Martin Lanis (Marty) Clubb (b. 1957) is the co-owner and managing winemaker of the L’Ecole No 41 winery in Lowden, just west of Walla Walla. Marty and his wife Megan Clubb acquired the winery in 1989 from her parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, who had purchased the old Lowden schoolhouse in 1977 and turned it into a winery. Under Marty Clubb’s direction, the winery (known popularly as simply L’Ecole) became one of the early success stories in the then-tiny Walla Walla wine region. Clubb’s wines went on to win dozens of awards, including Best Bordeaux Varietal in the world at a prestigious competition in London. L’Ecole’s output grew to more than 50,000 cases by 2023. Clubb, who has a business degree from MIT’s Sloan School, held leadership roles in numerous Washington wine associations and helped build the reputation of not only his own wines, but Washington wines overall.
From Chemistry to Business
Martin Lanis (Marty) Clubb was born on October 11, 1957, in Beaumont, Texas, where his family’s roots stretched back for more than a century. His father worked for the Sun Oil Company, and before long the family moved first to Tulsa and later to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, which was near the Sun Oil headquarters in Philadelphia. Marty attended Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. At the time, wine was a negligible part of life for the Clubb family – as it was for most Americans in the 1960s. "We would have a bottle of Mateus on the table for Thanksgiving," said Clubb. "Or my grandmother would take her little sip of Mogen David here and there. But she would make sure we brought it to her in the brown bag, so nobody would see it" (Kershner interview).
After graduating from high school in 1976, he attended Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, with his sights set on following in his father’s footsteps and studying civil engineering. Yet he soon switched to chemical engineering, a subject he realized that he excelled in. "This was the freshman year and you had to take organic chemistry, which a lot of people failed at," he recalled. "And they were large classes. And so many people failed that they had to put in a curve to keep from flunking everybody. And I did so well that I ended up above a hundred percent. And so I didn't even have to take the final ... So, I was in that strange batch of people where it clicked with me" (Kershner interview).
Chemistry also happened to be a subject that would prove useful for a career as a winemaker. Yet at the time, wine never entered his mind. "I was going to college in Texas and we drank beer in college," he said. "I was very fascinated with fermentation science, but more in the beer direction" (Kershner interview).
When he was ready to graduate from Texas A&M, he began to harbor second thoughts about his chosen field. "I began to realize that chemical engineers went to work in refineries and chemical plants and things like that," he said. "I really was … having serious doubts about whether I really wanted to be a chemical engineer. And I had always thought about going to business school" (Kershner interview).
The Sun Oil president encouraged him to apply to his alma mater, the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was one of the most prestigious business schools in the nation – and Marty made it in. "I went straight to business school, which might not have been a smart idea, but I felt ready to go ahead and make the change because I felt like I wanted to be more in the business side," he said. "Chemical engineering still interested me, but I felt like my career was going to turn more into a business angle. I didn't know exactly what that angle was going to be" (Kershner interview).
A Wine Connection
While at the Sloan School, he met a fellow student named Megan Ferguson, who was studying for the same finance and economics degree. They hit it off right away, and immediately became friends. "Our friendship turned into more than that, with time," said Marty (Kershner interview). She was from Walla Walla and her father was Baker Ferguson, a prominent banker with Walla Walla’s Boyer Baker Bank, and a trustee of Whitman College. He was also a wine connoisseur. When he came to Cambridge to visit his daughter, he brought along some fine French wines and shared them with Megan and her friend Marty. "I had the first real, true superb wines of my life that September of 1980," he said. "... That really opened my eyes. My [previous] exposure to wine was rather pedestrian – and it was not fine wine like that" (Kershner interview).
Baker Ferguson was more than just a wine connoisseur. He was also a visionary, imagining a Washington wine industry at a time when such a thing barely existed. "As a bank lender to agricultural business, and with the knowledge of wine that Baker had, he understood very early on that Washington had the potential to be world-class," said Clubb. "And he had a dream of building a winery that would be one of the first world-class wineries in Washington state" (Kershner interview).
