Norm McKibben, owner of Pepper Bridge Winery, is one of the founding fathers of Walla Walla Wine. He was instrumental in the expansion of the Walla Walla AVA and as owner or partner in Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Seven Hills Vineyards and Les Collines Vineyard, has been planting wine grapes since 1991, when there were only 40 acres of vineyards in the Valley. Having previously been a partner in Canoe Ridge Winery and Hogue Cellars, he started the Pepper Bridge Winery in 1998. McKibben, now 80 and still the managing partner at Pepper Bridge, was gracious enough to sit down with us for a fascinating interview in June 2017.
WALLA WALLA WINE LIMO: Let’s talk about your background a little. I understand that you were an engineer first and that wine is your second career.
NORM McKIBBEN: I am an engineer, but I was really a construction manager.
WWWL: So was wine a passion for you before you got into the industry?
NM: I’d like to say yes, but to be honest, no. What happened is at the construction job I was covering the whole country and I was on the road five days a week. We’d have a board meeting every Saturday too, so my wife was raising the family. I just decided that I didn’t need the money anymore, they’d paid me very well. This was 1983, so I gave them two years notice and I left in ’85. It was my wife’s idea to move back to Walla Walla – I had first met her here. So we moved back to Walla Walla – and there were three wineries here at the time – Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole 41. Over the next five years, the number of wineries doubled – all the way up to six – and we thought we were going great guns (laughs).
WWWL: And then Reininger was the seventh, right?
NM: That would be right and Canoe Ridge was the eighth
WWWL: So how did you get interested in wine?
NM: We’d always drank wine, but not as connoisseurs at all. My wife has a palate, I don’t. That’s why Jean Francois (Pellet) is the head winemaker (laughs). I’d been here about a year and I was with Terry Tucker, a close friend of mine who’s involved in Reininger. I was over at Terry’s house one night and his oldest son was working for Mike Hogue. Mike came by and he said “Norm, while you were gone I started a winery and it’s out of hand, we’re making 30,000 cases of wine a year. I need your help.” So I joined Mike as a partner at Hogue Cellars.
WWWL: 30,000 cases! That’s a lot of wine for that time.
NM: It was. But we took it up to half a million cases, it was the second largest winery in the State. And we sold it [to Vincor or Toronto, Canada] a week before 9/11. We’d grown so big that the financing on all that inventory was so large that I’d have had to go back to work if it collapsed.
Getting in as a partner [at Hogue Cellars] led to me thinking about vineyards. One of the first things I did when I got back to Walla Walla was I bought a wheat ranch out in Waitsburg, figuring I’d put a vineyard on it. It was great and it was terrible all at the same time. I learned a lot because I made every mistake you could make. I brought every expert I could find out there to tell me the grapes would grow well at that location. Friends kept telling me “Give it up, you’re not in the right place” and I finally listened to them. My wife said it was my quarter million dollar introduction to grape growing (laughs). I don’t think she knew what the actual amount of money involved was (laughs).
At the time I gave up on that project, myself and two partners here started planting apples – you pass them coming in the driveway to Pepper Bridge Winery. Eventually, I was able to twist a few arms and get my partners to agree to plan ten acres of vineyards. This was 1991 and there was a total of just 40 acres of vineyards planted in the entire Walla Walla Valley at the time. When that ten acres became ripe, I needed somebody to sell it to, so we split it into four equal parts, to Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Andrew Will. When the bottles started coming out that said Pepper Bridge Vineyard on them, everybody started calling me asking “Can we get grapes? We didn’t plan it like that, it just happened.
About that same time, Mike Hogue was chairing the Washington Wine Commission and he wanted to step off from it and asked if I would take over and I chaired it for four years. I did such a good job that they voted to never let anybody chair for more than one year ever again (laughs)! It really was serendipity the way everything started falling into place.
Myself and five friends owned a corporate ranch along the Columbia River. It was an irrigated ranch and there was a ridge on it where we couldn’t put an irrigation circle, so we decided to plant a vineyard. The Chalone Wine Group came up from California and wanted to buy it --- that was the first time in our knowledge that a California company had come up here and expressed an interest in the wine up here.
WWWL: Because at that time, almost everyone in California believed that there wasn’t any good wine up here.
