There’s a saying in Washington state: They liked the name of the town so much, they named it twice – Walla Walla.
I heard that joke for the first time at sleep-away camp in the mid-1950s, nearly a half-century before the area became known for cool climate, killer wines. Red and white.
The wine brand that has become synonymous with the area, much as “Mondavi” became the buzzword for Napa Valley, is L’Ecole No. 41, which translates as “Schoolhouse Number 41.”
L’Ecole No. 41 is a family-owned business, founded by Jean and Baker Ferguson in the 1980s, operated today by their daughter, Megan, and son-in-law, Martin Clubb.
The original winery was located inside a 1915 French schoolhouse, built to accommodate the children of French-speaking Canadians who migrated to the area.
Don’t let the name fool you; there is nothing school house-y, Fred Rogersian, or Sesame Street juvenile about this wine brand; L’Ecole No. 41 is producing serious wines that can compete on the international stage.
In fact, there is so much competition on the international stage for wine just now that the good souls at L’Ecole No. 41 got it into their collective head to reach out to wine writers, wine pontificators and wine geeks on the Internet to see if they might write something helpful, utile, or praiseworthy about their wines.
(It appears that they have taken Oscar Wilde’s approach to the wine press: They don’t care what anyone says about their wine, as long as they say something about their wine!)
So L’Ecole No. 41 assembled a few dozen kits of current release wines and set them afloat on the Internet… the way a marooned person might send out a message in a bottle. Only L’Ecole No. 41 sent out six SOS bottles in their kit, each filled with a different blend of their best juice.
I’m not sure why they chose napaman for commentary; I tend to focus on Napa Valley wines and personalities, but I couldn’t resist the temptation – to see how similarly priced wines from Walla Walla measure up to our local wine legends.
(This is probably the place to point out that it has been a long, long time since any local, Napa Valley, winery sent a package of wines to napaman to taste, seeking feedback or public comment. For a very longest time, wine-loving hoards beat down the doors of local wineries, clambering for their over-oaked, over-priced wines; the wineries could sell almost everything they made and felt that samples sent to reviewers were a waste of time and money. In these troubling economic times, however, smart wineries, like the ones in Walla Walla, might harness the power of the Internet, the way L'Ecole No. 41 has done, to help market their wines. Napa Valley winemakers appear behind in such marketing efforts.)
So that's the genesis of this column, why it's devoted to Walla Walla wines and not those of Napa Valley.
L’Ecole No. 41 produced its first Walla Walla Valley-designated wines with the 1993 vintage, when the AVA was just nine years young, and only 60 acres in the whole AVA were planted.
Today, L’Ecole No. 41 is a modern, 35,000-case operation. Over the years, the vines have aged and new clones have been planted, which add to structural improvement in the wines. The wine trade respects the wines coming out of L’Ecole No. 41 and after my limited tasting of six bottles, I fully understand why.
Another shot of the famed Seven Hills Vineyard, supplying the winery with tremendous grapes, including those for my two favorite wines in the 6-pack sent me: The Cab-based Perigee and the L’Ecole No. 41 Syrah. See tasting notes below.
I rated every wine 91 points or higher In the unsolicited, free sampler pack sent to me. There were no duds. These are really good wines, worth looking for. And apparently, L’Ecole No. 41 is available in all 50 states, so no excuses will be accepted!
2008 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Luminesce
This is the winery’s entry white, a lovely, $20 Semillon (70%) and Sauvignon Blanc (30%) blend. I really liked the floral nose, scented with honeysuckle, fennel, anise, straw and palmetto. There is melon on the palate, and the beverage is harmonious, a lovely food-pairing wine. The fruit comes from Seven Hills Vineyard, named one of the top ten vineyard sites in the world by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2004. That’s impressive, but the wines from this vineyard, sent to napaman, are impressive on their own, even if you don't know this factoid. 91 points.
2007 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot
There are lush aromas of warm strawberries on the nose, the kind you experience when served a warm berry compote on waffles or pancakes; there are lovely, mouthfilling flavors – lots of red fruits, bright acidity. A sort of uppity wine, with loads of personality. A good catch at $37. 91 points.
2006 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee
An apogee is the point in the orbit of the moon when it is at its greatest distance from the earth. The winery says, in a press release, that this wine is their deepest reach – or do they mean farthest fetch? - for perfection.
This $50 blend is composed of four Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec and Cab Franc. Not one grape dominates the flavor profile and there appears, at this age anyway, to be more wood in the bottle than I personally enjoy. Lacks a core strata of fruit flavors, which is what I like to find in my wine. Even so, this is a well made, well structured wine. 91 points.
2007 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah
My, oh my, how do I like this wine! This $37 beaut is a blend of three blocks of Seven Hills fruit, and if this is what 2007 wines are like from Walla Walla, sign me up for a mixed case.
The wine is a lovely rich, blood-red color, suggestive of mystery and intrigue. There is a new-world nose, none of the tar and leather one expects from French Syrahs. I love the grape-y flavor, the youthful exuberance, the structure. 93 points for sure, and maybe 94 points, given the price-value ratio.
2006 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Perigee
So here we go again with an astronomy lesson; a perigee is the point at which the earth and moon are closest as the moon orbits the earth. Ye olde presse release says “they wanted to be close to the earth, to their Seven Hills Vineyard, when they made this wine.” Cheap connection. But not a cheap, or meretricious, wine. Perigee is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc. I love the nose, a reductive and inciting scent of dark red fruits. This is a much more intriguing wine than Apogee, has a much more silky texture, and much more plum on the finish. 93 points in the early part of the day. I left the bottle open and tried it with food at dinner and felt that, with a bit of breathing time and some complementary food, the wine was actually a 94 pointer.
Check your local wine merchant for L'Ecole No. 41 wines, or contact the winery through its web site: www.lecole.com.
L'Ecole No. 41's initiative to reach out to social media writers and wine writers was supported by the Washington Wine Commission as part of a larger project to bring greater awareness to the entire Washington Wine Industry. You can read about other popular (and tasty) Washington State wines, and see a video about L'Ecole No. 41, by going to: