We have long been fans of Washington wine and right up there on our go-to list is L’Ecole N° 41. Founded in 1983 it was the third winery in the Walla Walla Valley and the 20th winery to be bonded in Washington State. Both L’Ecole and the Washington wine industry have come a long way: L’Ecole has won numerous prestigious awards and Washington now has over 850 wineries!
L’Ecole was founded by Jean and Baker Ferguson, a Walla Walla couple who, at a time when most people are thinking of retiring, decided to start on a brand new venture. With no real direct training in the wine business, they set out on what they thought would be a fun project to pursue in their retirement. But they were not totally ill-prepared: Baker was the president of the Baker Boyer Bank, the oldest bank in the state of Washington and Jean, a home economics grad was an avid cook with an excellent palate. Through Baker Boyer, Baker had loaned money to many of the wineries and vineyards in the area so he knew a lot about the business side of a winery. Jean, with her terrific palate decided she would learn all she could about winemaking and be L’Ecole’s first winemaker and became one of the state’s first female winemakers. Clearly the Fergusons had a knack for their new found project: their first vintage of Merlot, the 1983, was awarded a gold medal in 1986 by the Pacific Northwest Enological society.
We caught up with Marty Clubb at L’Ecole’s very unique tasting room on the outskirts of Walla Walla. Marty is the current managing winemaker at L’Ecole and co-owns the winery along with his wife Megan, daughter of Jean and Baker Ferguson. The tasting room is housed in the old school house in District No. 41. The local community was settled mostly by French Canadians and the school taught its lessons in French. “L’Ecole” is French for school and so the winery was named. The old school house has been renovated enough to make it a comfortable and functional tasting room, but much of the old school house remains intact giving it loads of character.
As Marty tours us around the schoolhouse he explains to us what the various rooms were originally used for. Lots of little details have been preserved or created to evoke the schoolhouse feeling.
One of the most interesting of those details is a section of the tasting bar has been covered with chalk board slate, and pieces of chalk are left on it so that tasters can doodle or write tasting notes as they try L’Ecole’s wines. It is one of the more unique tasting rooms we have been to and one of the coolest, too! I guess we aren’t the only ones who think it is cool. Marty gets a rough measure of how many tasters come to visit by the number of glass racks they clean each year. The number has grown steadily and last year was a record: 26,000 glasses washed!
Marty is terrific at telling the L’Ecole story. He is knowledgeable and very passionate about what he does. He met Megan while the two of them were attending M.I.T.’s very prestigious Sloan School of Management where they both obtained their M.S. in Management. After several years of working in San Francisco, Baker and Jeanne expressed to them a desire to really retire. Running a winery was hard work and the Fergusons would be much happier if the winery were to stay in the family rather than being sold. Marty and Megan were up for the adventure so they returned home to Walla Walla to take over the reins at L’Ecole N° 41.
If there were just two things that really stood out about the L’Ecole story as Marty told it to us, it would be collaboration and sustainability. Their neighbours and fellow Walla Walla pioneers were Woodward Canyon (Walla Walla’s second winery), and Leonetti, Walla Walla’s first winery. These three helped each other out, sharing stories of what was working and what was not. In so-doing they grew together and drove the quality of their wines higher than they ever could on their own. This spirit of collaboration led to L’Ecole partnering with Leonetti Cellar and Pepper Bridge Winery to buy the famed Seven Hills Vineyard which supplies grapes for some of L’Ecole’s best wines. These wineries know they compete for consumers’ attention but they also know that making better wines will help each of them and help their valley and their state compete with some of the best viticultural regions, not only in the USA, but in the world.
Marty is also obsessed with producing wines in a sustainable manner, one that respects the land that gives him the harvest, not just for this vintage but for generations to come. All of the vineyards that L’Ecole owns or is a partner in are Certified Sustainable and Certified Salmon Safe. These certifications ensure that vineyard practices will maintain the quality of the land and will not harm neighbouring land or waterways. L’Ecole is a member of Vinea, The Winegrowers Trust, a voluntary organization of Walla Walla winegrowers committed to sustainable practices.
As Vinea says: “Sustainable viticulture is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially supportive. Because it is more a philosophical approach to viticulture than a set of farming practices, the specific practices vary depending on the specific environmental and social issues important to an appellation. Therefore, it is important that all of those interested in making viticulture more sustainable – consumers, growers, environmentalists, farm workers, winemakers, retailers – educate themselves on the related issues.” In practice that means adopting many of the tenets of organic farming, and even some of the biodynamic farming tenets. Sustainable viticulture seeks to leave the land after each harvest in at least as good shape as prior to the harvest.
