Casey McClellan has been the winemaker at Seven Hills Winery for over 30 years now. The fifth winery to open in the Walla Walla Valley, way back in 1987, Seven Hills started out in Walla Walla, moved to Milton Freewater in 1988, then relocated to its current, iconic location in an old woodworking mill in downtown Walla Walla in 2000. Seven Hills has consistently produced excellent wines for over three decades and have continued to do since McClellan and his wife Vicky sold the winery to Crimson Wine Group early in 2016. Since the sale, they’ve continued to run the winery – and of course Casey is still the winemaker. McClellan took time out of his busy schedule to sit for this fascinating interview late in 2019.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Can you talk a bit about your background? I understand that you're originally from Oregon.
CASEY McCLELLAN: Well it’s a little nomadic. I was born in Oregon City and we moved to Walla Walla when I was a year old and then we moved back to Oregon wine country when I was in my Junior High School years. Eventually we moved back to our old house in Walla Walla, then I moved away for a decade or so in my 20s and came back and jumped into the wine business. We’ve been going ever since.
WWWL: Your family has been involved in farming dating back to the 1800s and you were involved in planting the first Cabernet grapes in the Walla Walla Valley way back in 1982. Can you discuss how that came about?
CM: I grew up working in viticulture, both in Walla Walla and in Oregon, mostly summer jobs or part-time jobs. Corporate farms, sheep, strawberries, corn, hazelnuts. But I didn’t really do it as a full-time profession until I got into the wine side of things. The first thing I did in this business was to help plant the 1982 old block Merlot one hot June. It was during summer vacation during college.I thought “this is pretty interesting” and soon after switched degrees and got a winemaking degree. I had been interested in wine before but working in the vines was when it got more interesting for me.
These were tiny plantings, mostly in people’s backyards. My father,Tim McClellan, and his business partner, Herb Hendrix, got the first commercial size vineyard rolling. It was set up to sell grapes to other wineries. By the late 80's they were ready to open the Seven Hills Winery and my wife Vicky and I moved back to Walla Walla.
WWWL: A few years go by and you decided to go to school to make wine at UC Davis. There was no wine program in Walla Walla yet, so how did that decision come about?
CM: I like learning and I like science and education. I wanted to get an intensive degree and learn about the whole world of wine and bring that knowledge back here. I spent two years at UC Davis and got a winemaking degree there; then I worked at Preston Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. I crushed there, did one harvest there and then when I got out of school, there was sort of a downturn. We ended up looking at different jobs and the most appealing one turned out to be working in Porto doing port wine, so we moved over there with our six-month old daughter and lived in Portugal for almost a year. I worked in combined technologies, more like food science, helped the port industry with some problems and issues they had in port production. After my time in Portugal I was ready to move back to Walla Walla.
WWWL: Seven Hills Winery started up in 1987, the fifth winery in the Walla Walla Valley. What were the biggest challenges running a winery in the early years of Seven Hills?
CM: Well I think it was evolving thing. I think both the original founding couples probably thought a winery made sense. Leonetti had released some of its first vintages back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I think it evolved naturally. I think the idea was “We’ve got this vineyard, let’s get a winery going”. The folks from Waterbrook, Eric and Janet Rindal, helped them that first year and then I came back in 1988. I could have ended up anywhere and I was pretty open-minded at the time as to where I would go. But it was a pretty attractive idea to help start an AVA and establish the tone and direction of the wines to figure out what was going to work here. It was a rare opportunity.
WWWL: When did you first get interested in drinking wine and how did that come about?
CM: My parents drank wine at home when I was growing up and I had the chance to taste it. I first got interested in wine in my late teens and college, drinking it for enjoyment. Pretty early on. I was 23 when I planted the Seven Hills vineyard in ‘82. I started early and I have been learning about wine ever since, nearly forty years now.
WWWL: Can you talk about the challenges you faced in the first few years of Seven Hills Winery?