WWWL: Just like the French thought there wasn’t any good wine in California in the 70s…
NM: We told them we weren’t interested in selling, so they said “let’s be partners” and we agreed to that, as there were benefits to partnering with a California winery.
WWWL: And a lot to learn from them.
NM: We did. So the folks at Chalone wanted to start a winery with us, which turned out to be Canoe Ridge. It was winery number eight in the Valley. We had no idea at the time how big it was going to get. It was a very good venture, but after they [Chalone] got bought out by the French, the relationship wasn’t as good, partly because of the distance and partly because I think the French looked down on our wine at the time.
NM: So by that fall I decided I wanted to open my own small winery. Other wineries had been buying my grapes and making very good wine and it seemed like the right time to get into it. I talked to Tom Eddy, who was the last winemaker at Christian Brothers (now the Culinary Institute of Greystone in St. Helena), who I’d known for a long time and asked for his help. For the better part of a year we would get together regularly to check out wineries he thought I should see, the good and the bad. So in ’98 I talked to Tom about making my wine and he said he’d do the first year for me. About the middle of that year I realized that flying him up from Napa every weekend was getting expensive, so we started to think about hiring the next winemaker.
Norm McKibben with Jean Francois Pellet, head winemaker for Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars
Tom said he had a man in mind, but wouldn’t tell me his name. He had me fly down to the Silverado Country Club to talk to this winemaker over a glass of wine, which of course turned into a bottle of wine. It turned out to be Jean Francois (Pellet) and he was making wine for Heitz Cellars [in Napa]. Jean Francois still says I’m the best salesman in the country because I talked him into leaving Heitz Cellars to come to a town he’d never heard of!
WWWL: What was your pitch to him?
NM: I flew him up here. Now, the Swiss have a habit of moving around for years after they get out of college and he [Jean Francois] had seven years of college, enology and viticulture and he’d grown up in a winery. He told me later that he intended to come up for just a couple of years to see what the area was like. So I flew him up and the first thing he wanted to know was what my grapes were like. So I took him to Leonetti, L’Ecole and Woodward Canyon and drew barrel samples, straight Pepper Bridge. So he was interested. The next thing I did was fly his family here, and as it turned out they were Adventist and College Place is an Adventist community. Their boy was just two months old at the time and now he’s 19 and taking up winemaking at the community college!
WWWL: Already in the family business…
NM: Jean Francois’ last question to me and I didn’t necessarily realize the importance of it at the time, was, “What kind of wine do you want me to make?” And I told him that he’d be the winemaker and that I’d work with him on it. After I tasted his wine for the first time, I made him a partner. That was the second smartest move I’ve ever made. My wife is still the first.
WWWL: Nice. My next question was going to be why you think he’s stayed here all these years after thinking this would be a two-year gig. Obviously making him a partner was a big factor. But there’s so much turnover in the wine industry, even with the winemakers, that it’s amazing he’s been here for nearly two decades.
NM: (laughs). Yes, making him a partner was a factor. But we’re also good friends, which really helps. He’s a natural salesperson, he’s an extrovert. And that French accent doesn’t hurt a bit when you’re selling wine.
WWWL: What kind of advice do you give to friends and acquaintances that tell you they want to open their own winery?
NM: I’ve had a lot of people come to me over the years and say that they’re thinking about starting a winery and want to know my thoughts. They always ask “Are we too late?” and I used to say, “No way, you’re going to be a pioneer.” But that’s not really the case anymore. My advice is usually, “Don’t buy a vineyard. Don’t build bricks and mortar. Buy your grapes, hire a winemaker (if you’re not one yourself) to oversee it and have the wine made for the first two years at a custom crush facility. When it’s time to sell the wine and the rubber hits the road, you’ll find out pretty quickly if you want to be in the wine business. You don’t want to be the guy sitting there with a vineyard saying ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’” (laughs).
With 100+ wineries open and I don’t know how many more wineries waiting to open, if you go to a bank and tell them you’ve never run a winery but you want a loan to build one, they’re gonna laugh at ya. But if you go to a bank and say that you’re already selling wine, but need to have a building, they’ll talk with you.
