From Apples to Grapes: Pepper Bridge Vineyard

By Kori ~ January 3rd, 2011.

Kori S. Voorhees, our Wine Peeps Editor-in-Chief, is also a regular contributor to Washington Tasting Room Magazine, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Washington State wine with articles about wineries, vineyards, travel, and lifestyle. The following article, written by Kori, appeared in the Summer 2010 issue.

One of the pioneer plantings in the Walla Walla Valley, 19-year old Pepper Bridge Vineyard continues to improve with age

Growing apples in the Walla Walla Valley always seemed like a good idea to Norm McKibben and his business partner, Rob Rupar. So in 1989, they bought an old wheat ranch and set about clearing the land and planting apple trees, and named the farm “Pepper Bridge”, taking the name of an old low-water crossing across the Walla Walla River on the Pepper Family Farm (connecting an old military road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort The Dalles.) Along the way, they brought in Tom Waliser as a partner to help them develop the site and manage the orchard.

Early Walla Walla Valley Grapes

At the time, McKibben was a silent partner at Hogue Cellars, chairman of the board at Canoe Ridge Vineyards, and had a small vineyard of his own outside the Valley. Despite the fact there were less than 50 total acres of vineyards planted in the Walla Walla Valley, McKibben believed the Pepper Bridge Farm soil showed good promise for grape-growing. He talked to his partners about planting grapevines on the property and they agreed to give it a shot, planting five acres each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in 1991.

“I was doing all the farming for the apple end of it, so I volunteered to learn to grow grapes,” remembers Tom Waliser, who has been Pepper Bridge Farm’s vineyard manager since the beginning. “I thought to myself, how hard could it be? I learned there was a lot more to it than I anticipated. With apples, I was raising a product that was consumed by the consumers so they had to cosmetically look good. The more fruit we could grow on a tree, the more money we were going to make. With grapes, it’s all about internal quality. It doesn’t matter what they look like. It’s about getting the vine to focus more on the fruit and internal quality and limiting the volume, so you get small berries and concentration. It’s the opposite of apples. It was a big adjustment for me.”

Waliser made the adjustment quite well, and the wine-grape growing operation, now known as Pepper Bridge Vineyard, has been a rousing success story, despite early skepticism. “Some of the first comments were, ‘Good luck, it’ll never happen,’” said Waliser. “But it turns out that Walla Walla is a great place to grow grapes.”

Bragging Rights

It didn’t take long for some high-profile Washington wineries to express interest in Pepper Bridge Vineyard fruit. Their first five customers were Andrew Will, L’Ecole Nº 41, Leonetti, Seven Hills, and Woodward Canyon.

“I have to brag a little bit. We were the first winery to make wine from Pepper Bridge Vineyard,” said owner/winemaker Marty Clubb of L’Ecole Nº 41. “At the time, the Walla Walla Valley was really in its infancy. Not much fruit was actually grown there and Pepper Bridge Vineyard grapes were not well-known. In 1993, we started producing our Apogee wine using 100% Pepper Bridge Vineyard fruit. The wine has been so well-received by wine lovers worldwide that we’ve made seventeen consecutive vintages.”

L’Ecole’s Apogee is a Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc. Clubb’s goal is to produce a rich, robust, expressive red wine that showcases what Pepper Bridge Vineyard has to offer.

It’s All in the Fruit

As the vineyard grew in proportion to the apple orchard, the Pepper Bridge Winery estate winery was founded by Norm McKibben and partner, Ray Goff. The first-vintage 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Pepper Bridge Winery was a single-vineyard wine from Pepper Bridge Vineyard. Beginning with the 2000 vintage, the Pepper Bridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with small percentages of Malbec, Cabernet Franc and/or Petit Verdot added year-to-year, with the recipe changing based on winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet’s palate. Like L’Ecole, Pepper Bridge Winery strives to showcase what the vineyard does best in that particular year.

When asked to characterize the overriding traits of Pepper Bridge Vineyard fruit, McKibben, Waliser, Clubb, and Pepper Bridge Winery winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet all make mention of its dark fruits and strong structure. While L’Ecole and Pepper Bridge Winery make single-vineyard Pepper Bridge Vineyard wines, both wineries also produce wines that are a blend of grapes from Pepper Bridge Vineyard and Walla Walla’s Seven Hills Vineyard.

“It’s like ying and yang between those two Walla Walla estate vineyards. Pepper Bridge Vineyard is a little more structured, darker fruit while Seven Hills Vineyard has a little softer tannins and red fruit characteristics. They complement each other very well,” said Jean-Francois Pellet.

Currently, about 45 wineries purchase Pepper Bridge Vineyard grapes, including Leonetti, L’Ecole Nº 41, Pepper Bridge Winery, Long Shadows, Forgeron, and Saviah.

Keeping the Vines Stressed

Pepper Bridge is one of the lower vineyards in the valley at an elevation of 850 feet. Its balanced soils are lake bed sediment from the Missoula floods.

“Our challenge is to make sure the plants don’t get too happy on this type of soil,” said Waliser. “Irrigation management is our biggest tool in getting high quality.”

Under Waliser’s direction, Pepper Bridge Vineyard is sustainably farmed and utilizes cutting-edge technology to monitor irrigation and weather. A network of weather stations all over the valley monitors temperature and humidity, tracking the data 24 hours a day. All of the blocks in the vineyard have moisture sensors that provide Waliser’s team with an ongoing report of what’s happening.

Now that the vines are 19 years old, Pepper Bridge Vineyard is really coming into its own. Pellet sums it up: “Every year the wines are getting more definition and more character.”

In the beginning, there was a struggle to decide if the former wheat ranch was going to be transformed into an orchard or a vineyard. Almost two decades later, 90 acres of apples are still grown, but the emphasis is definitely on the 200 acres of wine grapes. An excellent decision, indeed.

Filed under: American Wine, Vineyards, Washington State Wine, Washington Tasting Room Magazine, Wine Magazines

Reader's Comments

  1. Stevie | January 3rd, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    This story is exciting. It seems so odd that 19 years ago people greeted the Pepper Bridge crew with doubt that they might successfully grow grapes in Walla Walla Valley. That region really is new!

    I wonder about the apples. Do they make cider? or ferment them somehow?

  2. John Roberts | January 6th, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Good story. If I see it, will remember this when trying it! I have not seen the single vineyard offerings ever. I know consumers craved a high-volume “pretty” apple market but the decline in the flavor of Washington state apples is also a widely agreed fact. And it may have to do with growers that thought exactly in those terms; more apples equals more profits. Well, “internal quality” always matters in my opinion. I don’t doubt the growers’ motives here… But what imbued the growers with the knowledge that this terroir would sing? With apples, there is a finite profit ceiling. Obviously, with enough hype, grapes can climb astronomically in proportion.

  3. Kori | January 11th, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the article. To my knowledge, they sell all of the apples.

    Thanks for your kind words. You make some interesting points about apples. I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the apple market. However, there are many instances where good vineyard land today was previously planted to apples.


  4. John Roberts | January 11th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Now that you mention it… I used to work at Iron Horse Vineyards (Russian River Valley) and most of that property was planted to heirloom apples back in the day. “Gravenstein” apples they are known as.