Though the start of wine grape growing in the Walla Walla Valley can be traced as far back as the mid-1800s, commercial-grade vinifera grapes were nonexistent as recently as the late 1970s, when Leonetti Cellar was founded. The first modern-era Walla Walla vineyard, Seven Hills, was established by a pair of doctors, Herb Hendricks and James McClellan, in 1981.
Seven Hills winery, founded by Casey McClellan later that decade, began using some Seven Hills fruit immediately, as did Gary Figgins at Leonetti. Then, in 1994, the original vineyard was split up. The eastern half was sold to Norm McKibben and became the start of the much-expanded Seven Hills vineyard we know today; the western half, retained by the Hendricks family, was renamed Windrow.
Marty Clubb may have been the first to bottle a designated Windrow Cabernet, for L’Ecole No 41, back in 1995.
“I felt lucky to have it,” he recalled in a recent email, “as there was not enough Walla Walla fruit in the early years.”
Though the vineyard management at the time was largely hands-off and tended to produce rather herbal flavors, Clubb liked the grapes for their excellent structure, healthy acidity level, and distinctive herbaceousness. Casey McClellan incorporated Windrow Cabernet Sauvignon in his 1998 and 2001 Reserves, which he calls “two of our best Cab releases ever.” In fact, he adds, “both those wines are drinking well today.”
It may surprise many of you to know that great wines from these now almost-40-year-old vines are still being made, and are arguably the best ever, for two main reasons.
First, the age of the vines matters. Planted on their own ungrafted roots, they’ve avoided the problems that can result in vineyards being torn out too soon. The old-fashioned wide spacing, originally designed to allow a standard farm tractor to cultivate the rows, might reduce the harvest to unprofitable levels. But these old vines have developed serious root systems that can feed heavier than normal crop loads. And healthy old vines generally offer more nuanced, complex flavors than young ones.
A second reason came about 12 years ago, when Doug and Jan Roskelley, along with partners Mike and Jude Tembreull, purchased the Windrow property and began renovating and expanding the vineyard. Tero Estates (from the first two letters of the partners’ last names) bottles limited quantities of estate-grown wines, about 1,600 cases annually. A recent tasting of their 2008 Windrow Vineyard Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from the original 1981 vines, proved to me that, at more than a decade old, the wine was just at the start of what may well be a three-or-four-decade drinking window.
Doug Roskelley makes Tero wines, he says, to please his own palate. But that palate has been sharpened over 50 years of tasting fine wines, particularly the wines of France and Italy and Spain. It’s interesting to note that some of Walla Walla’s most talented winemakers came into the business in midlife or later (in Roskelley’s case, after a career in construction). But what makes them great winemakers is the knowledge of wines they’d been developing all their lives. They have sought out great wines from around the world, and you can see the results in every bottle.
The opportunity to taste history in a bottle doesn’t come along very often, and Walla Walla is not blessed with many 30+ year old vineyards. Compared to the prices of other top-tier Walla Walla Bordeaux blends and Syrahs, Tero wines are values. Along with the Old Block Cabernet ($57), there are estate bottlings of Hill Block Cabernet ($53), Plateau Block Cabernet ($55), Windrow Field Blend ($45), Herb’s Block Merlot ($39), Cabernet Franc ($41), Petit Verdot ($38), Nebbiolo ($55) and a number of wine club-exclusive reserves. (teroestates.orderport.net/wine-club)
You may sample many of these wines at the tasting room in the Marcus Whitman hotel or at the winery (by appointment only). New releases come out in the fall and are featured during the Fall Release and Barrel Tasting weekends held in November and December. Newer plantings of Malbec, Sangiovese and Charbono may pop up as special offers, alongside the old vine Cabs and Bordeaux blends.
Doug Roskelley is, by nature, a rather quiet man, not given to singing his own praises. He will admit that his past training in chemistry helps with that part of the winemaking process.
“But the palate part is what I believe allows me to make wines that reflect the best wines I’ve consumed over the past 50 years” he says. “I’m just banking on the fact that enough other people like the wines I like that it gives us someone to sell wines to.”
We are fortunate to have this irreplaceable part of Walla Walla winemaking history in such good hands.