Beyond grapes: L’Ecole No 41 extends influence to community
Founded in 1983, L’Ecole No 41 is one of the oldest wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. The family-owned winery is located in the historic Frenchtown School in Lowden.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of L’Ecole. Marty and Megan Clubb, the current owners of L’Ecole, have built on what Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, set in place. Jean Ferguson was L’Ecole’s first winemaker, while Baker’s primary role was the varietal selection, marketing and sales.
L’Ecole has a strong connection to Whitman. Baker Ferguson was a student, faculty member, a longtime governing board member and Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Megan also attended Whitman, as did she and Marty’s son Riley who graduated in 2009. L’Ecole even released L’Erudite, or the scholar; a special 2008 release of a wine honoring family connections to Whitman and with the profits going directly to the Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment.
Named one of Wine Spirits Magazine’s top 100 wineries 10 years in a row, L’Ecole has truly become a unique Walla Walla Valley destination.
“When people come to visit, people stop on the way in and they stop on the way out,” said Marty Clubb, Owner and Managing Winemaker. “We really built our name—built a destination.”
Yet, L’Ecole winery is much more than just rave reviews in wine magazines. As one of the pioneering wineries in the region, it has helped build the wine industry, while promoting community and sustainability.
The job description of a winery owner encompasses a wide array of tasks.
“Every day is different,” said Clubb. “We grow grapes. So in some sense, we’re a farmer. . . but of something that ultimately turns into a bottle of wine.”
Clubb is also a winemaker, which entails everything that goes into production, making sure the wines are stable, balanced and will have longevity. He is also a marketer and a purveyor of wine.
“You’re building a brand,” said Clubb. “You’re building an identity for your winery, and that comes with patience, perseverance and consistency.”
The work depends on the day and the season—slower in the winter, and busy during the spring, following not only the life cycle of the wines, but also the life cycle of the barrel and the bottling.
Beyond this, Clubb and his team have created an artisan winery that promotes environmental sustainability.
As a brick and mortar winery, L’Ecole is considered traditionalist in that they grow all their own fruit and produce and bottle and sell all their own wine. Clubb notes that in today’s increasing complex economy, their approach is also more complex but ultimately important.
“When we say brick and mortar, what me mean is come see us,” he said. “Because we’re engaged in growing our fruit, we grow for the quality we want to make. When you control every aspect of what ultimately lands in the bottle, you become the artist.”
L’Ecole competes in the national market because it comes from a unique valley with a distinct cultural identity, which produces family-owned artisan brands.
This control extends towards efforts to farm and make wine sustainable. The climate of eastern Washington is distinctive because it’s relatively dry, has low rainfall and has harder winters. This climate reduces both mildew problems and pest pressures. Because of this there has been an effort in the wine industry to farm organically and bio-dynamically.
Clubb notes that L’Ecole uses organic practices and composts in the vineyards to create a healthier environment for the vines that result in less human input. Sustainability also expands to the winery itself with recycling programs.
L’Ecole is part of Vinea, the wine growers’ sustainable trust, which includes 75 percent of the vineyards in Walla Walla, and most of the key wineries.
“I won’t even say that we’re at the forefront of this,” said Clubb. “There are others such as Jean-Francois at Pepper Bridge that really push [sustainability.] But we are an advocate for the program.”
L’Ecole’s Walla Walla wines now highlight their sustainable efforts on the label.
“We are a collective part of a group of passionate, committed viticulturists and winemakers that are trying to encourage growth and sustainable practices,” said Clubb.
Clubb also emphasized the importance of community in the wine industry, and the relationship between the industry and the Walla Walla community.
One example of this, is Clubb’s participation in creating the Center for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. The vision to create a teaching winery began in around 2000 as a collaboration between the Community College Foundation Board and the College’s President, Steven VanAusdle.
“When I say a teaching winery, it’s more than just creating a teaching program,” said Clubb. “It’s a facility that would really teach classic, commercial wine making. They actually make wine there.”
Clubb emphasized the need for education and research to support the growing wine industry in Walla Walla.
“Without a work force to funnel into that industry we are crippled,” he said.
Clubb argues that because Washington State has such a unique climate and faces such specific viticultural issues, the need for Washington specific programs is of the utmost importance.
“The people that have come out of this program are now in the industry in some form or fashion, whether it be in Walla Walla, or Woodinville; they are supporting Washington State winemaking,” said Clubb. “This is a really important program to nurture our expertise and to train people to really help us build a world class industry.”
This growing world class industry has shaped the Walla Walla community in important ways. Clubb notes that in 1990, downtown was dead.
“A synergy of a growing wine community brought tourists to town, [along with] a commitment of the business to reinvigorate downtown,” said Clubb.
This, along with a burgeoning art and education culture, worked to create what is today the unique destination of Walla Walla.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. While this is not due solely to the arrival of the wine industry, viticulture has had its impact in the region.
“The wine industry has had a significant impact on that because it created the energy to build tourism off of,” said Clubb. “I mean Walla Walla is still a cool town, but what would people have been coming to see?”
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