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Originally published Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Old-school approach: Always make good wine

L'Ecole No 41 was the third winery to open in Walla Walla in the modern era (and just the 20th in Washington state). It has been around...

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the Week

Sinner's Punch 2006 Red Wine; $14

Elle 2006 Syrah-Viognier; $15

It generally requires the economics of scale to offer solidly made Washington syrah priced in the $12 to $15 sweet spot, which is why so very few boutiques even try. Sinner's Punch is 90 percent syrah, much of it Red Willow vineyard fruit, and 10 percent cabernet. Elle is almost entirely syrah; the co-fermented viognier is just 2 percent of the blend. Both wines were created by Chris Gorman and Mark Ryan McNeilly, the first for their joint Giant Wine Company project; the second for their friend Guy Harris, who has just launched a boutique-focused distributorship named Cru Selections.

L'Ecole No 41 was the third winery to open in Walla Walla in the modern era (and just the 20th in Washington state). It has been around so long now that, like a well-worn old easy chair, it's all too easy to sink into its plush comforts and look around for something else to drink.

"I worry that we've been around so long, we're not the new kid on the block anymore," owner and managing winemaker Marty Clubb said in a recent interview. "People like to write about the new kid." Clubb, who celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary along with the winery's 25th harvest last summer, quickly brightened, though, as he pointed out the recent reviews of L'Ecole's wines in the influential Wine Advocate.

"How many wineries had every single wine they made reviewed? Not many! That goes to the core of our strength ... products that you can rely on. You don't find a bad bottle. We don't make bad wine. Some people will have favorites, some wines will outscore others. But even our Columbia Valley wines are great value wines."

L'Ecole, set in a refurbished old schoolhouse just off Highway 12 west of Walla Walla, was founded in 1983 by Clubb's in-laws, Jean and Baker Ferguson. Marty and his wife, Megan, took over the operation when it proved too difficult for the elder Fergusons to manage. That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, the winery has established an admirable track record, consistently offering well-made, competitively priced wines in a variety of styles.

Now at 37,000 cases — just where he intends to remain, says Clubb — the winery has embarked on an impressive partnership in a vast vineyard project dubbed SeVein, encompassing almost 2,000 acres of high-altitude ground on the southern edge of the Walla Walla Valley, adjacent to and above Seven Hills East.

Along with partners Chris and Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellar), Norm McKibben (Pepper Bridge) and a number of other wine-industry veterans, Clubb is developing his own parcel (named Ferguson Ridge) and facilitating others. Some of the new vineyard rises above 1,200 feet, higher than the highest point reached by the great floodwaters of the last ice age.

This is a whole new micro-climate for Walla Walla, he enthused. "As you move up the slope from Seven Hills, you get a thinner and thinner deposit of loess [windblown soil], until it's just about 3 or 4 feet at the top, right over fractured basalt. At the top we hit places where we were actually ripping into the basalt!"

It will be a decade or more before these new vineyards begin to prove themselves, but what has been proved beyond a doubt is that anyone who values tradition, continuity and a track record of excellence will eventually find his way to L'Ecole's wines. A lot of wineries succeed at making a few barrels of something good in their first or second vintage. The real challenge is to make consistently fine wine, over many years and vintages, across a wide number of varietals and blends.

L'Ecole has done especially well with two often-neglected white wines — chenin blanc and sémillon. Partly because Clubb and his winemaking team care enough to find excellent sources for these grapes, and partly because he is a tireless marketer/advocate for the winery, the wines and the state, L'Ecole has succeeded where few others have even tried.

Although almost 1,600 cases of the L'Ecole No 41 2007 "Walla Voila" Chenin Blanc ($14) were made, Clubb asserts he could sell even more if the vineyard could produce more fruit. The grapes come from a Rattlesnake Hills vineyard planted in 1979. In some ways this "Walla Voila" is a throwback to the early days of Washington winemaking, when chenin was a popular off-dry white wine, intended as a tasting-room take on Vouvray. Here are delicate aromas of honeysuckle and flavors of lime, sweet lemon, orange and pineapple, with just a lightly perceptible trace of sweetness.

Even more successful are the winery's sémillons. L'Ecole makes three different dry sémillons and occasionally a sweet one as well. The first to be released each vintage, and the least expensive, is the L'Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Semillon ($16). The 2007 vintage, just out, is good enough to have been selected to be served in first class on British Air. A blend of grapes from seven vineyards, it's a beautifully scented wine with a pleasing bouquet of floral, cinnamon, baking spice and body powder aromas.

Also being released this summer are these wines, all highly recommended.

L'Ecole No 41 2007 Seven Hills Vineyard Luminesce White Wine ($20). A first-ever blend of Seven Hills sémillon and sauvignon blanc.

L'Ecole No 41 2007 Chardonnay ($22). Creamy, subtle and complex; just lightly oaked.

L'Ecole No 41 2006 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot ($37). From tenth leaf fruit, maybe the most dense and complex merlot yet from this vineyard.

L'Ecole No 41 2006 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah ($37). Let it breathe; you'll think you're in the northern Rhone.

(L'Ecole No 41 wines are distributed in Western Washington by Elliott Bay.)

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
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