An Oregon boy who came up working construction and studied civil engineering in college, Norm McKibben became a can-do serial entrepreneur in the wine business. After retiring as president of a national construction company at age 48, McKibben moved his family to Walla Walla in 1985, planted an apple orchard, and joined on as a partner with Hogue Cellars Winery. At the time, the state's top wineries were buying most of their grapes from vineyards outside the Walla Walla area; McKibben was inspired to try his hand locally, planting some grapevines to create Pepper Bridge Vineyard. When wineries began winning awards for wines made with McKibben's grapes, he decided to found his own winemaking operation, Pepper Bridge Winery, whose Bordeaux-style wines also were lauded by critics. In succeeding years, McKibben and his partners launched the Amavi Cellars Winery; various additional properties including Les Collines Vineyard, SeVein Vineyards, and Seven Hills; and the Artifex custom-crush service facility in Walla Walla. Today (2020), Pepper Bridge Vineyard supplies grapes to about 30 outside wineries, and McKibben's various enterprises are recognized for their superior wines, sustainable agriculture techniques, and commitment to environmental stewardship.
Life Before the Wine Business
Norman Vernon McKibben was born on September 12, 1936, in his family's home adjacent to the Oregon Railway Company's narrow-gauge tracks in the tiny hamlet of Airlie, Oregon. In 1942, his parents, Vernon Norman McKibben and Evelyn Louise McKibben, moved the family to Sheridan, Oregon, where his father ran a rock-crushing operation. Norm graduated from Sheridan High School and enrolled at Oregon State University in nearby Corvallis, where he studied engineering. He had a scare one summer while working for his father operating the rock-crushing machine: "I fell 30 feet and landed on my back -- so I just shook up everything inside and broke my wrists" (McKibben Interview with author). Upon healing, he returned to OSU, married Carol Lee Joan Haenny in 1958, and graduated in 1959. The couple was soon blessed with a baby daughter named Lisa, and two more children, Laurie and Eric, would follow.
Before long, McKibben embarked on a fruitful career with a Nebraska-based construction company, Peter Kiewit Sons' Co., working his way up from the field to president of a subsidiary company at age 43. Typically traveling crosscountry six days a week, McKibben at various points managed offices in Walla Walla, Salt Lake City, and Omaha, Nebraska, moving his family to each location. While in Walla Walla, he ran crews working at the Hanford Site and on highway projects around the Tri-Cities area. While they were residing in Walla Walla, his wife Carol died at age 39. One year later he met Virginia Herron, they married, and he adopted her two children, Elaine and Shane.
At age 48, and now serving as chairman of the subsidiary company's board, McKibben "finally realized the kids were leaving home. And I did not need any more money, to be candid. And I just said to my wife, 'I think it's time to hang it up.' And I looked at Tucson and La Jolla and she said, 'Well, I'm going back to Walla Walla.' So that's truly how I ended up in Walla Walla" (McKibben interview).
Vineyards and Wineries
The McKibbens moved back to Walla Walla in 1985 following Norm's retirement, and before long he got involved helping new friends Tom and Kent Waliser with their apple-packing business. In 1987, McKibben met up with an old friend, Mike Hogue, whose family's Hogue Cellars in Prosser had been producing wine since 1982. "Mike was visiting with me and he said, 'Norm, while you were gone I started a winery. It's out of hand. It's [producing] 30,000 cases [per year].' So, a good size winery! 'And I need a partner and some money.' So I joined Mike as a partner" (McKibben interview).
Meanwhile, Mike Hogue inspired McKibben to plant his own vines -- Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- on McKibben's 40-acre Whiskey Creek wheatfield property, located north of Walla Walla between Dayton and Waitsburg. The goal was to grow grapes to make sparkling wines, but by the time the vines were of proper age to begin harvesting grapes (the third year, or "third leaf"), Hogue Cellars had decided to stop making sparkling wines. While that early venture went bust, a far more successful endeavor was McKibben's participation in an investment group that planted what would become one of Washington's finest vineyards, Canoe Ridge, located in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) bordering the Yakima Valley.
