla Walla Valley town of Milton-Freewater. They asked Casey to help.
“I never looked back from there,” he said. “We planted the old block Merlot in 1982, and we’re still making wine from it today. It’s been a really fun ride.”
The two doctors weren’t sure what to call their vineyard, thinking first of names such as Hendricks-McClellan. They ended up finding inspiration on the name of the road where the vineyard was located.
“Seven Hills Road was easier to say,” Casey said. “So we named the vineyard after the road – and the winery after the vineyard.”
Of the early wineries in the Walla Walla Valley, Seven Hills was the second to be named after a road. A year earlier, Rick Small launched Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden, naming it after Woodward Canyon Road. (Small later launched Nelms Road as a second label – also named after a road that intersects with Woodward Canyon.)
In 1987, the two families decided to make a little bit of white wine. In 1988, Casey and his wife, Vicky, returned from a year in Portugal to become the head winemaker. After the vineyard was planted in 1982, he had headed to California to earn a winemaking degree at the University of California-Davis, making him the first formally educated winemaker in the valley.
“Until John Abbott got here a little later on with Canoe Ridge, I was the only person in town with an advanced winemaking degree,” McClellan said. “The experience before that was farmers and people who learned through experience, reading and being self-taught.”
Those first two vintages of Seven Hills Winery were produced at Waterbrook Winery – then in Lowden.
Move to Oregon, back to Washington
In late 1989, Seven Hills Winery moved to Milton-Freewater. It made sense at the time to be a little closer to the vineyard. The winery was in a building that started out as a vegetable repacking plant – and a nuclear bomb shelter. It also had the first elevator in Milton-Freewater.
But it also was in Oregon, and that turned out to be an issue. Because it wasn’t in Washington, Seven Hills Winery was mostly ignored by the Washington wine industry. And because it was in the Walla Walla Valley, the Oregon wine industry often forgot Seven Hills was there.
Talk about no-man’s land.
So 11 years later, the McClellans chose to relocate to downtown Walla Walla, landing in the historic Whitehouse-Crawford building. This has proven to be close to perfect, as Seven Hills Winery now shares a building with a great restaurant – Whitehouse-Crawford’s dining room looks into the McClellans’ barrel room.
A stone’s throw from the crush pad is the magnificent Marcus Whitman Hotel, which plays host to many conventions. This means substantial walk-in traffic.
“It felt like we were more a part of the winemaking community,” Casey said. “Same grapes, same wines. Just more in tune with how the wine-loving public perceived us.”
Today, about a half-dozen wineries are in Milton-Freewater, and the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area is on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. As a result, more wine lovers are willing to travel the 10 miles south of downtown Walla Walla – and the Oregon wine industry happily embraces the region as its own.
Two vineyards named Seven Hills
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are two Seven Hills Vineyards.
In the mid-1990s, the partnership between the McClellan and Hendricks families amicably parted ways, with the Hendricks side keeping the vineyard and the McClellans taking controlling interest in the winery.
Ultimately, the Hendricks family sold Seven Hills Vineyard, and the property has since changed hands again. Meanwhile, a second vineyard was planted nearby – also called Seven Hills Vineyard. Today, the second Seven Hills is part of SeVein, a vineyard development that is fast becoming recognized as one of the most fascinating regions in the entire Pacific Northwest.
During its entire history, Seven Hills West – as it’s often referred to – has been farmed by just two people: Scott Hendricks and Tom Waliser. Today, Waliser also manages Pepper Bridge Vineyard (as he has since its inception in the early 1990s) and owns Beresan Winery.
Through all of this, Casey has remained true to the original Seven Hills Vineyard.
“We still get grapes from those original vines from more than 35 years ago,” he said. “It’s a nice legacy, a nice heritage. I have a strong emotional attachment to that block.”
Throughout the years, the McClellans owned land next to the original Seven Hills. In 2003, they decided to return to viticulture.
“We’d been thinking about getting back into the vineyard side of things,” he said. “We took a little bit of a break after Seven Hills Vineyard sold.”
With the Brown family – owners of Watermill Winery in Milton-Freewater – they planted McClellan Estate Vineyard, focusing exclusively on Bordeaux varieties. It has turns out to be a stellar site, and Casey makes several vineyard-designated reds from there.
Walla Walla and Red Mountain
Casey has never been afraid to stray beyond the Walla Walla Valley for his grapes. In fact, he began using fruit from Klipsun Vineyard as early as 1991 – long before the Red Mountain AVA was approved.
“It’s a great site, a great AVA,” Casey said. “The distinct personalities between Walla Walla and Red Mountain were what really attracted us to that: the opportunity to make wines in a bigger, bolder style (from Red Mountain) and a more balanced style (from Walla Walla). Winemakers love some diversity, and I’ve really enjoyed working both of these areas.”
He hints at a greater focus on Walla Walla moving forward, though he doesn’t see himself reducing his Red Mountain commitment.
“Our Walla Walla Valley production will grow, and we’ll continue a very strong Red Mountain program,” he said. “I’m looking forward to expanding what we do in Walla Walla. I’m hoping we can make more Merlot and be part of the Merlot renaissance that will come out of this state.”
Today, Casey produces more than a dozen different wines, the vast majority of which are red. Of these, several are small vineyard-designated releases that are available only in the tasting room or through the wine club. Fewer than a half-dozen are in national distribution.
This summer, he released a Sauvignon Blanc – a wine he hadn’t made for a quarter-century ago – and he’s happy with how this first effort turned out. He also crafts a rosé from Cabernet Franc that sells out quickly. Casey also makes a Pinot Gris using grapes from the Umpqua Valley – a nod to when Seven Hills Winery was an Oregon winery.
Seven Hills Winery’s new ownership
In January, the McClellans stunned the Washington wine industry when they announced the sale of the winery to Crimson Wine Group, a company based in California’s Napa Valley.
For the McClellans, it was a matter of looking ahead.
“Vicky and I have been doing this since 1982,” he said. “For many people, 34 years is a career. We were looking to dial our life down a little bit and also making sure the legacy of what we’d achieved all these years was carried forward. For us, it looked like a transition of some kind was right in our lives.”
Crimson already has a strong Northwest presence, with its original winery being Archery Summit in Oregon’s Dundee Hills. It also launched Double Canyon in 2007, a winery whose focus is Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. Last week, the company announced that it is building a Double Canyon production facility near Red Mountain.
Crimson also owns famed Pine Ridge in Napa’s Stags Leap District, Seghesio in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley and Chamisal in San Luis Obispo.
Late last year, Crimson opened The Estates Wine Room in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Originally, it was to spotlight Double Canyon and Archery Summit, but Seven Hills was quickly added to the tasting experience, which gives the McClellans a Seattle presence for the first time.
“It’s great for our brand,” he said. “Pioneer Square has so much heritage and authenticity. I love the wines being there.”