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05.01.2014

25 Years in the Hills: A Seven Hills Winery Retrospective

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We're funny, us humans. We like to draw these imaginary lines on the earth and give names to the places on either side, and then we treat those figments of our imaginations like they mean something. The mental model of a map becomes so ingrained in us that when we look at the world around us, its as if we can see those imaginary lines.

Grapes, of course, don't care much for maps. They like to grow where they like to grow, just as the soil that makes this so meanders without regard to the political boundaries we draw in the air above it.

Despite our stubborn insistence on the reality of our imaginary borders and boundaries, sometimes the grapes get the last word. No matter how they sliced it, the folks who were tasked with the problem of establishing the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area couldn't reconcile the brutal reality of one of the world's greatest geological structures (a gorge formed when a huge ice dam broke and the Missoula Floods carved the river valley in a giant cataclysm of water and ice) with the much more recent division between two states. As a result, the Columbia Valley AVA exists in both Oregon and Washington, and grapes grown in either state can bear the name of the same AVA.

Casey McClellan's family hasn't paid that much attention to borders either. They've been farming in the Northwest for four generations. In the late 1800's his great-great-grandfather's family were barley and wheat farmers in the panhandle of Idaho and in Washington. Eventually they and their descendants made their way down through Washington into Oregon, trying their hand at fruit trees as well as grains.

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McClellan's father grew up on the family farm in Oregon, but he was the first generation that was clearly not destined for farming. James McClellan went to medical school and became a doctor, but after about twenty years, he realized that he was missing a part of himself. A part that his childhood memories of working on the farm captured perfectly. So James McClellan convinced a fellow doctor to buy a piece of land in the very northern part of Oregon, and in the very southernmost part of the Columbia Valley.

Not content, however, to merely follow in the footsteps of his forbears, McClellan decided that in addition to apples, he was going to plant Cabernet, despite very little precedent for such planting in this neck of the woods.

"It's not like there were lots of other vineyards there," says Casey McClellan. "When my dad bought the land and we started planting in '82, it was just a big field with nothing in it."

Casey McClellan, despite his father being a doctor, grew up working on farms from the age of twelve. "I picked strawberries, worked in the hazelnut orchards, took care of sheep, you name it," he says. While most farm hands were drinking beer at the end of their long days, Casey was drawn to wine.

"For reasons I can't possibly imagine now, I started drinking Mosel Rieslings in my late teens," he says, bemused. "It's not like my parents were serving them, or anything, but somehow that's just what I discovered and what I liked."

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McClellan, like his father, went away to college thinking that his career lay elsewhere. Halfway through his pharmacy degree in 1980, McClellan took a three month trip to New Zealand where he spent a lot of time drinking wines that had yet to be recognized in the United States. And then in 1982, during the summer, he came home to help his father and his father's business partner plant a 24-acre plot of land that would become known as the Seven Hills Vineyard.

He can't quite describe what happened to him during that summer.

"Being out in the vineyard, I got a chance to see where it all started -- where the wine came from in a very real sense. Somehow putting all those vines in the ground synthesized my growing interest in wine and my family's history of agriculture and something just clicked. Everything made sense for the first time, and I knew I needed to switch careers."

A bike trip through France and Germany with his eventual-wife-to-be after graduation cemented the deal. He finished pharmacy school, got married, and enrolled in U.C. Davis' enology and viticulture program in 1985.

In 1987 the McClellan family was ready for its first harvest, which they crushed at Waterbrook winery (a few miles down the road in Washington), and in 1989 the family opened their own winery in the Oregon side of the border.

"This was before everyone knew that Oregon was going to be all about Burgundian wines," says McClellan. Back then, the idea of planting Cabernet and Malbec in Oregon was new, but it wouldn't sound nearly as crazy as it would today, when everyone thinks of Oregon and Pinot Noir," says McClellan.

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The family planted another parcel of grapes on the Washington side of the border in 2002, and seeing which way the wind was blowing for Cabernet, they moved the Seven Hills Winery a few miles up the road to Walla Walla.

"For nearly ten years, we were Eastern Oregon's only winery, and that's about how long it took for it to be clear that the story of Cabernet and Merlot was a Washington State story, not an Oregon one. An old mill building came up for sale, and we decided that we needed to move."

