In the annals of Washington wine, Norm McKibben (b. 1936) was both late to the party and early to the party. McKibben had worked as an engineer for more than 25 years and was approaching his 50th birthday when he first tried his hand in the wine business. In 1985 he invested in Hogue Cellars, and before long McKibben had planted 20 acres of wine grapes on his Waitsburg wheat ranch. In 1991 he helped establish Canoe Ridge vineyard south of Walla Walla. Later came his Pepper Bridge vineyard, a legendary site in the Washington wine industry, and in 1998, Pepper Bridge Winery. In this November 11, 2021 interview with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner, McKibben talks about his early days in wine, the special characteristics of Pepper Bridge grapes, and his hopes for the future of Walla Walla wine country.
Hooking up with Hogue
McKibben grew up in Sheridan, Oregon, and attended Oregon State College (now University), graduating in 1959 with a degree in civil engineering. Already married and a father, he went straight to work in the heavy construction industry in Portland. Two years later he hired on with another construction firm, Peter Kiewit Sons, in Vancouver, Washington. McKibben and his growing family moved around the Northwest for his work projects; after a spending time in Utah, they eventually settled in Walla Walla. McKibben retired from Kiewit in 1985 and soon an acquaintance named Mike Hogue had talked him into planting a vineyard.
Jim Kershner: And so what did he say to you? How did he talk you into this?
Norm McKibben: Well he said, "Norm, while you were gone I started a winery. It's out of hand, and I need management help and finances." And I was sitting there, I hadn't even thought about what I was going to do yet, other than how to help ... But I said, "Okay" and bought in him with him, and as really just an investor. And then next thing I knew he was asking me whether I would come on the board of directors of the company. And I bought more and more into the company.
JK: Tell me what the state of the wine industry in Walla Walla was like at that time?
NM: 1985, there were three wineries here. And less than 40 acres of wine grapes, and most of those were the Italian families that had been here for years, and years ... And so Mike talked me into planting about 20 acres on my wheat ranch I'd bought as part of investing my money, and after three years I realized that I knew nothing about wine grapes. I was learning how to grow them, but I was spending a lot of money, and the location I chose was not a good soil.
JK: This was where?
NM: It was at Whiskey Creek out of Waitsburg.
JK: But that was your first venture in trying to grow grapes?
NM: Yes. But I'm very stubborn, and so I started calling every expert I could locate. All of them gave me good advice, but said, "Your best advice I can give you is close this vineyard down. Not in the right location" [laughs].
JK: So was there any inkling that Walla Walla would be a good place to grow grapes at this time?
NM: Honestly, no. When I came back to Walla Walla, and for the first years, everybody was buying their grapes outside, there were no real commercial vineyards here.
JK: Buying them from Yakima Valley?
NM: Yeah, Yakima Valley primarily. Well, Red Mountain. And so after working with Mike, when I finally said, "Mike, this has grown into a big factory, and I retired once, I'd like my own small winery." But I was hooked on the concept by then. And I came back here, I started Pepper Bridge Winery in 1998, and hired Jean-François (Pellet) that same year, he's my winemaking partner now. And so in 1991 I decided to plant some wine grapes here, just see what it was like.
Getting Started on Canoe Ridge
While still partnered with Hogue Cellars, McKibben joined another group of investors to plant Canoe Ridge Vineyard south of Walla Walla, mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. They later built Canoe Ridge Winery.
JK: Explain to me where Canoe Ridge is.
NM: It's on the Washington side of the Columbia River, right down almost against the river. I'm trying to think of the nearest little town; it is just the other side of Boardman, Oregon, on the Washington side.
NM: And it turned out we'd planted some acreage, and the Chalone Wine Group came up and asked if they could buy it. They wanted to come into Washington state, and that's the first time an outsider had really ... And we said, "No." And they said, "Well, will you joint venture?" And we said, "Yes." So we became partners with Chalone. But that got me really looking at the industry, and what Mike Hogue had taught me was marketing, because to this day I tell young people that come to ask me about a winery, that one: You need a palate if you're going to be the winemaker, pure and simple. And training, but a palate. But you can always buy wine grapes, so don't start planting a vineyard first thing, because that's very expensive, and it's a whole different expertise, I know from experience. Then if you're not a good winemaker, hire a good winemaker. But the rubber hits the road when you try to sell it.
JK: Did people think that Washington was going to be a good red wine producer at that time yet?
NM: In 1978, Gary Figgins, he and Rick Small who owned Woodward Canyon later on, were drill sergeants in the army reserve. And after their meetings they would come to Gary's house and drink their homemade wine, and one day Gary told Rick, "I'm going to go commercial." Rick said, "I'll help you." And so that 1978 wine he made was Merlot, and he won a couple awards around locally that qualified him for, at the time there was a big final taste off you might say in Atlanta, Georgia. Well, what he did is win the best red wine in the United States on his first release, then of course you can imagine the wine writers said, "Well who is Leonetti, and where the hell is Walla Walla? [laughs] So that's really where it started.
JK: So by the time you planted some at Canoe Ridge, there was at least an idea that red wine could be the future?
NM: Yeah, there was. By that time I was gaining more and more confidence, more out of ignorance than experience, that yes, we can do it here. And so when I planted my first Walla Walla Valley vineyard in 1991 I was already working on the design of a winery. Pepper Bridge Winery was constructed in 1998.
