L’ECOLE NO. 41 has long been one of the darlings of the Walla Walla Valley and the Washington wine industry. Now it is becoming a global juggernaut — all by focusing on grapes that are closer to home.
L’Ecole began in 1983 in an old schoolhouse along Highway 12 west of Walla Walla. Baker and Jean Ferguson, owners of Baker Boyer Bank, launched the winery as a retirement project. A quarter-century ago, their son-in-law, Marty Clubb, took over the operation and has since crafted some of the Northwest’s finest wines.
In the past few years, Clubb has guided L’Ecole through many changes, not the least of which was a conversion three years ago from the beloved label that depicted the schoolhouse with a child’s drawing. This was all part of Clubb’s plan to evolve L’Ecole into a winery that could earn respect worldwide. The new label, an artist’s rendition of the schoolhouse, fits the classy, upscale elegance that Clubb seeks.
And while much of L’Ecole’s production relies on grapes from the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley, Clubb is narrowing his focus on Walla Walla Valley grapes. For many years, L’Ecole’s prized vineyards have included Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills — the latter Clubb co-owns with Gary Figgins of Leonetti and Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge. Now, he is bringing in grapes from Ferguson, an estate vineyard on the Oregon side of the valley, not far from the town of Milton-Freewater.
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This spring, Clubb and winemaker Mike Sharon released their first wine from the vineyard, the 2011 Ferguson, a cab-based Bordeaux-style blend that ranks as L’Ecole’s highest-priced wine. It’s immediately turned heads around the world. In June, it won a prestigious International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London for best Bordeaux-style wine over £15 — beating out the best from France and California.
While far from being a large producer, L’Ecole now has distribution nationwide and overseas, and Clubb’s vision of his winery carrying the message of Washington’s high quality to the world is coming to fruition.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Wine Northwest, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.