In the L’Ecole cellar, the focus on winemaking is to gently handle the grapes to avoid excessive extraction. This allows Marty to achieve what we have come to recognize as a part of the L’Ecole No. 41 signature: smooth, polished wines that have early appeal but long aging ability. Since the wine is gently pressed and moves through the winery by the force of gravity (and not via pumps) it is not subjected to excessive seed and skin extraction that can create harsher elements in the finished wines. Manipulations and adjustments are kept to only the necessary minimum which allows the vineyard, rather than the winemaker’s hand, to show through.
We tasted through the entire L’Ecole line up. We always enjoy tasting at L’Ecole, and one of the features of L’Ecole’s wines is their early approachability. Yes, these are wines that definitely can age, but they are also wines whose balance and whose structure is such that they give terrific pleasure right after release. It is no wonder then that Wine and Spirits has named L’Ecole to their top 100 wineries, for 14 consecutive years.
L’Ecole received their first award for their 1983 Merlot and to this day they remain a terrific Merlot house. But Cabernet Sauvignon is also a grape that Marty is showing a deft hand with. Their recently planted Ferguson vineyard is showing particular strength with this variety. The 2011 Ferguson, made from 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, won the Decanter World Wine Award for Best Bordeaux Variety over £15…in the world!
2016 L’Ecole N° 41 Chenin Blanc
A delightful and refreshing Chenin (with 0.2% residual sugar), it shows pear, citrus and minerals with a juicy finish. Quite complex, and a nice, textured body.
Very Good+ (US$14 at their tasting room – this is particularly good value)
2015 L’Ecole N° 41 Semillon
Apple and melon come together in a medium body that is rich and round, and slightly honeyed. The acidity forms a nice frame that keeps the wine delineated.
Very Good+ (US$14 at their tasting room)
2016 L’Ecole N° 41 Chardonnay Evergreen Vineyard
Evergreen is a higher elevation site whose cooler climate is developing a reputation for producing some of the top white wines in the state. Apple and peach flavours weave together in a textured, medium + body that is seductive and shows a richer expression of the grape. We found this refreshing in a time where so many Chardonnays have pursued a leaner profile; this style showed great balance, texture without heaviness, and ripe, intense flavours.
Very Good+/Excellent (US$35 at their tasting room)
2014 L’Ecole N° 41 Merlot – Walla Walla Valley
Merlot is the backbone of this winery. We have always loved L’Ecole’s Merlot and this vintage was no exception. Floral aromas lead to pretty cherry flavours with notes of spicecake and a hint of mocha. The tannin is medium and is very approachable right now. Great mouthfeel!
Very Good+/Excellent (US $36 at their tasting room)
2014 L’Ecole N° 41 Syrah – Walla Walla Valley
Loads of blackberry and black cherry coat your mouth in this medium+ bodied, sexy Syrah. 20% whole clusters were used and it shows in the tannin and earthy/mineral notes that add lots of complexity. The finish is long with notes of black pepper. Great balance. From Seven Hills Vineyard.
Excellent (US$36 at their tasting room)
2014 L’Ecole N° 41 Apogee
“Apogee” is actually an astronomical term referring to a point on an orbital path that is furthest from the earth, and is often used to mean as high as you can go. Is this L’Ecole’s best wine? It certainly is delicious! Coming from the Pepper Bridge Vineyard this is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 4% Malbec. Flavours of black currant and blackberry come through on the round, textured frame that both seduces and intrigues. Already complex, this has the balance and the stuffing to develop for a decade or more. Very classy!
Excellent (US$ 54 at their tasting room)
2014 L’Ecole N° 41 Perigee
“Perigee” is another astronomical term referring to the point on an orbital path that is closest to the earth. The name derives from L’Ecole’s dedication to sustainability and their passion for being close to the earth that produces their grapes. All from their Seven Hills Vineyard this blend utilizes 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot. Black fruit flavours dominate and get support from lesser notes of baking spice and cedar. There is a subtle earthy note as well, paying homage to its name. Delicious and would pair brilliantly with grilled steak.
Excellent (US$ 54 at their tasting room)
2014 L’Ecole N° 41 Ferguson
This wine is now the standard bearer for the winery. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec, all from their Estate Ferguson Vineyard. Another seductively polished and textured wine that coats your mouth with flavours of black cherry, blueberry, cedar and hints of mocha. A powerful expression but perfectly balanced. Drink now or hold for 10 years or longer.
Excellent (US$ 64 at their tasting room – now sold out in 750 ml, available in magnum)