It was apples that led Norm McKibben to grapes.
The affable vineyard magnate with an easy laugh and a golf score he’d rather not discuss moved to Walla Walla in 1985 after retiring from 25 years working as a civil engineer. But he was far from ready for a rocking chair on the porch.
“It was really serendipity that I got into the apple orchard business,” he said. “All I meant to do was help out a couple of friends who had a packing house and were struggling.”
Through that venture he met Mike Hogue, a man he credits as a mentor. Then, in 1989, McKibben took the plunge into the world of wine, investing in the still fledgling Hogue Cellars and things grew from there. “Somehow Mike talked me into planting sparkling wine grapes on a ranch I had in Waitsburg,” said McKibben, who owns Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi in Walla Walla with longtime business partner, winemaker Jean-François Pellet.
Those vines are a distant memory, but McKibben’s road to becoming one of the state’s most respected vineyard experts was established, especially after he partnered with Marty Clubb from L’Ecole No. 41 and Leonetti Cellars’ Gary Figgins to dramatically expand the renowned Seven Hills Vineyard in 1997 using what was then cutting edge technology.
“We used GPS to plot every contour in the vineyard to determine the best way to lay irrigation,” he said. “Of course, now you can do the same thing cheaper and easier on Google.”
McKibben was also ahead of the curve in designing Pepper Bridge’s production facility using a gravity flow system during crush and in embracing sustainability practices in the vineyards.
“A lot of the land we’re growing grapes on had been dry land wheat farms since the 1940s and we’ve worked hard to build up the soil, adding compost, turning it into better land to hand down to my children,” he said.
Along with a small group that includes Rick Small from Woodward Canyon, McKibben formed a sustainability support group in the Walla Walla Valley. Vinea partnered with the more established Oregon Live and adopted practices followed by a sustainability group in Switzerland. Now, wines from Walla Walla grown in accordance with those rules are among the very limited selection of sustainable wines sold in European markets.
“We didn’t set out to do it for marketing purposes, which was probably a missed opportunity,” said the refreshingly candid McKibben. “The thinking was that we could make better wines with grapes grown in healthier soil.”
One vineyard where McKibben and his son, Shane, puts that theory into practice is the Les Collines site, which sits on steep hillside east of the Walla Walla Valley. “We first planted that in 2002 and it’s become well known for Syrah,” he said.
Then, there’s the mother of all vineyard sites, a 2,000 acre parcel McKibben purchased with his business partners in SeVein.
“I had been wanting to buy 100 acres near Seven Hills from the LDS Church for years and when it finally agreed to sell, it was an all-or-nothing kind of deal,” McKibben said.
The vast property has been developed, several deep wells have been established and 40-acre parcels have been sold to various wineries including to the Middleton family, who produce Cadaretta and Buried Cane. Then, the recession hit.
“We used to get folks up here from California all the time, but there hasn’t been much interest the past few years,” McKibben said.
Still, he remains optimistic around the future.
“In the beginning when I was thinking about getting into it, I asked people I knew in California if they thought I was crazy,” he said. “One friend said the quality of the fruit would actually be better because the vines went dormant in the winter.”
While he’s still not ready for retirement, McKibben has promised his wife, Virginia, he’ll slow down and do more hunting, traveling – he especially enjoys visiting wine country in Australia and Argentina – and, who knows? Maybe he’ll even be able to trim a few strokes off that golf score.