CM: The cold winters have always been a challenge. A bigger challenge in the first few years was really hard winters in 1989 and 1991 – fortunately those kind of winters have become much less frequent, so that’s gotten a little easier. But back then there also wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the industry here as we were doing something new. We’d make mistakes and would hope they weren’t really big mistakes so we could keep going. Another challenge was developing the market and getting people around the market to understand where Walla Walla was. First you have to explain the name of the town and that you’re in Washington State and not Washington DC.That’s gotten so much easier after three decades of work --- Walla Walla actually has a reputation now!
WWWL: Absolutely. My wife and I went to Italy for the first time in January 2019 and the first time we talked to our tour driver in Tuscany we mentioned that we were from Walla Walla, expecting that he wouldn’t have heard of it. But as it turned out, he had actually spent two weeks in Walla Walla the previous year!
CM: Incredible. It has been a great group of people in the wine business in Walla Walla. It started out really focused on quality and people have done amazing things to get this wine region more well-known. The key thing that people wanted to be a part of it. We were never a commodity business -- it was always about fine wine.
WWWL: You were actually the first winemaker in Walla Walla to have a winemaking degree. Do you think that gave you any kind of an advantage?
CM: I think it gave me a different perspective as at that time it was really kind of farmers making wine, and other local people that grew up here. It’s not necessary to have an education to make wine as there are a lot of ways to make great wine. If you work hard and have an appreciation for great wine that certainly helps.
WWWL: Who were your mentors in your early days of winemaking?
CM: I think it was not necessarily mentorship but seeing what Rick Small (Woodward Canyon) and Gary Figgins (Leonetti) had done and their discipline and intensity. Also the helpfulness of other wineries, especially Waterbrook, in our early years. These were things that transpired and assisted in growing Seven Hills and seeing how big the future could be. I have been lucky to work with a lot of great fruit growers, great vineyards, so important and I really value those kind of relationships. We learn from each other and seeing a wine style develop. Seeing all the intelligence, the dedication and everyone working towards making it a great industry was great. I also had some great professors at UC Davis that I admired.
WWWL: What would you say is your winemaking style and how has that changed over the years?
CM: I think the style of our wines has always been a little more elegant, a more restrained style. But it has changed over the years. It’s become a little more controlled and sophisticated, more refined at times. We started with a blank slate and moved forward from that. We like to pick a bit earlier, a style more compatible with meal-time. It’s a cliché to say that the wine should taste more like the fruit from the vineyard, but we really walk the talk on that due to the ripeness of our fruit, the time we pick and less use of new oak. You can actually taste the varietal flavors and our strong commitment to the vineyard sites. That personality hasn’t changed over our 30 years. It hasn’t always been popular – wine tastes can be so subjective -- but it’s a stylistic vision where we’ve attracted a following. Our customers seem to be saying, “You keep making good wine, we’ll keep buying it.” When you’re a small artisanal winery. you don’t have to make everybody happy – you just have to make several thousand people happy…
WWWL: Do you have a favorite wine to make?
CM: I got into winemaking for the Cab and Merlot, but if I could only make one wine it would be Cabernet. It would be an easy choice to make, but
thankfully I don’t have to choose.
WWWL: You’ve spent over thirty years making wine and running Seven Hills. What accomplishments at the winery are you most proud of?
CM: At this point, it’s a bit transitional for me. I am happy to see I have a great team and they are doing more and learning more and taking the reins on more things. It’s great to see the legacy carried forward and the wine quality carried forward, which is something I am pretty focused on now. We have made a lot of good wine over the past 30+ years. I’m proud of the wines, they’ve aged well and it’s been a pleasure to work with Seven Hills Vineyard, Klipsun Vineyard and all the other great vineyards we source from. From the business side, it is a small business and keeping it around 30+ years and surviving the great recession of 2008, which took a lot of guts and hard work, was a major accomplishment in and of itself. That was a tough time to go through because when the economic conditions are like that, it affects things like the luxury wine business the most.
WWWL: Can you talk about your decision to sell the winery three years ago? What went into that decision and how did you eventually settle on the right buyer?
