MILTON-FREEWATER — Marty Clubb thinks he has come upon a perfect place to grow wine grapes in the Walla Walla Valley.
Along with several other luminaries, the owner of L’Ecole No. 41 is heavily invested in SeVein, a group of high-elevation vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Among them are Norm McKibben (Pepper Bridge Winery), Gary and Chris Figgins (Leonetti Cellar) and Bob Rupar (Nelson Irrigation).
Additionally, retired NFL and Washington State University star Drew Bledsoe has planted grapes for his Doubleback winery, and several other wineries also have bought in, as has Premiere Columbia Properties, part of global ag investment firm Westchester Agriculture Asset Management.
Clubb’s vineyard at SeVein is called Ferguson, named for Jean and Baker Ferguson, his in-laws, who founded L’Ecole No. 41 some 30 years ago in Lowden.
“It will be our crème de la crème,” Clubb said of Ferguson. “It will take a few years because of the youthful vines, but for the wines to have this dimension this young is enormously promising.”
Clubb owns 42 acres at SeVein, 18 of which are planted so far to cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and a bit of syrah. As he continues to plant Ferguson, he estimates 95 percent of it will be to red Bordeaux varieties.
“That’s our strength and our focus at L’Ecole,” Clubb told Great Northwest Wine.
The crown jewel of SeVein has been Seven Hills Vineyard, first planted in 1980. McKibben bought the vineyard in 1994, then partnered with Gary Figgins, Clubb and Rupar to expand it to more than 200 acres.
“It’s the anchoring property for SeVein,” Clubb said. “It’s the identity.”
The property for SeVein once was dryland-farmed wheat fields owned by Mormon families. The Seven Hills partners were salivating at the opportunity to use it for wine grapes but feared they might never get that chance because of the religious aspect of the ownership. However, the property came up for sale in 2004, and the Seven Hills group used a third party to make a blind cash offer for the land, and the sale went through.
The key to the SeVein properties is elevation. Compared with much of the rest of the vast Columbia Valley, the Walla Walla Valley is relatively cool and wet because air and clouds are stopped by the Blue Mountains. This year, for example, the Walla Walla Valley has received 9.3 inches of rain so far, compared with 4 inches on Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope and just 2.4 inches in the Ancient Lakes near Quincy.
Because of this, Walla Walla is more prone to weather events that can damage vines. To mitigate this, grape growers prefer to plant vineyards on slopes at higher elevations — exactly what SeVein offers. The lowest elevation there is 850 feet at the bottom of Seven Hills, while the highest point is at the top of Ferguson — 1,480 feet. At that height, cool air will slide down the hill and settle on the valley floor, away from the tender vines. This spot might be the area least prone to frost and freeze damage in the entire Walla Walla Valley.
Additionally, the soils are fascinating at SeVein. While most of the Columbia Valley is on top of basalt bedrock from lava flows some 15 million years ago, SeVein is on fractured basalt that allows vines to work their way down. Near the bottom of the property at Seven Hills, windblown loess soil — which is sandy — sits atop silts left by the ice age floods about 15,000 years ago. But the upper reaches of SeVein are above the height of the floods, and just a thin layer of soil sits atop the fractured basalt.
This is dramatically evident in an area of Ferguson that was excavated to provide gravel for roads. A high wall shows how the ancient basalt formed and fractured, with the thin layer of topsoil above it.
In addition to Ferguson, several other vineyards already have been planted at SeVein — about 400 acres so far. The total area for SeVein is 2,700 acres, and there is enough water to plant 1,527 acres. This would effectively double the vineyard acreage in the viticulturally small Walla Walla Valley. Clubb works with grapes from nearly every American Viticultural Area in the state, but the soul of his wines comes from the Walla Walla Valley. He sees Ferguson as the third leg of his Walla Walla Valley program.
“And not only our third leg, but our strongest leg,” he said.
Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, at greatnorthwestwine.com. He is the author of “The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer’s Handbook” (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times.