The family now farms about 20 acres of their own vineyards, and has another 30 acres under long term contract, including about six acres of that original vineyard Casey's father planted in 1988, that is known as the Seven Hills Vineyard, thanks to a road of the same name that pre-dated the vines. Importantly, and somewhat confusingly however, the Seven Hills Vineyard is not owned by the McClellan family. They sold the vineyard in 1995 to Norm McKibben, and bought long term contracts on the oldest blocks of the vineyard. Norm, in turn, sold the vineyard to an asset management company in the Midwest. Both McKibben and the asset management company planted more than 1700 more acres of vines, about 225 of which can still bear the vineyard designation of Seven Hills Vineyard.

In short, there is Seven Hills Winery, and there is Seven Hills Vineyard. The winery makes some wine from Seven Hills Vineyard, but so do a lot of other people. But most are not using fruit from the vines that McClellan and his father planted in the early Eighties.

Seven Hills Winery produces about 15,000 cases of wine each year, all made by McClellan, who has been making the wine since his first vintage as winemaker in 1988. In those 25 years, McClellan has developed a style and a philosophy about winemaking that he describes as staying true to the Northwest. For him that means lower alcohol, brighter acidity, only modest use of new oak, traditional practices in the cellar (including the use of his beloved ancient bladder press and propagating his own strains of Chanson and Steinberg yeasts for his whites). He hasn't fined a wine in over ten years, he claims, though he prefers the consistency he gets in his wines filtered at the level of one micron.

"It's not abusive to the wine, and it reduces disappointment while preserving texture," he says.

The red grapes are hand picked (earlier than most of his neighbors) and fermented at low temperatures, with careful control over maceration and pressing strength to yield wines that tend to be more on the elegant side. The use of at most 25% to 40% new oak means that these wines sing with the bright essence of fruit and soil without a caked on complexion of wood.

The wine is made in the beautiful old mill building that McClellan and his wife purchased in downtown Walla Walla, which also houses their tasting room and a restaurant owned by another party.

I visited the winery in early April as a spring Thunderstorm swept across the valley. I ducked into the tasting room to find McClellan and his wife preparing for their trip to the annual Taste Washington trade show. Luckily for me, they had conducted a rather extensive retrospective tasting of more than 20 years of wines the afternoon before, so I had the pleasure of repeating that event at my leisure while chatting with McClellan about his more than 25 years of making Washington State Cabernet.

The wines were holding up beautifully, and more than anything showed an incredible consistent vision by McClellan through the last 20 years. When other wineries swung towards bigger, riper, and oakier styles, Seven Hills kept right on doing what it always had done. As a result, McClellan finds himself squarely back in the middle of a trend towards higher acidity, less ripe Cabernet. In other words: bullseye.

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TASTING NOTES:

2010 Seven Hills Winery "Klipsun Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and bright fresh cherry fruit is tinged with wet earth and forest floor notes that offer a lovely bass note to a bright treble of fruit that bursts with fantastic acidity. Lovely cocoa powder notes linger in the finish. Faint, smooth tannins. Outstanding. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $29. click to buy.

1999 Seven Hills Winery "Klipsun Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark ruby in color this wine smells of leather and forest floor. In the mouth, dried cherry and dried flowers mix amidst powdery tannins. Notes of graphite and wet earth linger in the wine along with redwood bark and a hint of nutmeg. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $N/A

2011 Seven Hills Winery "Ciel du Cheval Vineyard" Red Wine, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers, dusty roads, and cherry fruit. In the mouth, sandpapery tannins wrap around a core of cherry and leather that is deeply steeped in dark soil. Still in its shell, and needs some time to come out. Good acidity. A blend of 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot, and 14% Cabernet Franc.14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2005 Seven Hills Winery "Ciel du Cheval Vineyard" Red Wine, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of exotic flowers, black cherry, and tobacco. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous floral note on top of a core of bright cherry and cocoa powder fruit. Fantastic acidity keeps the saliva flowing, and fine grained supple tannins wrap the tongue in a fleecy blanket. Wonderful length and presence. A blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc.13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $N/A

