WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Dennis Murphy was a clear choice for Marty Clubb and Norm McKibben when it came to finding a new partner for storied Seven Hills Vineyard and SeVein Vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley.
This morning, they publicly welcomed Murphy, owner/winemaker of Caprio Cellars. He purchased the shares that were owned by the Figgins family of Leonetti Cellar fame and global investment company Nuveen.
“If you track everything Dennis has done, he’s slowly built his way into the wine industry in a really positive and respectful way,” Clubb, owner of L’Ecole Nº 41 Winery, told Great Northwest Wine. “He’s proven his value to the Walla Walla Valley with his winery, and he’s done a great job with his estate vineyards.
“Dennis hasn’t been a big user of fruit at Seven Hills, but I’m guessing that might change,” Clubb quipped.
In 2021, Murphy became a partner of McKibben in Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. The CEO of Northwest construction company Hayden Homes was already a significant player in SeVein with his ownership of Sanitella Vineyard and partnership in Octave Vineyard. Both are within the 2,000 acres of land that make up SeVein.
“I’m honored to be one of the partners,” Murphy said. “A bottle of L’Ecole Merlot was the wine that first brought me to the valley, so for me to be a partner with Marty Clubb now? This has been serendipitous. And during this process, I’ve come to know that Marty is just as good of a person as I heard he was.”
The discussions that began several months ago now mean that ownership of Seven Hills Vineyard and control of SeVein are 100% aligned under local control. Neither Clubb nor Murphy would disclose terms, but Clubb said, “We all view each other as equal partners.”
Clubb pointed out that Gary Figgins and his son, Chris, have gradually transitioned to their own plantings throughout the Walla Walla Valley and are increasing work on their acclaimed Pinot Noir-focused Toil Oregon project. That brand features Toil Estate Vineyard, which they established in 2016 in the Chehalem Mountains.
“Of course, they’ve been great partners,” Clubb said. “At this stage, they are a much higher-tiered estate winery using 100% of their own fruit.”
Murphy’s involvement is seen as critical to the next chapter for Seven Hills Vineyard, which remains a vital source for L’Ecole Nº 41, the Clubb and McKibben families and the more than two dozen customers of the grapes managed by their renowned viticulturist — Sadie Drury.
“All of the ownership is really dedicated to continuing the legacy of Seven Hills Vineyard,” Clubb said. “There is investment required with the advancement of phylloxera and leaf roll that nearly every vineyard in Washington is facing, and our ownership group is willing to make that investment.”
Seven Hills Vineyard, the centerpiece of SeVein, was one of the first commercial vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley. It was established in 1980 by the Hendricks and McClellan families and expanded at the end of that first decade. McKibben purchased the original 20-acre old block in 1994 and — in partnership with Clubb, Gary Figgins and Bob Rupar — expanded Seven Hills Vineyard in 1997 and 1998 across 170 acres. (The historic parcel that future winemaker Casey McClellan helped plant was sold to Crimson Wine Group in December 2016 and has been rebranded as Seven Hills Founding Block. McClellan and his wife, Vicky, sold their Seven Hills Winery to Crimson in January 2016.)
Nuveen’s investments span real estate, infrastructure, farmland and forests. The company’s roots reach back to 1918 with industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Parent company TIAA states that it manages $1.3 trillion in assets.
Murphy said he leaned on his CEO experience when working out details with Nuveen. His network of friends in the valley includes Erik McLaughlin of Metis, who helped with the Figgins portion of the transactions.
“The gravity of being an owner of Seven Hills Vineyard is important to my future and my son’s future,” Murphy said.
After the documents were signed Tuesday, Murphy went into the Blue Mountains to hunt for chanterelles.
“And I will make some pasta tonight and celebrate with another friend — Justin Wylie, who is one of my neighbors,” Murphy chuckled. “That’s one of the pretty cool little aspects to living here and being a part of the industry.”
Wylie, owner/winemaker of Va Piano Vineyards, also is a partner in Octave.