Before planting the first block of Merlot in the now-legendary Seven Hills Vineyards in 1982, Casey McClellan spent a chunk of his boyhood working local farms. Over the years, he’s picked strawberries and hazelnuts, tended sheep and harvested peas. You might say working the land is in his blood, his family’s roots in the Walla Walla Valley dating back to the 1800s.
“Farming is hard work,” said Seven Hills Winery’s vintner since the winery launched in the late1980s. “When I went to the University of Washington, I never imagined I would be in agriculture.”
He was on track to become a pharmacist, but took a detour when his father asked if he wanted to help out with the vineyards, a summer project that ultimately led to graduate school at University of California at Davis. After getting his Masters there, he and his wife and stalwart business partner, Vicky, landed in Portugal.
“I saw this notice on the bulletin board at Davis, advertising for a research position in Portugal,” he said.
When the Seven Hills Vineyard partners decided to start a winery in 1988, they hired Casey. “Winemaking was still very much a fringe thing at that time,” he recalled. “You’d have wheat farmers saying, ‘why on earth do you want to grow grapes?’ It took a long time for the community to get on board, but eventually they saw the benefits.”
From the beginning, McClellan said he has taken a minimalist approach. “I’m a traditional winemaker,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of high tech equipment. The land and the climate help dictate my style. But in the beginning, you could try just about anything, it was all so brand new.”
McClellan cites his experience at Davis with giving him the sound, scientific basis on which to build and credits his classmates and colleagues with helping to instill the artistic sensibilities so key to make distinctive wines: “Being in that group of highly motivated, passionate wine people really lead to interesting discussions and promoted the exchange of ideas.”
One of the most exciting developments in Seven Hills Winery’s history was when it relocated to a historic Whitehouse-Crawford building in downtown Walla Walla in 2000, the dawn of the charming town as a wine lover’s destination.
It was an opportunity for the McClellans to design their dream winery. “There’s beauty in efficiency, the way the wine flows through the building. The barrel room is humidified and insulated, but it’s also beautiful with the skylight and the windows into the dining room of the restaurant. People get very excited when they first walk through the door.”
That excitement level is likely to rise when they taste what’s poured in the glass from the winery’s extensive portfolio. Early praise for McClellan’s wines was dished out by the ultimate tastemaker, Robert Parker, Jr. He phoned Casey in the early 1990s to talk about the 1988s, his very first vintage. “He said something like ‘these wines are actually pretty good’ It was very validating,” McClellan said.
The 2012 harvest marks the beginning of a new expansion phase for Seven Hills, with production growing to 25,000 cases and the winemaker’s focus on returning to the lineup he rolled out in those early years. “I’ve had my artistic playtime. I made the first Tempranillo in the state and the first Malbec in the Valley. Because so many varietals grow well here, it’s easy to make so many different wines. But we’re coming full circle, back to focusing on Bordeaux varietals in the reds and Alsatian whites,” he said.
In this busy Mom-and-Pop operation, there’s often little down time, but the couple sometimes combines business and vacation on their travels.
“When traveling around the country, it’s so rewarding to reach people who have a strong preference for European wines. They’ve very hard to win over, but when they do switch allegiance, it shows that we’re really on the right track in Washington state, that it’s a mark the region is reaching maturity with the quality of the wines,” he said.
Casey and Vicky McClellan in 1990