Perhaps McKibben's most fortunate business decision was entering another joint venture with the Waliser brothers. Along with Bob Rupar, a hydraulics engineer and manager with global firm Nelson Irrigation, the group set out to plant an apple orchard, buying an old 200-acre wheat ranch south of Walla Walla near the Oregon border, land that included agricultural water rights.
This land was located near a historic crossing over the Walla Walla River, a site long owned by the pioneering Pepper family. It was here at "Pepper's Crossing" that travelers along the old 1850s military road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Dalles on the Columbia River availed themselves of a shallow fording spot. Later in the 1800s, a bridge called Pepper's Bridge was built, and today Peppers Bridge Road still runs through the area. The Pepper Bridge orchard was planted in 1989 and 1990, and the fruit's high quality inspired McKibben, as one of the managing partners, to add grapevines next to the apple orchard. In 1991, five acres were planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and five more to Merlot.
The Great Grape Rush
Their timing was perfect. The Walla Walla American Viticulture Area (AVA) had been officially established in 1984, but now, seven years later, only 40 acres had been dedicated to winegrape vineyards. Even the area's highest-profile wineries, such as Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, and L'Ecole No. 41, had not been making true "Walla Walla" wines, as they'd largely been buying grapes from vineyards located in the Yakima Valley AVA and Columbia Valley AVA.
As it happened, word of the Pepper Bridge orchard's addition of grapevines raced through the small wine community. As Paul Gregutt of The Seattle Times noted later in a book he authored, "The pent-up demand for true Walla Walla fruit was so great that ... within a week of the vines going into the ground, Marty Clubb of L'Ecole No. 41 approached Norm to buy fruit from this new vineyard. However, by then, all of the future grapes had already been sold to Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery, and Andrew Will Winery" (Gregutt, 106).
No doubt disappointed, Clubb inquired if he could at least be put on a waiting list. Later, during the young vineyard's "second leaf," McKibben was busily trimming the vines and dropping clusters of fruit when, "Marty Clubb came by and he said 'Well, what are you going to do with those?' And I said 'I'm throwin' 'em on the ground.' And he said 'Can I have them?' He made one barrel of wine and gave me a case" (McKibben interview). In light of that happy transaction, McKibben committed to letting Clubb buy an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon and an acre of Merlot for future vintages. L'Ecole made the most of them, creating some astonishingly good wines, including L'Ecole No. 41's Apogee blend.
In 1994 McKibben purchased a 20-acre vineyard called Seven Hills, about 10 miles south of Pepper Bridge in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. By 1996 he'd brought in Figgins and Clubb and expanded the vineyard, originally planted in 1980 and 1981, to 200 acres. It later was increased to more than 250 planted acres growing mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with smaller portions of Syrah, Malbec, and Sangiovese. Among the top wines produced from the vineyard's cabernet fruit is L'Ecole No. 41's Perigee. In time, Seven Hills would be named one of the 10 great vineyards in the world by Wine & Spirits magazine. McKibben considers that accolade one of the pivotal events of his career, one that "did not hurt sales one bit [laughter]. I tend to agree with him, of course, but I'm biased" (McKibben interview).
Pepper Bridge Winery
In 1998 McKibben was named "Grape Grower of the Year" by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and was appointed to chair the Washington State Wine Commission, a post he held through 2001. As the reputation of his vineyard's fruit took hold, the idea of launching a Pepper Bridge Winery naturally arose. Joining McKibben as partners in the project were winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet and beverage-industry veteran Ray Goff, who had spent three decades with Anheuser-Busch. It was on a hop-buying trip through Washington that Goff discovered the high quality of Walla Walla wines and jumped at the chance to get involved. Mike Hogue also joined, as a silent partner.