2001 Seven Hills Winery "Ciel du Cheval Vineyard" Red Wine, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of graphite, old saddle leather, and forest floor with a hint of red fruit peeking from beneath. In the mouth, gorgeous graphite and green herbs mix with bright juicy cherry fruit that is utterly mouthwatering. Gorgeous pine duff and tobacco notes linger for a long time in the finish along with an almost citrusy-mouth-puckering brightness. Fine grained, powdery tannins coat the mouth. A fantastic wine. A blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, and 15% Cabernet Franc.13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $N/A

2011 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rather pretty black cherry, cassis, and a bright violet note that takes you quite by surprise. In the mouth, the wine offers bright and juicy black cherry and cassis flavors with slightly tacky tannins. Not as broad and generous as this wine might be in a warmer year, but still quite pretty and pleasurable. Excellent acidity and nice length. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2010 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry, a bit of new oak (an unusual signature for these wines, which tend to be low in new oak), and earthy tobacco. In the mouth, bright cherry and black cherry flavors have a juicy acidity that leans towards citrus qualities. Wonderfully tobacco and earthy notes grace the wine and linger through a long finish. Powdery tannins are quite smooth and supple. Delicious. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.

2005 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor, fresh and dried cherries and a hint of miso, In the mouth, the wine beautifully balances a red miso paste umami character and lush cherry fruit. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit lively and powdery tannins linger for a long time in the finish. Excellent. Includes 4% Merlot. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $N/A

1998 Seven Hills Winery "Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of pine duff, graphite and dried flowers. In the mouth flavors of dried flowers, cedar shavings, and leather mix with dried cherry fruit and wet earth. This wine is turning quite beautifully towards the savory end of things, with notes of dried herbs and earth that linger in the finish. Excellent acidity.13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $N/A

1991 Seven Hills Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with a hint of bricking at the rim, this wine smells of garrigue, saddle leather, and graphite. In the mouth, slightly grainy tannins wrap around a core of faintly sweet cherry fruit that is buffeted by breezes of wild herbs. Excellent acidity still makes the wine quite mouthwatering and delicious.12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $N/A

2011 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of pretty perfumed floral, plum and cherry fruit that is quite compelling. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy and bright plum and cherry fruit has a bouncy and mouthwatering quality. Beautifully supple tannins surround this core of fruit and linger through the finish, lightly coating the mouth. Fresh, bright, and utterly drinkable, this is an outstanding wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2002 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cedar and sandalwood. In the mouth the wine has stunning brightness with cherry, orange peel, and mulling spices all mixing under a blanket of beautiful powdery tannins. Long and juicy. In phenomenal shape and drinking perfectly. Remarkable. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $N/A

1998 Seven Hills Winery "Seven Hills Vineyard" Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Medium to dark ruby in the glass with hints of orange, this wine smells of sweet cedar and cherry fruit. In the mouth, cherry and sandalwood, and cedar notes mix with a dried flower and forest floor savoriness. Good acidity and supple, faint tannins. Includes 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: around 9. Cost: $N/A

1998 Seven Hills Winery "Klipsun Vineyard" Merlot, Red Mountain, Washington
Medium to dark ruby in the glass with definite orange highlights at the rim, this wine smells of cherry and cedar and pine duff. In the mouth plum and cherry fruit mix with forest floor and wet earth as notes of dried flowers linger in the finish. Supple tannins are slightly drying. Includes 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $N/A

1991 Seven Hills Winery Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington
Medium orange-gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch, dried orange peel and roasted nuts. In the mouth faintly sweet orange peel and dried honey flavors take on a savory nuttiness plus a nice saline kick. The acidity is soft and filigreed at this point. Quite pretty. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $N/A

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Comments (2)

Gail McClellan wrote:
05.05.14 at 4:09 PM

Of course, I read this article with great interest since there may be the possibility that somewhere down the genealogical line Casey and I are related. At the very least, we share similar passion and taste for wine. I, too, started my wine appreciation journey with Mosel Riesling. I had an excuse since I was with my Air Force husband stationed in the Mosel area of Germany. I still enjoy a dry Riesling, but have moved on in my preferences. Perhaps I will be able to visit 7 Hills Winery to meet Casey and to taste some of his wines, which sound wonderful.

Jason wrote:
05.08.14 at 12:56 PM

This is a great summary, I have been a fan of Casey's wines for about 6 years. I wish more people were aware of his winery, he makes some of the finest wines in Washington. A master of multiple appellations and a real shining example of how to make vineyard designated wines work within a portfolio.

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