SeVein Vineyard rises as some of best grapes in Great Northwest

By on September 19, 2016
Betz Family Winery is buying and planting a vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley at SeVein.

SeVein is a 2,700-acre vineyard development in the southern Walla Walla Valley near Milton-Freewater, Ore. (Photo courtesy of SeVein)

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. – The unearthly shriek of the bird “cannon“ echoes off the gentle slopes of SeVein Vineyards, fired by soon-to-be assistant vineyard manager Oliver May as tries to deter, however briefly, flocks of birds from ravaging the grapes.

It’s a sunny morning, the fruit is ripe, and birds are descending on the vines.

There are 12 vineyards at SeVein, and Sadie Drury manages seven of them. The 300 acres under her care produce some of the best fruit anywhere for a stellar list of clients. SeVein has a complex business model. Seven Hills Vineyard, which accounts for 170 acres of vines, is owned by a group of partners, primarily the owners of Leonetti Cellar, L’Ecole N°41, and Pepper Bridge Winery. It’s a commercial vineyard that sells its fruit to 51 wineries, and whose client list includes an impressive number of luminaries of the Washington wine scene.

The remaining SeVein vineyards she manages are estate vineyards, whose clients are Leonetti, L’Ecole, Doubleback, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and a collaboration between Betz Family Winery and Siren Song Wines.

A Highly Educated and Experienced Team

SeVein

Lupe Gomez is the crew foreman for SeVein Vineyards, and Sadie Drury has been the vineyard manager since 2013. (Photo by Abra Bennett/Great Northwest Wine)

Vineyard manager since 2013, Sadie Drury is a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s (WWCC) Enology and Viticulture program, did additional studies at Washington State University, and came to SeVein with five years of experience working on Red Mountain.

Jake Gray, who worked for Gallo before joining SeVein, holds a degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Idaho. He’s currently transitioning from being assistant vineyard manager to managing SeVein’s Water Association, which functions like a co-op, for all the property owners on the 2,800 acres that make up SeVein, which comprises both grape farming land and conventional farming land.

Meanwhile, Oliver May is transitioning into the assistant manager’s position. He’s also a graduate of WWCC’S Enology and Viticulture program, as well as holding a degree in biology from Evergreen State University.

As he describes his role at SeVein, “I have a lot of experience installing vineyards but not as much experience in growing fine wine grapes. So it’s a perfect place for me to be at this point in my career, to be an understudy of such a good vineyard manager. I’m learning about the different varieties we grow here and how to manage them. I’m a data collector, and do pest scouting and identification of pests and am learning how to deal with them.”

Lupe Gomez is the crew foreman, managing SeVein’s crew of 30-40 pickers and vineyard workers. Gomez has been at SeVein since the first vineyards were planted, and Drury says, with only the barest hint of a smile “Lupe’s really the boss. Without Lupe this place doesn’t function very well.”

And Drury gives a lot of credit to Gomez’s crew. “Our crew knows all these vineyards, all these blocks, all these rows, and they know what each winemaker wants. Some want their bins full, others want them partly filled. Some want their fruit grown heavier and some a bit lighter. And since the crew pretty much knows all that, it makes my job much easier.”

How SeVein Functions Day to Day

SeVein

Several bins of grapes are lined up and ready for delivery to many of SeVein’s clients. Keeping track of the grapes for each SeVein client is a big part of the job. (Photo by Abra Bennet/Great Northwest Wine)

Since all of the 51 client wineries contract their fruit on a per-acre basis, one might think the vineyard team would be going crazy serving so many masters. And indeed, in the hour that Drury spent talking with Great Northwest Wine, on what she characterized as a “quiet morning,” she hopped twice into her truck to go out to the rows being picked and see how it was going, while her phone rang three times and she received seven text requests for her services.

Yet it all works seamlessly. Here’s how Drury describes the Seven Hills commercial operation:

“The Seven Hills client wineries get to dictate yield, pick dates and canopy management,” while she serves as the last word on matters of irrigation and spraying, which could harm the vineyards of done incorrectly. “But I try to be somebody that the winemakers are really excited to work with, and to be flexible and able to do what they want.”

The estate vineyards function a bit differently. There, Drury says, “the owners get to determine pretty much everything. Some of the wineries have consultants or viticulturists that come in and decide what they want, and then I work with them on making that happen.”

2016 Harvest: an awesome year

SeVein, L'Ecole No. 41.

