Before Marty Clubb met his wife, Megan, he knew very little about wine.
“I didn’t grow up drinking wine like Megan and her family did,” said the Texas native in a soft drawl as sweet as pecan pie. “I was more into beer back then.”
It was a glass of Montrachet back in the early 1980s that opened his eyes – and palate – to the glories of the grape, liquid lessons provided by Megan Ferguson’s late parents, Jean and Baker.
“When Baker would visit us in Cambridge, he’d go to Wine and Cheese Cask and pick up a bottle of something special like a Grgich Cab or Montrachet. I had no idea wine could be so good. It was really eye-opening to taste something like that. It really blew me away,” recalled Clubb, who has now worked 30 harvests at L’Ecole No 41, housed in the historic Frenchtown schoolhouse in Lowden, just west of Walla Walla.
Marty and Megan graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management in the early 1980s and spent the first few years of their careers living in the Bay Area. But they made a point of coming up and working harvest at the winery, the dream project launched by Jean and Baker in the late 1970s. “They had been planning the winery for 20 years and actually were approved at the same time as Leonetti, in 1977. They used to tease us that our wedding had set the start date back a year,” he said.
After the Clubbs’ second child was born, they moved to Washington in 1989. “In our corporate jobs, we were living on planes, working all the time,” Clubb said. “We wanted to be around the extended family.” (Megan is now president of Baker Boyer Bank, where her father worked.)
Before jumping into the wine industry, Clubb – a chemical engineer -- took extension classes from University of California, Davis. Yet his most significant on-the-job lesson didn’t happen in the barrel room. “I spent a lot of time learning winemaking, but then discovered this wasn’t going to work unless we could sell all this wine,” he said.
Clubb shifted from direct sales to working with distributors in three states, eventually growing the winery’s reach to 49 states and international outlets, as well. The scale of production has also grown from 1,000 cases a year to 39,000 cases, making L’Ecole No 41 the largest producer of wines from the Walla Walla Valley in the state.
It’s been an eventful adventure. Clubb credits early mentors for helping him through the first few vintages: “Rick Small was right next door; he has always been so awesome. Mike Januik really helped me out with a couple of issues in the beginning. I’ve always looked up to him since then. And I became friends with Christophe Baron when he was an intern at Waterbrook. We pressed our whites there, early on.”
In the early 1990s, Clubb connected with legendary grower Norm McKibben. “Norm had just planted Pepper Bridge, so I called and asked if I could buy fruit from him. He said he’d love to sell me fruit, but it was all spoken for. I couldn’t believe it. It had just been planted. When the grapes had their second leaf, Norm sold me the entire crop. Ten acres made about one barrel, the precursor to Apogee, and I gave a bunch to Norm. Low and behold, I was in after that.”
It was the beginning of a fruitful partnership that included the purchase and dramatic expansion of the Seven Hills vineyard in 1997, along with Leonetti Cellar’s Gary Figgins. That was followed by the joint effort on the SeVein project, 2,700 acres near Seven Hills that has been sub-divided, sold and is now home to some of the state’s most prestigious producers. L’Ecole’s estate vineyard planted there in 2008 is Ferguson Ridge, named for the patriarchs who were visionary in their belief in the area’s ability to produce distinctive wine grapes. The wines made from the estate fruit will be extremely limited and will likely be priced in the ultra-premium category.
Through the decades, Clubb remained steadfast in his mission to make quality wines at affordable price points.
“The pathway we chose was not necessarily the easiest, especially with some of our whites, but Jean loved Vouvray, and our old vines Chenin blanc has become one of the hottest wines in our portfolio,” he said.
Same goes for the Semillon.
“I wasn’t always so sure about it in the beginning because Semillon’s a tricky grape and there’s a lot of bad Semillon out there, but we got some good scores from Robert Parker, and it’s hard to argue with the world’s No. 1 wine critic,” Clubb said.
In addition to making and helping to market wine, Clubb has been active in all sorts of industry endeavors -- from serving on the board of the Washington Wine Institute and helping launch the Walla Walla-based sustainable farming organization called Vinea to volunteering for a brand new committee at Washington State University, formed to help create a certificate program in wine marketing and management.
“I’ve always liked being involved in wine industry work. I learn a lot and enjoying building connections,” he said.
His daughter, Rebecca, helped Clubb connect with the movers and shakers of this most recent initiative at WSU. She has worked at the winery and is looking to get into the business when she graduates: “I think she wants to cut her teeth elsewhere, but I bet she’ll be back.”
His son, Riley, has also been bitten by the winemaking bug. He has worked harvest in New Zealand and is currently at Efeste.
“I’ve got no plans to retire anytime soon,” Clubb said. “We’re going to keep on growing, getting it ready for the kids to take over one day if they want to.”
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