WWWL: One thing that has attracted myself and many others to Walla Walla is the community between the wineries and the winemakers here. I think its unique and not something that’s common in other wine regions.
NM: Back when we were first starting there was some jealousy across the state that I wasn’t crazy about. At the time I used to go to Napa quite a lot and I’d meet winery owners who would say things like “Don’t go over there, the wine’s not any good” [about their neighboring winery]. Way back when, myself, Rick Small, Gary Figgins and Marty Clubb, we all bought into the idea that If you don’t care for someone’s winery and someone asks you for a recommendation, you just don’t mention that one. We did have one person for a while, he’s no longer in the business by choice, who would talk down about other wineries and he was killing himself by doing that.
WWWL: Not a good idea in a town as small as Walla Walla.
NM: That’s right. We still have writers from out of town come through here and say what a fascinating community we have where the wineries all work together to support each other. I’ve trained my people here [at Pepper Bridge] that when someone asks where else they should go, to give them a list with suggestions on where to go because after they’ve tasted here we should have a good idea what kind of wine they like.
WWWL: I’d like to get your opinion on something that I find troubling that’s going on in other wine regions on the West Coast. If you go to Napa these days (or even Santa Barbara or Oregon), most of the wineries will not refund the tasting fee when you purchase their wine – even if you’re buying $200 of their wine. I don’t understand that.
NM: I don’t either. It’s a lot different than when I first went to Napa in the early 60’s when I was a very young engineer working on the construction of the Transbay Tube. There were seven wineries back then and none of them were charging tasting fees yet.
WWWL: To me, it takes away from the experience that your guests are having at the winery and for some of those wineries doing that [not refunding tasting fees with wine purchase] it begs the question of whether they’re in the business of collecting tasting fees or in the business of selling wine. Obviously tasting fees are necessary because otherwise you’re going to get people coming to drink your wine for free who have no intention of buying wine.
NM: We were actually the first winery in Walla Walla to charge for tasting for exactly that reason; we were just getting swamped with people coming to drink for free. We actually pour about the same dollar amount of wine [equivalent to the tasting fee] in our tasting room.
WWWL: That’s interesting -- I don’t think most wineries are doing that.
NM: About every four years or so I make a trip down the coast and visit the different regions to see what’s going on. There’s some very good wines in California, but the one place we beat them on is Merlot. They tried to kill it with the Sideways movie.
WWWL: I’ve been told that some wineries that made wine they could have called a Merlot [because it had at least 75% Merlot in it] instead labeled it as a red blend because of the backlash against Merlot.
NM: One thing people don’t realize about that movie is the irony of the very last scene. They were drinking a ’61 Cheval Blanc, which is actually a Merlot! It’s supposed to be an inside joke, but very few people caught it.
WWWL: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but I’m interested in your reasoning. Two distinct, completely different wineries in Pepper Bridge and Amavi. Why two wineries instead of just one?
NM: I had promised Jean Francois when he came up from Napa that he could always make Bordeaux wines and we were doing that at Pepper Bridge. But then I planted the Les Collines Vineyard and that vineyard produces great Syrah grapes. I debated back and forth with myself – and I’m not sure yet if I made the right business move – but I already owned that piece of property [where Amavi Cellars ended up being built]. I almost put a house on it! But it had such a beautiful view, we wanted to make Syrah and I also wanted to be able to make wines that were at a bit lower price level, to make it easier for people to discover the wines.
WWWL: Tourism in Walla Walla just keeps growing year after year. Your thoughts on that?
NM: The town has changed so much since I was first here in the 60’s. When I came through the first time it was all farm equipment and hardware. We had two restaurants, a Chinese restaurant and a homestead. Now we’ve got Seattle-quality restaurants – and prices.
WWWL: It’s great that those restaurants are managing to make it even though there’s so much downtime in the winter.
NM: That’s just it, they have to make it in a shorter season here. It’s the same with the hotels. Seattle’s hotel rooms are about 90% occupied year-round. I recently met a Filipino couple who are putting in an eight-room high-end bed and breakfast in Lowden. That’s the kind of thing we need. And out on the old Bergevin homestead some Chinese investors are putting in a very large restaurant and hotel and Va Piano is involved in that.
