Landowners Envision Walla Walla Vineyards

Partners look to California to find buyers interested in parcels with water rights

by Paul Franson
sevein walla walla
The SeVein project totals 2,000 acres in the Walla Walla AVA. Parcels that appear green on the map have been sold, but the others are available. The smallest is 40 acres.
Milton-Freewater, Ore.—After taking a hiatus during the depths of the recession, partners from the large SeVein vineyard project in the Walla Walla AVA are about to start marketing its vineyard parcels once more. As grape supplies tighten, the effort is targeting premium California wineries facing fruit shortages.

Vintners Norm McKibben, Marty Clubb, Gary Figgins, Chris Figgins, and Bob Rupar bought the property adjacent to their renowned Seven Hills Vineyard in the Oregon part of the appellation in 2004. They had just started selling vineyard blocks in 2007 when the recession hit.

The partners and winemaker Jean-François Pellet bought a few of the parcels and sold some—including one to former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe—but a volatile real estate market convinced them to put the sales effort on hold until now.

Though buyers can build homes on the sites, the intention is for them to be used as commercial vineyards. Property parcel sizes begin at 40 acres. Oregon allows winery and tasting rooms to be built on vineyard ground, and several wineries are planning construction.

The SeVein project totals 2,000 acres. If all of the parcels sold to vineyard developers, the new owners could significantly boost vineyard acreage in the Walla Walla appellation, where many wineries depend on fruit from sources outside the AVA.

    From the ground up

    The geologic foundation of SeVein was laid millions of years ago in one of the world’s largest lava flows, the Columbia River Basalts, resulting in thousands of feet of dense basalt covering the inland Northwest. Reworked through the eons by violent uplifting, fragmentation and subsequent ice-age floods, these rolling hillsides were then frosted with layers of wind-deposited loess. The highest point in the Sevein Development is about 1,450 feet, according to Kevin Pogue of Walla Walla. "In the parts of the property that lie below 1,200 feet, wind-blown silt overlies layered sand and silt deposited by the Missoula floods, while above 1,200 feet the silt directly overlies Columbia River Basalt," he said.
From wheat to wine
McKibben and his partners bought the land from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was growing wheat as part of its charitable work. The unirrigated land wasn’t very productive, however, due to the area’s annual rainfall of just 8 to 9 inches.

SeVein, by contrast, formed a water company that dug wells down to 1,000 feet to capture water. The water company is owned on a pro-rata share by the landowners; it also maintains roads, wells, mainlines and holding ponds and delivers water under pressure to the edge of each vineyard.

McKibben says that the price per plantable acre averages about $25,000, and that a 40-acre block will normally have between 30 and 40 plantable acres. Buyers are granted one share of the water company for every plantable acre; land purchases include specific water rights.

More than 1,000 feet below the surface, SeVein taps water filtered through multiple layers of basalt and replenished from nearby Blue Mountain snowfall. Three deep basalt wells are interconnected with five lined reservoirs/bulges, and nearly 10 miles of buried pipeline provide a total capacity of more than 5,000 gallons per minute.

Background experience
Norm McKibben is a managing partner in Seven Hills Vineyard, Les Collines Vineyard and Pepper Bridge Winery; he and his family are partners in Amavi Cellars and the custom crush Artifex Wine Co. Marty Clubb owns L’Ecole N° 41, and Gary Figgins and Chris Figgins own Leonetti Cellar. Bob Rupar owns an irrigation company and has been involved in viticulture for more than 20 years.

The partners’ Seven Hills Vineyard was one of the first commercial vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley AVA when it was planted in 1980. It was expanded in 1989.

McKibben bought the initial 20-acre old block in 1994 and, in partnership with Gary Figgins, Clubb and Rupar, expanded Seven Hills Vineyard to more than 200 acres in 1997 and 1998.

The three partnering wineries (Pepper Bridge Winery, L’Ecole Nº 41 and Leonetti Cellar) collectively utilize 50% of Seven Hills’ fruit; more than 25 other premium wineries buy the other half.

Vineyard management
North Slope Management, which is owned by the developing partners, offers professional vineyard management services such as trellis construction, planting, pruning, irrigation management, soil amendments and harvesting.

The group hasn’t yet sold any vineyards to Californians, but the partners will be making sales trip to California in May to brief interested buyers about the Walla Walla Valley and SeVein properties and to let them taste wine made from SeVein and Seven Hills fruit.

Get more information at seveinvineyards.com.

Posted on 03.28.2012 - 15:37:36 PST
The highest point in the Sevein Development is actually about 1450 ft. not 1050 ft. as is stated in the "From the Ground Up" inset box. In the parts of the property that lie below 1200 ft., wind-blown silt overlies layered sand and silt deposited by the Missoula floods, while above 1200 ft. the silt directly overlies Columbia River Basalt.