Grapes destined for L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., await delivery at SeVein. (Photo by Abra Bennet/Great Northwest Wine)

So far, the 2016 harvest is going beautifully at SeVein.

“This harvest started a few days later than last year, and it’s stretched out more. It’s going slower, and everybody’s more relaxed. Coming off last year’s harvest, which was really early, people were prepared this year. So it’s been easy to schedule picking, nobody’s really frazzled, and so far it’s been very smooth. And the weather’s cooled down, which has slowed down fruit ripening and made for longer hang time, which is making everybody happy.”

In comparison to last year’s harvest Drury says, “Last year, there were times when our schedule was full 10 days out because our schedule really depends on how fast things are getting ripe. This year, the grapes aren’t ripening fast, so a lot of people are able to schedule their picks just a day or two out. And the slow ripening definitely improves fruit quality because you get more hang time, more physiological ripeness without high sugars, because of the cool weather.”

SeVein can pick up to 10 acres a day, so picking five days a week they average 30-40 tons per day, depending on the grape variety. Because Cabernet Sauvignon has small clusters, it takes longer to pick, while grapes like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sangiovese have larger clusters and more can be picked in a day. Because some of the newer vineyards aren’t producing yet, SeVein currently has 225 producing acres, yielding about 650-700 tons of fruit this year.

They finished picking their Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon two weeks ago and are almost done picking Syrah and Merlot. They’ve started to pick Sangiovese, and soon they’ll be moving into Malbec and the Cabernets, while Petit Verdot and Carmenère will come in last. Drury estimates that harvest is about 30 percent complete throughout SeVein.

Will it be an awesome year?

“Yes! I don’t see why not. It could rain for a week and everything would change, but so far so good.”

The Bottom Line

SeVein

A crew handpicks grapes at SeVein. (Photo by Abra Bennett/Great Northwest Wine)

What makes such a complex operation hum along so smoothly? It goes back to that old adage about knowing your customers. Drury keeps it all in her head. “I know which blocks will throw a heavier crop, or a lighter crop, or higher acid, some blocks are more fruit-forward, some are more earthy. Seven Hills has about 50 different blocks and I try to put the winemakers in the right spot for the wines they want to make. Lots of communication is the bottom line.”

And having a clear vision of your products and processes is essential. For Drury, that’s “doing what’s best for long-term vineyard health and fruit quality. We want to grow great grapes that will make great wine, but we also want to do what’s sustainable and good for the vineyards.”

SeVein Client List

Who gets grapes from SeVein? Here’s a list, including wineries with ownership stakes.

  • Aluvé
  • Armstrong Family Winery
  • Betz Family Winery
  • Blue Rooster Cellars, DBA Six Kayaks
  • Boudreaux Cellars
  • Burner Wines
  • Burnt Bridge Cellars
  • Cadaretta
  • Canvasback
  • Cavu Cellars
  • College Cellars
  • Covington Cellars
  • Cristom Vineyards
  • D.O.G. Wines, DBA Laelaps
  • DAMA
  • D’Anu
  • Domaine Serene
  • Doubleback
  • Dunham Cellars
  • Five Star Cellars
  • Forgeron Cellars
  • Foundry Vineyards
  • JOPOVINO, LLC
  • Ken Wright Cellars
  • King Estate Winery
  • Kontos Cellars
  • L’Ecole No. 41
  • Leonetti Cellar
  • Marshall Davis Wine
  • Mullan Road
  • Nodland Cellars
  • Pambrun Vineyards
  • Pamplin Family Wines
  • Passing Time
  • Patterson Cellars
  • Pepper Bridge Winery
  • Reininger Winery
  • Seven Bridges Winery
  • Seven Hills Winery
  • Siren Song Wines
  • Skylite Cellars
  • Sleight Of Hand
  • Smasne Cellars
  • Talent Cellars
  • Tamarack Cellars
  • Tempus Cellars
  • Three Rivers Winery
  • Varela Wine Cellars
  • Venture Cellars
  • Vital Winery
  • Walla Walla Vintners

About Abra Bennett

Abra Bennett, after careers in social work, environmental policy, and as a personal chef, is studying enology and viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. She has been a freelance food, wine and environmental and agricultural policy writer for several years and is working on a book about the experience of becoming a winemaker. She also is contributor to Great Northwest Wine, focusing on wineries and vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley.

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