Seven Hills Winery, one of Walla Walla Valley’s founding wineries, announced this week the retirement of co-founder Casey McClellan. Bobby Richards, who has worked at the winery since 2013, has been named winemaker.
“It’s been a fun run,” says McClellan, who founded Seven Hills with his wife Vicky in 1988 as the valley’s fifth winery. “It’s been constant growth, constant hard work.”
Seven Hills Winery and the McClellan family have played integral roles in establishing Walla Walla Valley as a premier wine region. In addition to the winery’s success, Casey worked with his father, James, and Herb Hendricks to establish the valley’s first commercial vineyard in 1982.
“A lot has changed,” McClellan says. “We’ve gone from five wineries to over 100 [wineries] and 3,000 acres of vineyards now. It does not look like the same place.”
Seven Hills Winery has made its mark over the years crafting classically styled wines known for their restraint and aging potential. Even as the wine industry more broadly moved toward riper (and riper) styles, Seven Hills did not.
“I think if we would have been willing to bend the style more dramatically, it would have been a more market-friendly approach, but we really wanted to stand for something in wine, and we did. We stayed the course,” McClellan says.
New winemaker Bobby Richards is a Northwest native who became interested in fermentation science in college. After graduating with a degree in forest management from Oregon State University, he spent two harvests at Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, Oregon and went on to become a cellar hand at Tranche Cellars in Walla Walla. Richards subsequently worked a harvest at Seven Hills Winery in 2013. He was eventually hired on full-time and worked his way up to associate winemaker.
“I’ve got big shoes to fill,” Richards says. “I want to stay true to what Seven Hills is, showcasing the unique terroir that we have here in Walla Walla. I want to keep crafting wines that are food friendly [and] ageable, with nice balance, without oak overshadowing the fruit.”
This week’s change was not unexpected. The McClellans sold Seven Hills Winery to Crimson Wine Group in 2016, with Vicky McClellan retiring at that time. Several other long-time valley wineries, such as
“There’s a changing of the guard here in Walla Walla,” says Richards. “We have these pioneers that are now retiring, and that have raised a family here, created this community such that there’s opportunity for people like me to continue in this family-oriented business and community that Walla Walla has.”
While stepping aside from full-time work, McClellan will continue to consult for Seven Hills.
“I’ll be there for Bobby when he has a question about how things historically worked and try to be helpful in the way of maintaining continuity stylistically,” says McClellan. “But I have every confidence in Bobby.”
Images courtesy of Crimson Wine Group.