A heavy snow fell on an April morning. Through the mist, as if on cue for a ski film shoot, Marty and Megan Clubb, accompanied by their daughter Becca, emerged through the haze, smiling as they skied down Snowmass in perfect unison. These were winemakers at play.
The Clubbs, along with son Riley, are the second and third generations of the family that created and operate the Walla Walla, Wash.,-based L’Ecole Nº 41 winery. While they play hard (Marty was rocking a snowboard on this snowy day while Megan and Becca both rode skis), the family’s legacy will forever be forged from the fruits, literally, of their labors. Since 1983, when patriarchs Jean and Baker Ferguson founded the winery, the family has been at the forefront of a wine revolution that has changed the economics, the culture and the community of the Western Washington farm town, now wine town, that they call home.
While once a largely anonymous hub for the wheat, apple and onion fields of southeastern Washington, Walla Walla (pop. 31,000) is now synonymous with the explosion in Washington wines. Many of the states most sought-after wines from the likes of Leonetti, Charles Smith and Cayuse hail from a place that is in the midst of a transformation to becoming a globally recognized wine region. In recent months there has been an infusion of California, Canadian and Asian capital to Washington as many of the most well-heeled wine investors have discovered that both value and quality can still be found in the state.
“When Baker and Jean (Megan’s parents) started the winery in the early ’80s, there were just three wineries in the region and less than 20 in the entire state of Washington,” Marty told me on a chairlift ride up to High Alpine. “Baker had developed a love for Bordeaux and he thought that with all of the farmland around Walla Walla already growing great fruit this had to be a good place to grow grapes.” Baker began doing soils tests and climate studies of the fruit orchards in the region about the same time that Gary Figgins of Leonetti (the first commercial winery established in the region in 1977) and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon began to identify sites that would be conducive to planting vineyards and making wine.
While the opportunities were obvious, so too were the challenges. Walla Walla swelters under extreme summers (annual rainfall in some areas is less then 10 inches) and the winters are brutally cold. Winds rush across the sage brush on the land that is really a part of a vast desert complex that extends north into Canada and covers much of southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon. But the land also benefits from impressive soils, the gift of the massive Missoula flood, which covered much of the Pacific Northwest with rocks and dirt 13,000 or so years ago, and, to this day, give the vineyards character and uniquely varied terroir.
When I walked a number of vineyards this past fall in and around Walla Walla, I was amazed at the diversity of the earth. Large basalt stones blasted heat from the sun back onto the undersides of the Syrah vines in one vineyard. Earthy black soils marked another planted to Merlot and a third, this one with Chardonnay, was planted in what looked like dust so loose that it could barely support the vines. All of these soils types are a candy store for vineyard managers, who can experiment with different varietals and planting schemes.
Marty and Megan are both graduates of MIT’s Sloan School of Management who began their careers in high-powered engineering and finance positions in San Francisco. Marty was on the fast track at Bechtel while Megan was at Wells Fargo. But in 1989, the pair decided that a life in wine beckoned and they came to Walla Walla to raise their family, grow grapes and make wine.
Today, L’Ecole Nº 41 produces more than 40,000 cases of wine a year. While much of the wine is made from fruit grown in the Columbia Valley to the west, increasingly more emanates from single-vineyard estate growths in the Walla Walla wine appellation. The winery and tasting room lie to the west of the city, housed in a charming, circa 1915, former schoolhouse in the Frenchtown section of the region, hence the name.
The wines of L’Ecole Nº 41 are crafted by winemaker Mike Sharon, who has worked at the winery for close to 20 years and was named the estate’s winemaker in 2006. There is an emphasis on the Bordeaux varietals and blends, especially in the wines from the Seven Hills, Pepper Bridge and Ferguson vineyards in Walla Walla, including the acclaimed Perigee and Apogee blends that consistently score more than 90 points in tastings. A specialty and a family favorite is a wine called Luminesce, a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc that is sourced from the Seven Hills Vineyard. Seven Hills, which is in the Walla Walla AVA, uniquely crosses the border between Washington and Oregon.
Personally, it was their 2010 Estate Syrah from the same Seven Hills Vineyard, which I was able to sample at the tasting room during my visit, that made the biggest impression on me. Earthy, but well-balanced, the fruit and flavors resonated and tasted like the land that surrounded us.
This is just the beginning of the Washington wine revolution and the Clubbs have already made a significant contribution to not just the region, but to American winemaking as well.
I’ll look forward to both skiing with them and drinking their wines for years to come.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.