Tasting Notes: Seeing Reds

Walla Walla Valley’s global success owes much to local wine entrepreneur extraordinaire Norm M

Category: Tasting Notes


Norm McKibben gets more done before 6 a.m. than most of us do all day. Whether it’s checking his computer satellite vineyard probes for soil moisture levels or making predawn drives in his truck to check on the ripeness of a block of Merlot grapes, he is one of the most active and influential architects of the burgeoning Walla Walla Valley wine scene. And given the many wine-related pies this man’s talented fingers are in, he needs each second of the day.

While he is quick to point out (and name) the non-silent partners he has in every venture—including the likes of Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41—McKibben often ends up being the public face. Whether it is his work for the world-famous Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards, the highly touted Pepper Bridge and Amavi wineries, the new state-of-the-art custom crush facility Artifex—all in Walla Walla—or the recently formed sustainable-vineyard-certifying body Vinea:The Wine Growers’ Sustainable Trust, of which he is a founding board member, this über-man is front and center. Not for attention, but to ensure that things get done right.

Grape growing is McKibben’s biggest passion. After retiring from a fruitful career as a manager in heavy construction in 1985 (he’s now in his 70s), he learned how to grow world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes by managing numerous vineyards across the state for the Hogue and Canoe Ridge wineries, among others. He settled into the Walla Walla Valley exclusively in 1991, with an initial 10 acres at Pepper Bridge Vineyard, south of Walla Walla. Since then, he has directly managed 500-plus acres of mostly red grapes (Syrah a most notable addition) between the Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Les Collines vineyards—with another 1,200 acres in one large, particularly impressive development that will effectively double the acreage under cultivation in the Walla Walla Valley AVA in the process.

The quality of the fruit he coaxes out of each vineyard is world-class. In his vineyards, everything from computer -controlled soil moisture and humidity and irrigation systems to organic compost tea piles for healthy soils is employed in an effort to perfectly ripen the grapes. Sixty-five wineries in Washington and Oregon—including superstars Waters, Buty, Leonetti, Januik and newcomer Gramercy Cellars—line up to get the chance to put grapes from his vineyards into their bottles. Some blend the wines with fruit from other regions of the state; others choose to make single-vineyard bottlings displaying the Pepper Bridge name as a major selling point. Of course, after realizing their true quality, McKibben has set aside a portion of the best vineyard blocks for the winery he has partially owned and managed since 1998—Pepper Bridge Winery.

Started with the express intent of producing an ultra-premium luxury brand—“We were nervous about this goal when planning the winery back in 1997, but we knew we would do whatever it took to get to [a then unimaginably expensive] $50-a-bottle quality,” says McKibben—Pepper Bridge Winery concentrates on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In 1999, he brought on Swiss-born winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet as one of the first European winemaking partners in Washington state. Together they have managed to bring a distinct earth- and acid-driven elegance to the super-ripe Walla Walla fruit they work with, which has, in not even 10 vintages, placed Pepper Bridge wines among the very best our state has to offer.

Shayn’s Picks:

2005 L’Ecole No. 41 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate M