At 80, Norm McKibben, a founding father of Walla Walla's wine industry, is known to friends and colleagues as "Stormin' Norman," a reference to his endless energy and drive. He often sleeps just four hours a night, and thinks nothing of scheduling a sunrise vineyard tour.
In McKibben's 30-plus years in Walla Walla, the valley has evolved from a smidgen on the wine map, with a mere 40 vineyard acres, to an acclaimed appellation, with more than 2,800 acres of premium grapes today.
Credit for that boom goes largely to McKibben, a visionary who came to the wine industry relatively late in life.
A trained engineer, McKibben worked for several decades in the construction industry. Not wanting to retire after his first career, he moved to Walla Walla to become an apple farmer - only to be seduced by a different fruit.
In 1989, realizing the region's great grape-growing potential, McKibben planted his first vineyard, with help from his wife, Virginia, and their eldest son, Shane.
Two years later, McKibben added Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to land adjoining the family's high-density plantings of exotic apples. The seeds of Pepper Bridge Vineyard were sown.
As his farming reach expanded, McKibben was drawn into the budding wine industry. He served as a partner and director at Canoe Ridge Vineyards and Hogue Cellars, and worked closely with a number of Walla Walla's leading vintners. By 1996, in partnership with Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Marty Clubb of L'Ecole No. 41, McKibben had increased his vineyard holdings to 200 acres.
Never one to sit still, Norman kept stormin'. His next ambition: creating his own winery. In 1998, Pepper Bridge Winery was born.
Today, Pepper Bridge Winery is a benchmark property in Walla Walla, and McKibben is an icon of the industry. He manages and consults for more than 600 acres of the top vineyard sites in Walla Walla - Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Les Collines - and is widely recognized as an innovator. At each of his vineyards, he has introduced state-of-the-art irrigation systems, soil moisture and temperature monitoring equipment, and sustainable farming techniques.
A forward-thinker, McKibben is a champion of sustainable viticulture. All of his vineyards are certified sustainable by VINEA, the Walla Walla Valley's Sustainable Trust, and LIVE, an Oregon-based sustainable viticulture organization. They are also certified Salmon Safe and are monitored by the IOBC, the international body responsible for setting sustainability standards.
In 1998, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers honored McKibben as "Grape Grower of the Year." That same year, he was appointed chair of the Washington Wine Commission and served in that position until retiring from the organization 2001.
As for the rest of his work, of course, he has no plans to stop.
Norm may be reached at email@example.com.