Building L'Ecole No 41
By the time Marty met him in 1980, Ferguson had already taken early steps to realize that dream. In 1977, Ferguson and his wife Jean Ferguson licensed a winery to be housed at the recently closed Lowden Schoolhouse, a few miles west of Walla Walla. They named it L’Ecole No 41 in homage to the schoolhouse, which had been part of School District No 41 before closing in 1974. L’Ecole means "school" in French, so the name also hinted at Ferguson’s intention to make wines in the French style. The winery was licensed at the same 1977 county planning meeting that licensed another Walla Walla Winery, Leonetti Cellar. Only one other nascent winery, Woodward Canyon, existed in Walla Walla at the time. All three would one day become famous in the Washington’s wine industry, but it wouldn’t happen overnight. The Fergusons considered their winery to be a retirement project, and their plan lay dormant for a few years while they worked on renovating the old school. The roof was falling in, some windows were broken out, and they had to dig out the basement to accommodate the barrels and stainless-steel tanks.
In 1982, the project was further postponed by another major undertaking: the wedding of Marty Clubb and Megan Ferguson, which took place the summer after both graduated from the Sloan School. "My wife says for sure, that delayed their winery project by a year because Jean had to help plan a marriage," said Clubb, with a laugh (Kershner interview).
Sometime around the time they were preparing their vows, Megan made another vow to Marty. "She made me a promise that we would never move to Walla Walla," recalled Marty (Kershner interview). In that pre-wine era, Walla Walla was known mostly for being home to the state penitentiary. Walla Walla would shed that image and become a premier wine tourism destination, thanks in no small part to L’Ecole – but that was long in the future.
The Fergusons did not begin making wine until 1983. Then they had to wait several more years for the wine to mature and come to market. Meanwhile, Marty and Megan, business degrees in hand, were both pursuing careers far from the realm of wine. They had both landed plum jobs in San Francisco, Megan with a management consulting firm, and Marty with Bechtel, the construction giant. He began in the company’s nuclear fuel operations, and later moved into project development and project finance. "I thought I was a career guy at Bechtel," he said (Kershner interview).
He was wrong. By 1989, circumstances had changed for Baker and Jean Ferguson. L’Ecole had shown plenty of early success, but operating a small family winery was hard and demanding work. By this time, the Fergusons were ready to move on and retire for good. Circumstances had also changed for Megan and Marty Clubb. Each had high-powered jobs that required lots of travel – they "were basically living on airplanes" (Kershner interview). A son had been born in 1986 and a daughter in 1988, which made their high-powered life even more hectic. Over the years, they had also developed a growing passion for wine, both from exploring Napa and Sonoma on their doorstep, and from taking trips to Walla Walla to help Megan’s parents with harvesting and bottling.
After their daughter was born, Megan began thinking of a new plan. "My wife was like, 'This is nuts. This is crazy. You should think about going to work for the winery'," said Marty. "She said to me, 'You can always come back and do what you’re doing today, anytime you want. Let’s go see if we can make something of building this winery.' And one of us needed a paycheck, so she went to work for the bank" (Kershner interview).
Crash Course at UC Davis
The Fergusons sold the winery to Marty and Megan at a “pretty discounted rate” in 1989 and then stepped away. Marty prepared for the move by taking crash courses in winemaking at the University of California-Davis, the nation’s top school for winemaking. He discovered that his chemistry background was a real advantage and before long he was confident that he could be not just L’Ecole’s co-owner, but also its head winemaker. By the time he and the family made the big move to Walla Walla in 1989, he was "totally focused on making the best wine I could make" (Kershner interview).
Yet he also discovered that his business background would be put to the test as well. "A winery is a black hole for money," he said. "And I think Jean and Baker had sunk a lot of their savings into this winery, and it was still in the red. And when I looked at it, I knew we were going to have to sink whatever savings we had, and also borrow money" (Kershner interview). Some Walla Walla folks asked this incredulous question to Baker Ferguson: "So you mean you just up and gave this winery to your daughter and your son-in-law?" Ferguson replied, "You have to remember, I’m a banker. And bankers get rid of their liabilities" (Kershner interview).
Jean and Baker Ferguson had already established a successful brand at L’Ecole. The wines were winning early recognition. For instance, their 1984 Semillon had "made a real hit at a recent wine-writer’s luncheon" in 1986, reported Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley (Stockley). That same year, their 1983 Merlot had also won the only gold medal awarded at the era’s most important regional wine competition, the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest’s annual contest. This award bestowed instant prestige on L’Ecole. Walla Walla, in general, was slowly gaining a reputation for producing outstanding red wines, overturning the conventional wisdom that Washington was suitable only for white wine. L’Ecole had also established a warm and recognizable identity, with its jaunty and colorful label – an image of the schoolhouse, drawn (fittingly) by a third-grader.