WWWL: What Walla Walla really needs is a restaurant or two on the South side.
NM: I tried to put one in a few years back. Tom Drumheller, who owns a string of restaurants, was going in with me to put a restaurant in the field below Pepper Bridge, but the County blocked us. They said we couldn’t put it on agricultural ground. I don’t like to fight with the County, I lean on them when needed, but at that time there weren’t as many wineries over here, so they probably figured there wasn’t a need for it.
WWWL: What’s your thoughts on the future of wine in Walla Walla and Washington State? How much more can it grow?
NM: While the growth can seem a bit scary, right now Washington State sells about 6% of the wine sold in the United States – and the United States is still a small percentage of the wine sold throughout the world. I think the wine industry and the town will just keep growing and we’ll have to have more restaurants and hotels come in to keep up with us. Because you don’t drive over here from Seattle and go back the same day – you’ve got to stay overnight.
As I’m sure you well know, when you go into the wine business you’ve got two choices – keep your winery small, selling high-end wines over the counter or you have to go out and distribute your wines. The distribution part has gotten more difficult as the giant distributors keep gobbling up the smaller distributors. Those large distributors aren’t interested in a winery the size of Pepper Bridge no matter what our reputation is because they want to make deals with large grocery chains to get the price way down and they want to talk pallets instead of bottles.
WWWL: What do you think it will take for the real estate prices to increase significantly in Walla Walla? With the growth in the wine industry and all the nice restaurants here you’d think prices would go up a lot. But the prices are still somewhat depressed; it seems that the prices can’t go up much until the people that live here full-time figure out how to get higher paying jobs.
NM: I think it’s a product of the average age of the residents in town. When I first came to Walla Walla there were mostly wheat ranches. The oldest son would inherit the wheat ranch when the parents got to an age where they decided they should quit working. The oldest son would then take over the ranch and support the parents the rest of their lives. The younger boys would either work under him or leave the area -- and most of them left the area. And the girls would either marry a rancher or leave the area. Because of that, the average age was way up when I first got to town. But it’s way down now, as business attracts people looking for work. We have no trouble finding people to work the counter, but it can be difficult to find competent people with experience who know the wine business.
WWWL: Tell me a bit about your family. I believe you have five children and two of them are working in the wine industry.
NM: That’s right. My oldest son Shane manages our largest vineyard and my son Eric manages Amavi. I have three daughters, all of whom are professionals working in the Seattle area. Two daughters have PHD’s, one is an attorney and one did brain cell research for several years. Now she’s on Vashon, designing clothes and selling them on the internet. I make frequent efforts to get them to move back to Walla Walla!
WWWL: What do you like to drink when you’re at home on a typical night?
NM: I used to drink a lot more Bordeaux than I do now. My wife actually prefers the fresh fruit instead of the older wines. If we ever come close to having fisticuffs it would be over the fact that I brought her a 20-year old bottle of Bordeaux and she’d say she’d rather have a good wine (laughs) like the ones we have here in Walla Walla. I’ve shifted a bit over the years. I grew up liking a lot of wine from Burgundy, but my palate doesn’t pick up all the little nuances that I used to get. I can tell you this – your palate doesn’t improve with age.
WWWL: I’m gonna put you on the spot here. Hypothetically, the world’s going to end in 24 hours. What bottle in your cellar do you have to open?
NM: I’m biased here of course, but it’s a 1999 Pepper Bridge Cabernet. I turned 80 last September and I opened up a Magnum each of our 1998 Cab and our 1999 Cab and they’re both drinking beautifully. I don’t know how much longer they’ll last – I tell people that I no longer think in terms of 20 years into the future when talking about a bottle of wine (laughs). I’ve got some very nice old wines that I like to taste and show. I think a 15-year-old wine that still has some fruit in it is preferable to the real old ones. I’ve got some of the first Woodward Canyon vintages, but I don’t have any of the ’78 Leonetti. In fact, Gary (Figgins) and I drank the last one together. I bought Randy Dunn’s wines [Dunn Vineyards in Napa] for a long time because they were supposed to last forever. They didn’t. I bought some for the grandkids for when they turn 21, but the wines have gone over the hill.
WWWL: Thank you so much for your time. This was fascinating.
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