Washington Wine History Interviews: Marty Clubb, L'Ecole No 41

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/21/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22719
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Since 1989, Martin "Marty" Clubb has been the co-owner and managing winemaker of the L’Ecole No 41 winery in Lowden, just west of Walla Walla. He and his wife Megan took over the operation from Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, who had licensed the winery at the historic Lowden schoolhouse and ran it for the first few years. The Walla Walla winery scene would explode in the ensuing decades, but at the time it was licensed in 1977, L’Ecole was one of only three wineries in Walla Walla. Today, it remains one of the best-known. History Link’s Jim Kershner interviewed Marty Clubb on April 13, 2023, at L’Ecole’s iconic schoolhouse tasting room.

The Three Originals

Here, Clubb describes the Walla Walla wine scene in the early days, and how L’Ecole was born:

Marty Clubb: The three wineries, Woodward Canyon, Leonetti Cellar, and L'Ecole all started in and around the same time, Leonetti was first, Woodward Canyon was second, and we were third. And we became known as the three pioneering wineries in the Walla Walla valley. And of course, today, there's 130 wineries or some number close to that ... That was in the days when we still had really cold arctic winters, minus 15 degrees. Global warming has actually done us a favor and kind of moved us away from those severe winters, and so that's actually helped the wine industry excel, in a way. The entire California wine industry was afraid of growing grapes in the Pacific Northwest because of the hard winters, but that's not what's going on today. There's kind of a mad rush of players coming to the Northwest. But Baker really truly understood early on the potential for fine wine grapes and had this dream that when he retired from the bank, he and Jean Ferguson would start this winery. And that's exactly what they did.

In those early days, the Fergusons made wine in the schoolhouse basement, and established a small tasting room upstairs. Not a lot of people visited the winery in those days, but when someone did, Baker Ferguson would have to stop what he was working on. He sometimes tried to quiz visitors on their intentions. Here, Clubb describes one memorable encounter:

MC: I already mentioned that Baker kind of interviewed people. They had been selling wine now for a while, and he's upstairs and somebody rings the doorbell, and it was an intercom system, and Baker could be a touch gruff at times. And he answers the intercom. He goes, "Yeah, what do you want?" And this woman said, "Well, we've just heard about your new winery. And we really just wanted to taste a couple of wines, and we were hoping that maybe you would open the door and let us come try some wines." And he goes, "Where are you from?" And she said, "We're from San Francisco." So Baker goes downstairs and opens the door, and she's already headed back to the car. And he goes, "Oh, come on in, come on in." And she goes, "I'm sorry, I lied. We're from the Tri-Cities." But of course, now the door was open. Baker, once he had the door open, would entertain people with wine stories and wine tastings, and he was rather entertaining at it.

Megan's Hometown

Marty and Megan Clubb had both graduated from MIT’s prestigious business school, the Sloan School, and had embarked on high-powered careers in San Francisco. Yet by around 1989, with two children and demanding jobs, they began to think about a different kind of career, in Megan’s hometown of Walla Walla. The Fergusons were ready to retire. Here, Clubb explains how he and Megan came to L’Ecole:

MC: My wife was like, "This is nuts. This is crazy. You should think about going to work for the winery," which Jean and Baker had started in 1983. And we had been up here helping them, we worked the first harvest and came back and helped them bottle. And their family, of course, had Baker Boyer Bank, and Megan was already a director on the board at Baker Boyer and had an opportunity to work in the marketing department at Baker Boyer Bank. 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 this building a winery." And one of us needed a paycheck, so she went to work for the bank.

When the Clubbs arrived in Walla Walla in 1989, they took over a mom-and-pop winery that had a sound reputation. Yet the Washington wine industry was in its infancy and the Walla Walla wine scene had barely been born. It was a risky proposition for the Clubbs from a business angle:

MC: Like I already mentioned, a winery is a black hole for money. 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, and I was like, I knew we were going to have to sink whatever savings we had and also borrow money. And then Baker had pretty much decided to bring us into the family fold and allow us to essentially buy the winery from them at a pretty discounted rate, you might say. They were ready to move on and retire. And Baker was wise enough to realize that if they tried to manage the winery and I was managing the winery, that might lead to a conflict. And they didn't want that. But people would say to Baker, "So you mean you just up and gave this winery to your daughter and your son-in-law?" And Baker said, "You have to remember, I'm a banker and bankers get rid of their liabilities."

Crash Course at UC Davis

Clubb’s transition from Bechtel corporate businessman to winemaker was made easier by the fact that he had an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Making wine, in one sense, is a complex chemistry project. Clubb already knew a great deal about wine, but he also knew he needed to learn as much as he could before making the move.

MC: What happened was, with me in a chemical engineering background before we moved here, I took crash courses at UC Davis. They had designed for the industry, a lot of extension classes where three-day red wine making class, or two days of white wine filtration class. And so I took as many classes at UC Davis as I could in the spring of 1989. And it was enough to realize that with my chemistry background, that I could be the winemaker. And my first goal when I got here was totally focused on making the best wine I could make. And so the fall of 1989 was, that's ... I spent all my energy making the best wine I could make. Fortunately, that year was a great year, and Mother Nature was kind to us, and the wines were fantastic. 