Tom Eddy, a Napa Valley winemaker and winery owner, helped McKibben design the Pepper Bridge Winery production facility. It was also he who tipped off McKibben to the talented Pellet, a Swiss-born, third-generation winemaker who was working at the esteemed Joseph Heitz Cellars in St. Helena, California. A formally trained viticulturist and enologist, Pellet had vineyard-management and winemaking experience from his years working in Switzerland, Spain, and Germany. McKibben offered him the opportunity to serve as head winemaker and partner in a new winery. Later Pellet would joke that he had "no clue where Walla Walla was, no clue at all about Washington" (Gregutt, 257), but he drove up and joined with McKibben and Goff
A three-level winery was built into a hillside. It was the eighteenth winery in the Walla Walla Valley, and in 2000 the tasting room opened, offering visitors vineyard views along with wine samples. The winery's website describes its innovative approach and commitment to quality: "By utilizing innovative design and techniques, Pepper Bridge Winery has enhanced its quality and dedication to crafting premium wines. We built the first state-of-the-art, gravity-flow facility in Washington state, complete with subterranean caves. In a gravity-flow winery such as this, the grape pulp and juice are moved from the sorting table to the tanks to the barrels via gravity, rather than by pumps. This gentle treatment of the grapes prevents the shearing of seeds and the introduction of bitter tannins" ("About Pepper Bridge Winery").
A Growing Business
By 2001 Hogue Cellars had grown its business to the level that it was now producing a half-million cases per year -- and it began to feel like a factory operation to McKibben. So, he informed Mike Hogue that, "I’d already retired once and I'd like to again, and that he could choose his own partner. I wasn’t going to sell to somebody he didn’t want. And he said 'If you’re getting out, I am too." In early September 2001 the Hogue Winery was sold, with Mike Hogue then focusing on running vineyards and McKibben on his various other enterprises. "Mike stayed in grapes full-bore. He’s a farmer. So, I stayed a partner in vineyards over there and in turn I made him a partner in two wineries. He'd been very good to me and I wanted to be good to him" (McKibben interview).
It was in 2002 that McKibben, who was also a founding member of the Oregon Wine Board, established the Les Collines Vineyard five miles east of Pepper Bridge, with his son Shane as manager. McKibben then acquired a 2,000-acre parcel near Seven Hills Vineyard. Marty Clubb, Gary Figgins, and Bob Rupar, his partners in Seven Hills, joined him in the acreage that would be named SeVein Vineyards. In addition, a desire to grow Syrah grapes and make Rhone-style wines led to the founding of another winery, Amavi Cellars, which was built adjacent to the Pepper Bridge Vineyards and was another partnership of the McKibben, Goff, and Pellet families. Pellet's fine Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, and Syrah wines can be tasted at the winery, at a tasting room at Woodinville, or at a newer tasting room in Vancouver, Washington.
In 2006 McKibben and Pellet helped found a custom-crush service facility, Artifex, in Walla Walla. They also acquired another Walla Walla Valley property, Octave Vineyard, both of which Pellet manages. Pellet is a cofounder of VINEA, the Walla Walla Valley's sustainable viticulture program, and in 2015 the Washington Wine Awards named him "Winemaker of the Year."
Then McKibben acquired a 2,000-acre parcel near Seven Hills Vineyard. Marty Clubb, Gary Figgins, and Bob Rupar, his partners in Seven Hills Vineyard, joined him in the acreage that would come to be named SeVein Vineyards. Each of the vineyards utilize state-of-the-art irrigation systems and temperature and soil-moisture monitoring equipment as part of their commitment to sustainable agriculture techniques and general environmental stewardship principles. Wine & Spirits magazine named Pepper Bridge one of the world's "Top 100 Wineries" in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2016. In 2006 one wine writer nominated Pepper Bridge as the "Winery of the Year," noting that Pellet's Cabernets, Merlots, and blends revealed "incredible complexity, elegance and power ... practically defining Walla Walla character in the process" (Comiskey).
Asked if he ever did take on the formal study of either viticulture (grape growing) or enology (winemaking), McKibben was typically forthright in his response: "I did not. But I hired just about every major consultant you could think of at one time or another. And I learned in short order that everyone gives you a lot of ideas but you have to pick out the good ones [laughter]" (McKibben interview).