CM: Vicki and I have been doing this a really long time and it didn’t seem like the business was going to transition into the next generation, so we explored other possibilities and we happened to get into discussions with Crimson and they were a very dedicated fine wine company and it seemed they were a good match and things progressed from there. We completed the transaction in January 2016, so it’s been more than four years now. As far as the logistics of the sale, you can use a broker or you can do it privately but you’re basically making approaches and having discussions. It takes a fair amount of preparation. Typically you don’t just wake up one day and decide you are selling the winery and it is sold the next day. There is a lot to learn about the process and what the market looks like and who is good to do business with and which brokerage you should use. I spent a fair amount of time exploring that. When we were ready to make the decision we were pretty well-educated on it and it wasn’t an easy process. But it’s an important one to get right. Historically Crimson has been very focused in letting the wine brands define the style and in the winemaking arena, letting the wineries continue to make the same wines sylisticly that they were making before the sale.
WWWWL: How have things changed for you since the sale?
CM: It is a little lower stress for both myself and my wife, Vicki, who is just consulting now. We now have a 15 or 16 person sales team around America and for export as well. Before it was just me, Vicki, Julie and our national sales guy. Almost everyone who worked here was on the sales team (laughs).
WWWL: What do you like to drink when you’re at home on a typical night?
CM: I drink a lot of Pinot Gris. If you count the bottles at the end of the year that would probably be the varietal I drank the most of, especially in warm weather. Other than that, Cab based wines from our designated vineyards. We have kept a very extensive wine library of all the Cabs we have made. On special nights, we might dig out an old Cab or Merlot. It’s always interesting to think back to that vintage and what was going on back then with our family and the business.
WWWL: Hypothetically, you’ve got 24 hours to live. What bottle from your wine cellar do you have to open?!?
CM: Gosh, umm, probably some of the wines in the cellar that I’ve been looking at that I say, “I can’t open that one yet.” I just got a bottle of Champagne from the producer 1869, really old top mark Champagne. Definitely that one. It wasn’t cheap either. Oh and there’s two 30-year old Ports I would get down and maybe one or two vintages of our wines that are very special to me. Great memories.
WWWL: What are your hobbies? What do you like to do when you’re not making wine?
CM: I like the outdoors. I like to spend time in the Willamette mountains. I am a skier, alpine skiing. Vicki and I have a pretty nice garden. We like to spend a lot of time working in the garden. That’s very relaxing. I Road-bike a little bit. We have two daughters that live in town and one has two children, so we like to see one another and get together with family.
WWWL: What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?
CM: For me I like the variety, the fact that you have this job where you can be out in the vineyard, kicking around the dirt, and the next day you can be selling wine in New York City and it is the same job and everything in between. It is a huge collection of activities and I like that variety. When you’re running a smaller winery, you have to wear a lot of hats.
WWWL: What’s the worst thing about being a winemaker?
CM: Paperwork, taxes, regulation. And then those times when you have severe weather events that dramatically change your outlook for the year. You are at the mercy of the weather and the climate and that’s hard. Some years we only had one-third or one-fourth of the grapes that I thought we were going to have due to a winter kill .You have to be resilient. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
WWWL: Why is that?
CM: Gradually, it seems the winters have been milder generally speaking. It can still be a little erratic, but generally there are fewer freezes.
WWWL: Can you talk about what makes Walla Walla special?
CM: I think what makes Walla Walla special is it is a bit isolated. So it has developed its own style and community. It wasn’t a suburb of a big city that pulls people apart. There is a nice mix of things going on. Lots of history. Very well established agricultural community and banking and education. There was a strong core even before the first vines even appeared and people were willing to believe in a vision. It started as a small community of farmers and winemakers and it took about twenty years to persuade the community that this could really work for them and be really good for Walla Walla. By the early 2000’s we finally saw it take off. The great thing today it that it’s still a relaxing, small wine region. Low traffic, enough good restaurants, great lodging options. You can have a very enjoyable time without much hassle. Compare it to Napa where you sit in traffic jams going back and forth to tasting rooms. Here it is wide open. I just think it is more relaxing and enjoyable due to its size and natural beauty. It’s a great place to visit.
WWWL: How much more can the wine industry in Walla Walla grow?
CM: I seem to always be wrong on my predictions --- I am amazed that we have as much going on today as we do(!), but I think we could eventually see double the number of wineries, many more restaurants and more lodging, with more flights going in and out of Walla Walla.
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