So Marty and Megan arrived to find themselves owners of a winery with a sound reputation and devoted fans – yet it was tiny. L’Ecole had essentially been a mom-and-pop operation, with Jean as the winemaker, and Baker running the strategy and marketing. "I mean, they were making 500 cases, 700 cases, because they were doing all of the work themselves," said Clubb. "They were driving it over and selling it in Seattle" (Kershner interview). "So when I got here, I realized we needed to make more. And my first year we made 2,500 cases. Yeah, it was a big leap. And – this feels like I'm bragging – but I pretty much did that by myself. I didn't have any help because I didn't have any money to pay anybody" (Kershner interview). He also threw himself into making wines that would keep L’Ecole’s reputation strong. L’Ecole had established a niche with Merlot, Semillon, and Chenin Blanc, so he largely stayed with those varietals. "Fortunately, that year was a great year, and Mother Nature was kind to us, and the wines were fantastic," he said (Kershner interview).
He also ventured into Cabernet Sauvignon, the red variety that was becoming increasingly prized in Washington. A few years later, he began making Chardonnay, another varietal exploding in popularity. Both would become mainstays on L’Ecole’s list. Yet Clubb’s versions of Merlot and Semillon strengthened a L’Ecole tradition that would persist through the decades. "If you go to the larger wine world and ask a wine sommelier, 'What are the two best wines that L'Ecole makes?' he's more likely going to say Semillon and Merlot, because it's what we cut our teeth on, is what we became known for" said Clubb (Kershner interview).
Growing the Brand
Making more and better wine is one thing, but Clubb, the business school graduate, knew it wasn’t everything. "So by the time I got myself through that first year, I realized, holy smokes, we have to figure out how to sell this wine" (Kershner interview). He interviewed several distributors and chanced upon Elliott Bay Distributing Co., a relatively new Seattle firm, which proved a perfect fit. "They really helped build our market because they had boots on the ground, people that live there, that called on their accounts every week, which was very difficult to do from here," said Clubb (Kershner interview). They put L’Ecole into restaurants and stores in the Puget Sound region, forging a partnership that continues to this day.
Clubb was also one of the early promoters of wine tourism – the idea that tasting rooms and wine events could draw visitors to Walla Walla and the Yakima Valley. In 1991, The Seattle Times ran a story about L’Ecole’s popular schoolhouse wine dinners. A local chef was preparing gourmet meals for groups of 12-50 people and pairing the dishes with L’Ecole wines and other Walla Walla wines. "I’ve seen what happened in the California wine country, and I think Walla Walla has that potential," said chef Barbara Mastin. "I think Walla Walla is a treasure" (Whitehurst).
By 1992, L’Ecole’s sales had grown to the point where Marty and Megan began thinking that they could afford to buy a house in Walla Walla. "I said, 'I think I can pay myself enough salary in the business [$25,000] to pay for the mortgage'" (Kershner interview). Clubb reached another milestone that year – he hired someone to help in the winery. "That was a big deal to me, because it took quite a load off," he said. "I hired a student that was going to school at Whitman College to help part-time" (Kershner interview). Clubb no longer had to stop work and trudge up the stairs every time someone rang the tasting room doorbell.
An even more significant milestone came in 1993, when Clubb made his first wines from the Pepper Bridge vineyard and the Seven Hills vineyard – his first real wines from Walla Walla Valley grapes, as opposed to grapes from the Yakima or Columbia valleys to the west. Two years earlier, vineyard owner Norm McKibben had planted 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at his Pepper Bridge property south of Walla Walla. Seven Hills had first planted wine grapes in 1980, but few other vineyards were growing wine grapes at the time in the Walla Walla Valley.
Clubb used those Walla Walla grapes in 1993 to make L’Ecole’s Pepper Bridge Apogee, a Bordeaux blend. The Seven Hills vineyard blend would be called Perigee, a fitting companion to Apogee, and both would become mainstays on L’Ecole’s higher-end list. This marked the beginning of a transition in which L’Ecole and the other Walla Walla wineries began to rely ever more heavily on grapes grown in their own valley. L’Ecole would later plant its own prestigious Walla Walla vineyard, Estate Ferguson, named in honor of the winery’s founders.
