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Salute to Washington

Oenophiles are calling Walla Walla, Washington, the next great American wine region. At a lunch, a pioneering family gives thanks.

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Others may dream of Paris or Rome, a weekend in London or a month in Capri. Me, I just wanted a few days in Walla Walla.

I'd been wowed by the wines that I'd tasted recently from this far corner of Washington State--although I knew it wasn't much of a destination for food. Or, as a friend who had visited told me, "There's a Burger King, a Dairy Queen and a lot of places to buy apple-head dolls." While I wouldn't exactly call myself a snob about restaurants, somehow these facts kept me from crossing the country.

Then one day late last March, I ran into Steve Burns, head of the Washington State Wine Commission, in New York for a tasting. Steve, who knew that the lack of a serious place to eat stood between Walla Walla and me, grabbed my arm and fairly shouted with excitement. "There's a new restaurant opening this spring in Walla Walla! They say the chef is from Campagne, one of Seattle's best restaurants!" A few months later, I was on the phone with Marty Clubb, owner and winemaker at L'Ecole No 41, a leading Walla Walla winery. Clubb was raving about the new place, Whitehouse Crawford, and its chef, Jamie Guerin, who'd been lured there by the restaurant's charismatic owners, the Schmitts. (Walla Walla is so small that Whitehouse Crawford's arrival seemed as newsworthy as Hillary Clinton's becoming a resident of Chappaqua, New York.) Clubb invited me to visit and promised I'd get to taste Guerin's food.

Walla Walla, I learned, is still very much a farming community. Although its rolling hills have long been famous for wheat, apples and incredibly sweet onions (sweeter than Vidalias, they say), wine grapes are a pretty recent commodity. In fact, serious winemaking is only about two decades old in this part of Washington State. But a land rush of sorts is under way here, as wine critics from all over the world have taken notice of what can be made with Walla Walla fruit--particularly Cabernet and Merlot.

At only 43 years of age, Marty Clubb is actually one of Walla Walla's founding winemakers (right after Gary Figgins of Leonetti and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon). Clubb has been in Walla Walla since 1989, when he left a big corporate job in San Francisco to take over the winery begun in 1983 by his in-laws, Baker and Jean Ferguson. His story of businessman-turned-winemaker has much in common with other second-career vintners. Marty and his wife, Megan, were both working too long and traveling too much while trying to raise two children. In his scant spare time, Marty, who'd developed a passion for wine, had been studying at the University of California, Davis's oenology school. Taking over L'Ecole No 41, a small winery located in the basement of a 1915 schoolhouse, looked like a better life in every way.

Clubb's first vintage was 1989. "Baker just left me alone," he recalls. "At the time, I felt like he just abandoned me! Now, of course, I see that it was the right thing to do. He was giving me the freedom to figure things out for myself." And figure it out Clubb did. He gradually raised Jean and Baker's boutique-size 1,000 case production to its present-day 20,000 and did so without sacrificing quality or any of the hallmarks of a handmade wine (minimal fruit handling, no fining or filtration). He expanded the winery's line to include two beautifully balanced Merlots, including the especially coveted Seven Hills Vineyard selection, and three bottlings of the winery's signature white, a rich barrel-fermented Sémillon, as well as a Cabernet, a Chardonnay and a Bordeaux-style blend.

During these early years, Clubb received a great deal of support from Gary Figgins of Leonetti and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon. That kind of neighborly noncompetitiveness seems, remarkably, to still exist between Walla Walla's winemakers, even though their number has grown from three in 1983 to almost 30 today. And they'd like to keep it that way. As Mike Sharon, L'Ecole No 41's assistant winemaker, says, "We like the fact that we can go into one another's cellars and taste each other's wines. We don't want to become cutthroat competitors."

The competitiveness, it seems, they save for the golf course. Sharon and L'Ecole No 41 cellarmaster (and former golf pro) Tom Glase showed me the three acres that separate L'Ecole No 41 from Woodward Canyon, explaining that Clubb and Small had purchased it together with the purported intent of putting in a three-hole golf course. "We're trying to convince Gary Figgins to put in a three-hole course too," Glase said, adding that one of his wilder dreams is to one day see enough three-hole courses spread among the various wineries that their producers can play a full 18 holes.

In the meantime, Walla Walla winemakers have plenty of other distractions. L'Ecole No 41, for example, holds regular dinners in its schoolhouse dining room, like the one Marty and Megan put together with Jamie Guerin and his wife Sara, Whitehouse Crawford's sous-chef. Marty's parents were in town for a visit and Baker, who lives nearby, joined them to taste a selection of L'Ecole No 41's best wines with Guerin's menu.

After the chopped salmon with capers, the meal officially opened with a sweet onion tart, accompanied by the rich and aromatic 1999 Barrel Fermented Sémillon. The main course, a garlic-encrusted beef tenderloin, was paired with the 1998 Walla Walla Valley Merlot, followed by a simple green salad, local cheeses and Chardonnay. Dessert was chocolate cake, which Clubb claimed his Bordeaux-style blend, Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee, could stand up to (it did).

While he is widely acknowledged as one of Walla Walla's best winemakers, Clubb still seems a bit awed by his good fortune. "No one's paid much attention to Walla Walla until now," he explains. "People were once pretty skeptical of what we could do here, the way I guess they would be if we said we were making great wine in Texas."

Which reminds me. I need to follow up on some great Cabernet Sauvignon I hear is being made outside Lubbock.

Published November 2000
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