L’Ecole No. 41: Still impacting the Walla Walla Wine Valley after all these years
Marty and Megan Clubb are taking good care of Walla Walla’s third oldest winery started by Baker and Jean Ferguson in 1983.
By Kent Settle
My wife Eileen and I began enjoying wines from Walla Walla in 1999. However, it would be two more years before we headed there for our first wine tasting adventure.
There were two things we discovered on that trip. The first was the vibrancy and robustness of the emerging wine industry and the high quality of the wines. The second thing we discovered was The Wine Club. We joined three of them that trip – Abeja, L’Ecole No. 41 and Reininger. While we have joined and dropped quite a few wine clubs since 2001, we are still active members of those first three we joined.
To this day, L’Ecole No. 41, or simply L’Ecole, is still one of our favorite wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. The name comes from the historic Frenchtown School building where the winery is housed, located in the town Lowden, just west of Walla Walla.
The school closed in 1974 and in 1977 Baker and Jean Ferguson bought the building wanting to fulfill their dream of opening a winery. Baker was president of Baker Boyer Bank in Walla Walla, which is the state’s oldest bank and Jean taught home economics at the high school.
L’Ecole opened in 1983, becoming the third winery in the Walla Walla Valley, after Leonetti and Woodward Canyon, and just the 20th winery to open in the state. Baker and Jean co-made their wines, making Jean one of the first female winemakers in the state.
While Jean and Baker were starting their new winery, their daughter Megan was newly married to Marty Clubb. Megan and Marty both graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management and spent the first few years of their careers in the San Franciso Bay Area. Marty also sports a chemical engineering degree from Texas A&M.
During the early winery years, Marty and Megan returned each fall to assist with harvest, moving to Walla Walla permanently in 1989, when Marty took over as Manager and Winemaker of L’Ecole. Marty is now the Managing Winemaker and Co-Owner of L’Ecole with Megan, and their children, Riley and Rebecca. Marty has led L’Ecole to become one of the most respected wineries in Washington State.
L’Ecole has been honored 14 consecutive years by Wine & Spirits Magazine as Winery of the Year, and is just the second winery in the state to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. They have become one of the most recognizable and prominent Walla Walla Valley wineries with substantial national and international distribution. As a personal side note, in 2007 Eileen and I went on a Caribbean cruise. The featured winery on board was L’Ecole.
We enjoy being in the L’Ecole wine club for several reasons. First is the wine – L’Ecole makes more than 20 different high-quality wines. They are generally pouring six or seven of them at any given time in the tasting room. Some of these wines are offered to wine club members before they are available to the public, and all of the wines are discounted for wine club members.
Second is the tasting room itself – the old schoolhouse makes a beautiful wine tasting setting. The various rooms and the grounds all lead to a positive experience. Third are events – there are usually several fun wine or vineyard related events each year for wine club members.
Finally, and most importantly, the people – there is no pretention at L’Ecole. It all starts at the top. Marty is very humble about what he and L’Ecole have accomplished. The tasting room staff is easy going and does its best to make the wine tasting experience educational and fun.
During one of our early visits to L’Ecole we were chatting with Mike Sharon, who joined the winemaking team in 1996 and became Winemaker in 2006. During this conversation, Eileen mentioned that she thought of L’Ecole as “the Corvette of Wines”. Mike had an understandably blank look on his face and asked what she meant by that.
Eileen asked if Mike was familiar with Car and Driver magazine, which he was. She asked, “You know how they will review a Ferrari or a Lamborghini and go on about what great vehicles they are? Then they’ll go on and say that for a third the price, you could get a Corvette, and it meets or is very close to the performance of the more expensive vehicles.” That’s how Eileen views L’Ecole wines – world-class wines at approachable prices. Mike enjoyed that analogy and immediately passed it along to Marty, who unbeknownst to us had a vintage Corvette.
A perfect example is L’Ecole’s Estate Ferguson – their single vineyard estate Bordeaux blend from the Ferguson Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. In 2014, Decanter Magazine awarded the 2011 Ferguson the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend in the world. In 2016, the 2013 Ferguson won the International Trophy for Best New World Bordeaux Blend from the Six Nations Wine Challenge.
After winning such prestigious awards, L’Ecole could have increased the price of this wine. Ferguson always sells out fairly quickly, but Marty’s philosophy is to keep the wines approachable, both with drinkability and providing value at every price point. Yes, Ferguson is L’Ecole’s most expensive wine, but with a current retail price of only $64 it is a bargain for a wine of such high quality.
Not only does Marty have 30 years of winemaking experience, he is well respected throughout the state for his vineyard management knowledge as a result of his hands-on, long-term relationships with some of the oldest and highest quality vineyards in the Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys. L’Ecole is at the forefront of sustainable farming in the Walla Walla Valley. Their Estate Ferguson and Estate Seven Hills Vineyards are both certified sustainable and Salmon Safe.
While Marty might not brag about some of his accomplishments, his ongoing dedication to the Washington State wine industry is evident in the many leadership roles he has played. He is a Managing Partner of Seven Hills Vineyard and the SeVein vineyard development with Gary and Chris Figgins from Leonetti Cellar, and Norm McKibben from Pepper Bridge Winery.
Marty has served on the Boards of various wine industry associations over the last 30 years, including the Washington Wine Commission. He is currently a Director of the Washington Wine Institute and Chair of WineAmerica. Marty was also a founding member of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance, and served as its President for the first six years.
And, finally, Marty worked with other industry pioneers to help establish the Walla Walla Community College Center for Enology and Viticulture and continues to serve as an advisor.
If you have not yet had the opportunity to experience the wines at L’Ecole’s beautiful tasting room, I highly recommend that you do. You won’t be disappointed. Shortly after my wife retired last May she began working part time in L’Ecole’s tasting room. Time your visit correctly and you just might get to meet the Corvette lady in person.
L’Ecole No. 41 is located at 41 Lowden Schoolhouse Rd., Lowden, WA. 99360. Phone: (509) 525-0940. L’Ecole wines are available at retail outlets throughout the U.S., but you can also purchase their wines directly from their online store at: www.lecole.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kent Settle writes a great blog covering the Walla Walla wine scene called “WallaWallaWineAmbassador.com” Make sure to check it out.