At first, Clubb was buying grapes from the Yakima and Columbia valleys. Yet like Baker Ferguson before him, Clubb believed that the Walla Walla Valley had a vast amount of untapped potential for wine vineyards. Here he explains one of the reasons he had confidence in Walla Walla’s future:

MC: The other thing that is kind of an early marker for where you can do wine grapes: If you can grow really good apples, you can grow really good grapes. Because the growing conditions that set the flavor, the crispness, the acidity level, the sense of freshness in an apple does the same thing in your fruit. Perfect for making wine. And so one of the largest orchards in the Northwest was here in Walla Walla in 1900. And then of course, Washington became a big, big development for orchards and apples all up and down through Yakima and numerous other places. And so really, if you think about, it wasn't a surprise that eventually we turned to wine grapes. He [Norm McKibben] was growing Fujis and Braeburns and all the new [apple] varieties at Pepper Bridge. He founded Pepper Bridge. And just as kind of a sideline deal, he planted 10 acres of Cab [Cabernet Sauvignon] and Merlot.

Clubb had dreamed of making wine from Walla Walla Valley wines, so in 1991 when he heard that McKibben had planted wine grapes, he wanted in on the ground floor.

MC: So I called Norm up and I said, "Norm, when your vineyard starts producing a crop, I'd like to buy some grapes from you." He said, "Well, I'd like that a lot. I'll put you on the waiting list." I said, "The waiting list? What are you talking about?" And he said, "Well, Woodward Canyon had called me, and Leonetti had called me, and Andrew Will Winery had called me," and they had all committed to buy all of his acreage. And so I was on the waiting list, and the next year was second-leaf. And normally you don't really have any fruit, second-leaf, but I noticed out in the vineyard that he had a little bit of fruit on the vines. And I called Norm up. I said, "Norm, which one of these wineries is buying your second leaf fruit?" He said, "Nobody." Because I knew nobody would want second leaf fruit, I said, "I'll take it all." And so I collected enough fruit to make one barrel of wine, and I gave half that barrel to Norm. And the very next year I had an acre of Cab and an acre of Merlot.

The result would be L’Ecole’s Pepper Bridge Apogee, a Bordeaux blend which remains one of L’Ecole’s flagship wines to this day. By the late 1990s, the Washington wine industry was well-established, yet it was a challenge to convince people outside of the Northwest to buy Washington wines. Clubb worked hard to expand his market throughout the U.S., and into Asia and Europe. This was unusual for a Washington winemaker. Here, Clubb explains both the challenges and rewards:

MC: It’s hard. 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. And they being in the old world, they're used to very inexpensive old world wines available. 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 wine magazine, Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, all the significant wine critics in the world were based in Europe. And if they wrote about you, you were on the world map.

A "Coup" for Washington Wine

L’Ecole landed on the world wine map in a splashy way in 2014 when it won the Decanter World Wine Award’s International Trophy for Best in Show, Best Bordeaux Blend in the world. The magazine called it a "coup" for Washington wine. Clubb said it helped L’Ecole, and Washington wine in general, gain visibility in world markets.

MC: I do think we've reached what I would call a significant tipping point, where the world of wine knows about Washington, knows about Walla Walla, knows about L'Ecole. I go now to do a tasting in London, and virtually everyone comes to the table and they have a story about the first time they tried L'Ecole wines. And it was because we started selling there. Not a huge volume, but we started there in 1998. Our Columbia Valley Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are probably the two significant, because they do a lot in the steakhouse and the restaurants, and those kind of hit the right price point for restaurant trade. And so those two wines do well. But some of our higher-tier Walla Walla Estate wines are doing pretty well there, too.

L’Ecole made its reputation from the beginning on Merlot, which remains somewhat unusual in a red wine market dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon (and increasingly, Syrah). Here, Clubb explains why Merlot is suited to Washington – and why its fortunes have gone up and down over the years:

MC: In the 1990s, Merlot lands on the cover of the Wine Spectator with this notion of, will Washington become Merlot, be known for Merlot? And then by the early 2000s, because we were blessed with such a beautiful climate, sunshine, lack of rain, ice age flood, silt soils and volcanic soils, just the perfect ground to be growing wine grapes, that also translates into an ability to have a lot of diversity and make a lot of different kinds of wines. And so, in a way, from a marketing point of view, Napa sold itself on Cabernet Sauvignon. And the Willamette Valley sold itself on Pinot Noir. And so it's easy to pin your name on one variety. It's hard to do a lot of things all at once. And so that's been one of Washington's challenges. So what happened? Merlot caught on. The industry, particularly California, planted lots of Merlot, and all of a sudden this heavy production Merlot hit the street. Interest begins to wane. They come out with a Sideways movie that pans Merlot. And so it really ... How little things can tip toward a disinterest. It had a gigantic uplift for Pinot Noir, and it had a downturn for Merlot. But Washington was making great Merlot. And so we kind of held our own through all that. But what it did was it stunted the growth curve of Merlot. And what we did as a winery was focused on Walla Walla, single-vineyard wines in Walla Walla, and focused on Bordeaux blends from those vineyards. And that has become ... Well, people still love our Estate Merlot and Columbia Valley Merlot. It's a go-to variety choice from L'Ecole. The wines that we are really revered for today are our single-vineyard Walla Walla Estate wines. They're Bordeaux blends. Cab-dominant Bordeaux blends, but often with a healthy little chunk of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and sometimes Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Further Reading: Jim Kershner's biography of Marty Clubb

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