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.
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.”
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.
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 22 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.
These days, wine drinkers are looking for more bang for their buck, and Washington State has been delivering red wines that meet that description for more than twenty years. Admirably, Seven Hills Winery seems committed to delivering great values to the consumer, with excellent wines priced even lower than many of their reasonably priced (compared to Napa Cabernet) neighbors.
If you’re looking for wonderful, hand-made wines that are delicious and won’t break the bank, I highly recommend Seven Hills.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2008 Seven Hills “Talcott Vineyard” Viognier, Columbia Valley, Washington
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of canned peaches in syrup and fresh apricot aromas. In the mouth the wine is heavy on the tongue, with silky flavors of fresh and dried apricots, canned peaches, and hints of pink grapefruit on the finish. A tiny bit hot. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $17. Click to buy.
2008 Seven Hills Pinot Gris, Umpqua Valley, Oregon
Palest gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of vanilla custard and lemon. In the mouth it is somewhat plain, with innocuous flavors of lemon, pear, and vanilla. Sound, but unremarkable. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $14. Click to buy.
2008 Seven Hills Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington
Palest greenish-gold in color, this wine has a nose of green apples and wet stones with a hint of lime aromas. In the mouth the wine offers green apple, lime juice, and a very slightly sweet margarita flavor on the finish. Nice acidity, but somewhat simple flavors. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15. Click to buy.
2006 Seven Hills Tempranillo, Columbia Valley, Washington
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of violets, cassis and mulberries. In the mouth mulberries and cassis flavors dominate, swirling amidst dusty, soft tannins and a nice floral note that persists through the finish. Not quite the flavors I expect from tempranillo, but quite tasty nonetheless. 13.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2007 Seven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of plum, tobacco, and wet wood. In the mouth it offers plum and vanilla flavors that are juicy and delicious but somewhat candied in quality. The finish is airy and the acidity is good, making this an easy, if a bit ditzy, wine to drink. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $23. Click to buy.
2008 Seven Hills Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of plum, tobacco, and chocolate aromas. In the mouth it is wonderfully pure, with plum and cherry flavors and the signature of sweet oak used at just the right amount to provide a touch of smoky vanilla to the wine. Juicy and delicious, this is a crowd pleaser of a wine. 13.7.% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2007 Seven Hills “Seven Hills Vineyard” Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of plum and black cherry fruit aromas. In the mouth it offers plum and tobacco flavors with a clean, glassy quality helped by nice acidity. A faint funkiness hangs in the finish and keeps the wine from being too dainty. Nice acidity makes it easy to drink. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. Click to buy.
2007 Seven Hills “Ciel du Cheval Vineyard” Red Blend, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry, violets, and kirsch. In the mouth the wine has a beautiful, youthful juiciness that launches flavors of black cherry, cassis, and violets bouncing across the palate. Lightly powdery tannins grip the edges of the mouth and linger in a finish that has a lightly grapey quality. The wine is disarming and delightful. Score: around 9. Cost: $33. Click to buy.
2006 Seven Hills “Seven Hills Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of fresh black cherry fruit. In the mouth it offers bright black cherry, cedar, and cola flavors buoyed by bright acidity and un-marred by any detectable oak. Fresh and juicy with only the faintest of tannins that linger through a fruit-driven finish, this wine is quite easy to drink. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32. Click to buy.
2006 Seven Hills “Klipsun Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry and cola aromas with hints of mulberry. In the mouth the cherry cola quality dominates with faint leathery tannins, bright acidity and a wonderful juiciness to the whole package that makes it quite appealing. Flavors of cola nut and tobacco linger in the finish. Beautifully balanced and utterly delicious. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $31. Click to buy.
2007 Seven Hills “Seven Hills Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of rich black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, black cherry, tobacco and cola flavors swirl against a backdrop of faint black tea tannins. Nicely balanced. Good acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $33.
2007 Seven Hills “Klipsun Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, Washington
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cherry and wet earth with hints of plum aromas. In the mouth rich plummy and cherry flavors mix with faint tannins and flavors of cedar and loam. Great acidity makes the fruit bright, and the wine finishes long and lightly floral. Beautifully balanced and fantastically delicious. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $33. Click to buy.