WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Dennis Murphy, a longtime executive for Northwest home builder Hayden Homes, has joined Norm McKibben, Eric McKibben and acclaimed winemaker Jean-François Pellet as part-owner of Walla Walla showpieces Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars.
Murphy, who is also owner/winemaker of Caprio Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley, purchased the Goff family’s shares in Pepper Bridge and Amavi wineries on Dec. 31, 2020. The sale, in the works since last fall, was announced by Amavi Cellars on Monday, Jan. 4. Terms were not disclosed.
“I am honored to be a part of, and continue, the legacy of these important Walla Walla wineries,” Murphy said in a news release. “Both Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars are leaders in quality winemaking with their innovative technology and vineyard development. Their commitment to the Walla Walla Valley has helped define it as the great wine region it is. I look forward to partnering with the McKibben and Pellet families in this exciting new venture as we continue to build on their successes.”
The transaction includes the Goff family’s ownership in both the Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars facilities, the satellite tasting galleries in Woodinville and Vancouver USA, and the Goff shares in Pepper Bridge Estate Vineyard. Murphy already had an ownership stake in Octave Vineyard, one of the estate plantings for Pepper Bridge Winery in the revered SeVein project.
However, the sale does not include Goff Vineyard.
“Ray Goff still owns Goff Vineyard and will continue to sell grapes to Amavi Cellars and Pepper Bridge Winery,” according to Janna Dotolo, program manager for Amavi Cellars.
This latest investment by Murphy is another example of confidence displayed by some real estate developers in the future of the Washington wine industry.
Goff partnership with McKibben, Pellet began in 1998
Ray Goff and his wife, Diana have been partners with Pellet and the McKibben family since 1998. Norm McKibben, who established Pepper Bridge Vineyard in 1991, has been the managing partner at Pepper Bridge Winery, which was the Walla Walla Valley’s 18th winery when it opened in 1998.
Annual production for Pepper Bridge ranges between 6,000 and 7,000 cases, with Amavi nearly twice that at 10,000 to 12,000 cases. Goff was listed as the managing partner of Amavi Cellars, where McKibben’s son, Eric, is the general manager. Goff’s daughter, Travis, played a significant role in the growth of both brands for more than a decade.
“While bittersweet, after more than 20 years of ownership, Diana, Travis and I are excited to transition our partnerships in Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars to Dennis Murphy,” Goff said. “Mr. Murphy’s Caprio Cellars is similar with a family-owned and operated approach and has an established reputation for quality wine and exceptional hospitality.”
Travis, a certified sommelier with a journalism degree from the University of Texas and an MBA from Seattle University, served as director of sales and marketing of Pepper Bridge after buying a share of the company. She began to step away from the business in 2014 after she and her husband, Keith Reardon, started their family.
Her father became acquainted with the Pepper Bridge project near the end of his three decades as a globetrotting executive with Anheuser-Busch. That career included purchasing hops in the Yakima Valley, where he met hop grower/winemaker Mike Hogue.
Goff’s interest in the Walla Walla Valley wine industry and its next wave of growth prompted him to join forces with McKibben, Pellet and a silent partner — Mike Hogue. (McKibben had been a partner in The Hogue Cellars going back to 1987.) Their group also benefited from Goff’s engineering degree from Texas Tech during the design/construction phases of both the Pepper Bridge and Amavi facilities.
“Ray Goff has been a very important part of our history for over 20 years and was instrumental in creating the pioneering spirit that continues today with our dedication to crafting ultra-premium wines while building an enduring family business,” the McKibbens and Pellet said in a joint statement. “We know Mr. Murphy exhibits the same pioneering spirit and passion for family traditions. We are excited to welcome him as a partner and look forward to new opportunities ahead.”
Estate vineyards for Amavi Cellars will continue to be Seven Hills, Les Collines, Pepper Bridge, Octave, Stone Valley and Summit View. However, Murphy’s portion of ownership in Pepper Bridge Vineyard is limited the 11-acre parcel that belonged to the Goffs.
Murphy launched Caprio Cellars in 2008
Murphy graduated from California State University, Chico in 1994 with a degree in civil engineering, and within five years at Hayden Homes, he’d ascended into the position of president and moved to Walla Walla. In 2015, he was named CEO of the company created in 1989 by the Watson family in Redmond, Ore. One of his high school friends was Hayden Watson, who became the company’s chairman in 2015.
Ironically, Murphy’s interest in the wine industry has been partially inspired by ancestors. In 2006, he established the 3-acre Eleanor Vineyard just east of the tasting room for Pepper Bridge Winery, and the inaugural commercial vintage for Caprio Cellars was 2008. He named the brand after his grandmother — Eleanor Caprio — and its annual production has grown to 2,000 cases.
Murphy would later pay homage to his great grandmother who lived in a Italian village inhabited by home winemakers. Sanitella (Caprio) Vineyard is a site he planted in 2015. She’s also the namesake for his Meritage-style red Bordeaux.
There is an urban-chic vibe at the recently launched Caprio Cellars tasting room along Whiteley Road. At this point, there are no immediate plans for Murphy’s own wines to be poured at any of the Pepper Bridge/Amavi tasting rooms, and a spokesman added, “Caprio will continue to make wine independently.”
In 2018, Chico State presented Murphy with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for his support of the Northern California school — which includes an endowed professorship via Hayden Homes and himself as well as an endowed scholarship in Murphy’s name — and his nonprofit work in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Those efforts feature the First Story program that builds homes for disadvantaged families and support for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
“I know we are leaving our employees, distributors, customers, the wineries’ brands and reputations in good hands,” Ray Goff added. “Mr. Murphy, in partnership with the McKibben family and Pellet family are well positioned to shepherd these businesses forward in this dynamic industry.”