I was hesitant about going to L'Ecole N˚41 on the first day of our Walla Walla, Washington trip. I'd had their Columbia Valley wines before and they were fine but not outstanding by my memory.
But the place is the third oldest winery in Walla Walla, and one of the few with broad distribution so we had to hit them on the way in to town. And am I glad we did! I was wowed! It seems like Marty Clubb, who worked with Gary Figgins of Leonetti and Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge/Amavi to pioneer wine growing in the early 80s, has an excellent feel for the land and that takes the wines in a direction that few can -- you can taste a piece of Walla Walla in each wine from L'Ecole. The man, the land, and the wine are definitely wrapped up with each other and we benefit from that!
To tie this back to the post on Pepper Bridge, L'Ecole is one of the places that is invested in vineyard development. They own several plots, including the esteemed Seven Hills Vineyard in south central Walla Walla, which they share with with Gary Figgins and Norm McKibben. The high quality soils, mainly glacial wind-blown loess (see this post for more info on that), give the grapes a great mineral flavor and it's a point of difference. There are lots of folks making wine in the valley, but many fewer that grow grapes. I think this understanding of the land adds something special to the wines, since as I mentioned -- it seems like the land is so wrapped up with the ethos of the producer.
L'Ecole was started in 1983 as a retirement project for Baker and Jean Ferguson. Baker retired from the family business of banking (the family owns the Baker Boyer Bank, the oldest bank in Washington state) and he and Jean pursued their passion for wine. She had no formal training, but was their first winemaker and won a local wine competition with her first Merlot, which I find kind of awesome. Marty Clubb married their daughter, Megan, and today Marty heads up winemaking and has a staff of great folks to help with their 40,000+ case production.
L'Ecole N˚41 gets its name from the historic school in which the winery is now housed. It's in an area called Frenchtown, just west of Walla Walla. The school was built in 1915 by French Canadians who settled here. L'Ecole is French for "the school" and 41 was the district number -- easy as that!
The winery is cute and so welcoming. There was a great outdoor deck and, if you have kids, a terrific playground in the back in homage to the history! The building isn't in the vineyards, but there are a few token vines nearby to remind you of what goes on there.
I had the amazing opportunity to meet Debbie Frol, who is the General Manager of the winery. She was so nice and helpful, even though she was swamped with guests because it was spring release weekend (when they release their recent vintages to wine club members). It's testament to how much they value their guests, and to the fact that they love when other people are as excited about their wines as they are.
L'Ecole is a not-to-miss if you head to Walla Walla and I would encourage you to try through their Walla Walla stuff. I skipped most of the Columbia Valley offerings this time and my opinion was completed elevated...just saying.
Here's the lineup:
The Wine: 2011 Luminesce, $19
The Grapes: 67% Semillon, 33% Sauvignon Blanc
Quick description: This white Bordeaux blend was a rich golden color, but they used old oak so Debbie assured me it was from the darker hued Semillon. A great grapefruit, grassy, and minerally smell with awesome herbal, candied lemon, and honeydew melon flavors. Good acid to keep it fresh!
Drink or sink?: Drink, but it was so good and went down so easy I could have had the whole bottle, so caveat emptor.
The Wine: 2010 Estate Merlot, Seven Hills Vineyard $30
The Grapes: 100% Merlot
Quick description: A nice dark garnet with dark-colored tears dripping down the glass, post-swirl. The wine smelled like what I expect from Washington Merlot -- a combo of rich spice, smoke, and pine, with a great earthiness and a little bit of fruit. It tasted like a Christmas tree smells -- pine, sap, and earth with some clove flavors to boot. Great tannin and nice acidity made this well balanced, despite the higher alcohol.
Drink or sink?: Drink. I loved this wine but I also love wines that taste like they are from the ground. If you like a fruitier style of Merlot, this may not work for you but if you are looking for a wine that represents what the vineyard offers, look no further. I loved it.
The Wine: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla, $39
The Grape: 100% Cabernet
Quick description: A crimson red with totally different smells than the Merlot -- this was like a bouquet of dried flowers with a good hit of black cherry. The wine tasted like a baked cherry pie -- sweet cherries, cinnamon, and nutmeg but with black licorice and black pepper too. There was a salty earth flavor and some spearmint with caramel and pine notes from the oak. Softer tannins and nice mouth cleaning acid kept the wine from feeling too heavy. Well-balanced.
Drink or sink?: Drink. A great, complex Cab. I can't believe this is only $39. I liked it alone but I bet it would be exceptional with grilled food or mushrooms. Again, if you're looking for a fruit bomb, not your wine.
The Wine: Perigee, Estate Seven Hills Vineyard, $49
The Grapes: 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 4% each of Malbec and Petit Verdot
Quick description: The addition of Merlot and Cab Franc made this a less intense red than the straight Cab. The smell was fairly light -- lots of red cherry, some dusty earth but not much there. A total surprise, this wine had tons of fruit -- black plum, black currant, dark cherry -- and then tons of herbal smells (thyme, mint). There was a great green pepper note from the Cabernet and a wet earth (think just after it rains) smell. A long finish with chewy, thick tannins but great acid to keep it clean. Very complex.
The Wine: 2009 Apogee, Pepper Bridge Vineyard, $49
The Grapes: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc
Quick description: A nice raspberry color with a rich, perfumed, floral aroma. The wine was heavy in green pepper and fresh cut herb smells but it had lots of raspberry and red cherry fruit smells too. Nice pine, earth, and cinnamon spice notes gave the wine tons of dimension. Soft tannins and good, noticeable acid gave the wine...what else? Balance - the word I use to describe all these wines!
Drink or sink?: Drink. Excellent and excellent right now. I loved the spice on this wine and I think it doesn't need age like the Perigee.
The Wine: 2010 Estate Syrah, Seven Hills Vineyard, $34
The Grapes: 100% Syrah
Quick description: A dark plum color with thick, gloppy tears from the 15% alcohol. Blueberry, blackberry, violets, and black plums with saddle leather and black pepper smells and tastes. Great spice, full fruit, and strong mouth-drying tannin.
Drink or sink?: Drink. I finished the tasting with a bang. Every wine was outstanding and this full-flavored, rich, decadent wine was a great finale. So luscious. Thinking about it and writing about it now, makes my mouth water for it!