Clubb realized around this time that he needed to build L’Ecole’s volume "slowly but surely" (Kershner interview). He began adding about 1,000 cases or more a year, which by 2023 amounted to an output "a little north of 50,000 cases a year" (Kershner interview). He also realized that, for L’Ecole to grow and thrive, it was vital to improve the status of Washington wine as a whole. In 1990, the head of the Washington Wine Commission found out about Clubb’s business background and invited him to become a commissioner. "I was on the commission for 10 years," said Clubb. "I ended up being the treasurer, and was the guy that championed an increase in the winery assessment to help build the industry marketing program. My time there introduced me to a lot of other significant players in the industry ... and I think that those early friendships with some of those first pioneering vineyardists and wineries also helped us along the way. So I really greatly valued my time on the Wine Commission" (Kershner interview). It also helped build a growing recognition that Washington wines could compete in quality with the dominant California wines.
After his time on the Washington Wine Commission, he helped start the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in 2000 and became its first president. He also played a key role in establishing a wine and viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College. Eventually, Clubb would become Washington’s board member for WineAmerica, a national wine industry association. "If you think about starting a wine region and trying to build an identity, that was a real challenge," said Clubb. "And we fortunately had the marketing power of Chateau Ste. Michelle to help lead the way. But in those [early] days, consumers didn’t know where Washington state is. The old joke was, if you told people we make wine from Washington State, they’d say, 'Really? What side of the Potomac is that?'" (Kershner interview).
The most important factor, in the end, was the sheer quality of Washington wine. "The first people to really discover Washington, of course, were the wine critics – the Wine Spectator, the Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits magazine," he said. "... We eventually won over the wine sommeliers, but then they had to put it on the wine lists in the restaurants, and then they had to talk it up because people were buying wine from Napa, not buying wine from the Yakima Valley or from the Walla Walla Valley. And so it took a long time" (Kershner interview). Clubb also did his part simply by making quality wine. "I get people today that say, 'The first Merlot I ever had from Washington state was L'Ecole, and it was so good.' I get a lot of stories like that, and that's a feel-good moment" (Kershner interview).
Success at Home and Abroad
By 1996, L’Ecole had grown to the point where the schoolhouse basement could not hold all the barrels. Clubb added a 6,000-square-foot production facility on the grounds behind the schoolhouse, and then eventually added on to that. The Walla Walla wine scene was growing at an incredible rate. When Clubb first began the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance in 2000, there were 20 wineries in the valley. By 2010, there were 80, and by 2020 there were between 120 and 130 wineries and Walla Walla had become a wine tourism destination. "I kept fretting that we're going to lose some of our traffic to new wineries down the street," said Clubb. "And that really didn't happen, because Walla Walla kept drawing more and more people" (Kershner interview). Walla Walla had advantages beyond its wine – it’s one of the oldest towns in the state, with a historic downtown, and a picturesque setting at the foot of the snowy Blue Mountains.
L'Ecole remained one of the city’s draws – it would attract 26,000 visitors a year to the schoolhouse by 2017. It landed in Wine & Spirits magazine’s Top 100 wineries list 16 times. Clubb continued to look for ways to expand the market, and in 2002, he started the L’Ecole Wine Club, which offers members its top wines at discounted prices. It would eventually grow to 2,600 members and account for about half of the winery’s sales direct to consumers.
Clubb also began to look to other, more distant, markets. First, he built distributions networks across the U.S., and by 2000 he began distributing in Europe and Asia. That’s unusual for Washington wines, for many reasons. "There’s a lot of bureaucracy at play, a lot of paperwork, and chemical analysis, and rubber-stamping, and logistics to get the wine on a ship to get it over to Europe," said Clubb. "And ... they're used to very inexpensive Old World wines. And the old adage in London was, if it costs more than 10 pounds, they're not going to buy it. But the reason we did it wasn't because we needed another outlet for wine. It was because all the international wine critics were based in Europe. They were based in London ... Decanter magazine, all the significant wine critics in the world, were based in Europe. And if they wrote about you, you were on the world wine map” (Kershner interview).