Pepper Bridge Vineyard
McKibben planted Cabernet Sauvignon in his new Pepper Bridge Vineyard. When the grapes were mature three years later, he sold them to Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41, Woodward Canyon, and Andrew Will -- four of the most acclaimed wineries in Washington. When their bottlings came out two years later, his phone began ringing off the hook; everyone wanted his grapes.
JK: So what is it that made Pepper Bridge superior to other grapes?
NM: All I can tell you is, one, it's location, location with them. I'd like to say that at the time I knew what I was doing; on location I did not. And secondly, it's how they're managed for sure. And third is Mother Nature, who you can't control her, but you'll know enough hopefully to plant in an area where historically it's good weather. But really the Walla Walla Valley as it turns out, the soil here was brought in by the Missoula floods, and it's quite sandy. It's actually a sandy silt loam, and it drains fairly well, and grapes don't like wet feet. So it turned out to be just very good soil. And my winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet, who has the grape palate, said he can tell any Walla Walla Valley wine by the taste of the dusty malt flavor in it. I can't taste that.
JK: Well, that's why you hired a winemaker to do this, correct?
JK: You sort of managed the other parts, and let him manage that?
NM: I talked him into leaving Heitz Cellars to come up here. I did not realize how good our soil was at the time, but I asked him if he would fly up and look. Well first I said, "Are you familiar with Walla Walla?" "No." "Washington state?" "No." "Well, would you consider flying up, and look at what we have going on?" And at the time there were 15 wineries in here, so it wasn't that impressive to him. But we went around tasting, and I could see he was getting more and more interested. And I fired a shot across the bow as I was taking him back to the airplane, and said, "I think you're interested, what do you say?" And he said, "Well, you're asking me to leave one of the best-known wineries in the country, and come to one you haven't built yet." ... I said, "I'll give you a two year contract." Well that was 24 years ago. Before the two years was up I made him a partner.
JK: And he's still the winemaker?
NM: Yeah. And he's told me since, that what surprised him was the flavors he was tasting. He came out of Switzerland, he's multi-generation there, and he had his own vineyard, and he grew up in his dad's winery. So he knew what he was talking about there. And he said, "No, I love the flavor here." And that's what brought him up. Every really good winemaker wants to make a great wine, and you can only make what the grapes give you.
Pepper Bridge Winery
The Pepper Bridge estate winery was established in 1998, Pellet was hired in 1998, and the winery's gravity-flow crush facility opened in 2000. According to wine writer Paul Gregutt, "Pepper Bridge wines have complexity and balance -- they don't stop ... they are seamless and nicely integrate the elements of herb, fruit, and barrel toast. They are released young, but are built to live" (Gregutt, 186).
JK: Pepper Bridge Winery got on the radar pretty soon among the wine world. What were some of its big accomplishments? What were some of the big hits?
NM: The first formally trained winemaker in the valley started Seven Hills Vineyard, and Seven Hills Winery, Seven Hills Vineyard is ... That's another story. And that was Casey McClellan, and so when Jean-François came in, and he had I think eight years of training and Switzerland besides growing up on it. He was the first really highly trained winemaker to come into the valley, and that attracted a lot of attention in his wines once they tasted his wines, that attracted more attention. So that's really I think how it took off. The building was the first really major building in the valley for a winery building, and that helped to attract people in.
Pellet made the wines at Pepper Bridge Winery and gave advice at Seven Hills Winery, where McKibben was a partner. Wine & Spirits magazine wrote that Seven Hills Vineyard was one of the 12 greatest vineyards in the world. Meanwhile, the Walla Walla wine industry began to grow rapidly. By 2022 there were more than 120 wineries in Walla Walla and more than 2,900 acres planted to wine grapes. Walla Walla has become a tourist destination for its wine industry.
JK: Well, that brings up the issue of just the incredible proliferation of the numbers of wineries that are in the Walla Walla Valley now. And this has all happened within your lifetime.
NM: Yeah, since I retired [laughs].
JK: Yeah, since you retired the first time. And it's remarkable, isn't it? Did you think that this could ever have happened?
NM: No. If you asked me, at what point did I predict this? I never did. What scares me now, is that we may grow to the point that there's too many. And I don't mean too many from a marketing standpoint, but where the people in town are very nice, and it's a very friendly town. I don't want to ever have them say, "We need the wineries out of here."
JK: You probably don't have to worry about that, I think they're pretty happy about it. But from just a handful to over a hundred, 200 maybe.
NM: I'll tell you the things I think made it, and I've watched them grow. One, you've got to have enough center of mass that people come, because like I said, you can't afford to go to distributors for everything. And so I have always pitched Walla Walla as a good place to grow wine when people come tasting, because they're tasting a good wine. So they start listening ... But you've got to have the hotels, and you've got to have restaurants, because the wives make the choice a lot of times where you're going. And [hotels and restaurants] have grown right along with us. When we came to town there were two restaurants, a small-town restaurant, and a Chinese restaurant, that was it downtown. So they're growing right along with the wine industry.
JK: And it's interesting, besides just the wine industry itself growing, the wine tourism industry has grown right along with it, and helped the wine industry itself grow too.
NM: It definitely has. And another big part of that, and you may have already knew, but maybe 10, 12 years ago, I lose track of time, the big ladies magazine nationwide tells Walla Walla is the friendliest town in the nation, the friendliest small town in the nation. And it truly is a very friendly small town ... And the people believe that. And I think when tourists come in, there's a lot of difference between here and spots like Napa that's quite commercialized. And we get a lot of people that come in, and say, "Well, we always used to go to Napa for the wine, but we switched to Walla Walla. It's more enjoyable just to be here."
Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Norm McKibben by Peter Blecha.