This strategy paid off a few years later when L’Ecole earned its biggest accolade ever. The first vintage from its own Ferguson vineyard, the 2011 Estate Ferguson blend, won the 2014 Decanter World Wine Award’s International Trophy for Best in Show, Best Bordeaux Varietal in the world. This was a massive competition, with more than 15,000 total entries. Decanter magazine called L’Ecole’s award a "a coup for a U.S. wine region that, while hardly new, is still trying to build a profile with many wine drinkers" (Mercer). Clubb went to London to accept the award, and a few days later, he was quoted as saying, "I’m still in shock. What’s tremendous about this is, it’s really great for Washington" (Perdue).
It instantly gave L’Ecole an international reputation. "I go now to do a tasting in London, and virtually everyone comes to the table and [has] a story about the first time they tried L'Ecole Wines," said Clubb in a 2023 interview. "Our Columbia Valley Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are probably the two most significant ... those two wines do well. But some of our higher-tier Walla Walla Estate wines are doing pretty well there, too" (Kershner interview).
Meanwhile, L’Ecole remained a favorite among the Northwest’s wine critics. Paul Gregutt summed up L’Ecole’s place in the wine marketplace this way in a 2011 column: "The newest wines comprise a sizeable portfolio of diverse and superbly well-crafted releases that speak to the maturity and overall excellence that characterizes the top tier of Washington wines. Rarely if ever flashy, and generally priced below comparable offering, even from Washington, these expressive wines take careful note of the character and complexity of their various appellations and vineyards. They are particularly enjoyable for their use of old vine fruit, and the overall elegance and polish of the blends" (Gregutt).
L'Ecole No 41, as of 2023, had grown to an annual output of more than 50,000 cases. Gone were the days when Clubb was the sole employee. It now has 17 full-time employees, as well as a number of part-time employees working in the schoolhouse tasting room and helping out with harvest and bottling. It has also opened a smaller tasting room in downtown Walla Walla’s Marcus Whitman Hotel, called the L’Ecole Heritage Wine Bar. And in 2023 it opened a tasting room in Woodinville, in a development centered around the old Woodinville schoolhouse. "As you can imagine, they came knocking on my door," said Clubb (Kershner interview). A schoolhouse setting seemed custom-made for another L’Ecole branch.
Into the Future
What does the future hold for Clubb in his 60s? Both of their children, Rebecca Olson and Riley Clubb, are on the L’Ecole board. Riley’s wife Melissa just joined as brand manager. "So we now have part of the family in to help carry the banner," said Marty. "I really love the business. Our goal is to continue to manage the business, but continue to have quality staff, so that maybe I don't have to work quite as hard. But I really don't want to step away from the business. And so, now that Melissa's on board, we are pretty confident about that strategy of keeping L'Ecole in the family" (Kershner interview).
Clubb has earned a long list of accolades for his work, both as a winemaker and an advocate for Washington wine. In 2015, he was named Honorary Vintner at the Annual Auction of Washington Wines, one of the industry’s highest honors. In 2022, he was named an MIP (Most Inspiring People) by Wine Industry Insider. In 2023, he received the Rich Smith Award of Excellence from the Wine Growers of America, WineAmerica, National Grape Research Alliance, and the Smith Family Winery
Yet he also feels rewarded every time he plants his boots in one of Walla Walla’s vineyards. "We were there," he said. "We planted these vineyards in Walla Walla. I was there in 1997 when the big expansion at Seven Hills started. Norm McKibben, and I, and Gary Figgins were all partners in the expansion of that vineyard. And we all stood there together when the first vine went in the ground. And today, those vines are all 25 years old" (Kershner interview).
He and the other Walla Walla wine pioneers forged a unique sense of comaraderie. "We started a mere 35, 40 years ago as an unknown wine industry," he said. "We worked together, we tasted together, our friendships were the other people in the wine industry ... And now, it’s like you pat the next guy on the back when they get a 100-point score at Robert Parker, you know? That’s something that the industry is proud to have achieved" (Kershner interview).
And how does he feel today about the promise Megan once made – to never make him move to Walla Walla?
"I’m really glad she broke that promise" (Kershner interview).
More: Jim Kershner's interview with Marty Clubb