A Walla Walla industry leader and community builder.
Ask Marty Clubb how a one-time corporate financial analyst ended up running a top-notch, highly-respected Washington state winery—for some 30 years, no less—and he pauses for a moment.
“I was never that interested in the wine business,” says Clubb, the long-time co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla in eastern Washington. “The opportunity just came up.”
Which, three decades later, is an opportunity that Clubb has taken full advantage of. His accomplishments— not just at L’Ecole—speak to his talent and vision. L’Ecole, though only about 50,000 cases in size, has a reputation that extends throughout the country, and its various Merlots have long been recognized as some of the best in the world. In addition, the winery has made so many best-of and top this-and-that lists, it’s almost impossible to count them all.
Today, Clubb oversees winery operations, which includes the winery’s two estate vineyards and the 30 vineyards across the region that sell grapes to L’Ecole. He has been doing that since taking over from his wife Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, in 1989, six years after the winery’s founding. Megan and children Riley and Rebecca are the winery’s other co-owners.
All of which also speaks to Clubb’s modesty. Ask him about how he did all of this, and he almost always gives credit to the people and terroir of Washington state—even using the word “utopia” to describe Walla Walla as a wine producing region.
“‘Quality’ defines Marty Clubb—as a person, a colleague, and a winemaker,” says Jim Trezise, the executive director of the WineAmerica trade group. “I’ve known him for well over a decade, through WineAmerica, and had nothing but great experiences with him. He still informally does the important financial work behind the scenes and without fanfare or recognition. The first time I tasted L’Ecole No. 41 wines I was totally blown away, as I have been every taste since. They’re class in a glass.”
As to those accomplishments – consider that Clubb:
- served as WineAmerica’s chair, as well as vice chair and treasurer.
- is a managing partner with Gary and Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar and Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge Winery in the highly acclaimed Seven Hills Vineyard and the SeVein vineyard development.
- has served nearly 30 years on the boards of other industry trade groups, including the Washington Wine Commission and is currently a director of the Washington Wine Institute.
- helped start the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, was its first president, and worked with other regional pioneers to develop the Walla Walla Community College Center for Enology and Viticulture.
“Marty is industry smart,” says Mike Allen of Elliott Bay Distributing, the first wholesaler L’Ecole had—and which remains one of its distributors today. “He understands what is going on in each market and listens very well, and his wines are consistent year after year and he has managed his pricing to be very competitive in each market. In this, he reacts to situations right when they happen.”
All of which, again, speaks to Clubb’s sense of what works—even if others disagree. He offers two examples:
The first came when Clubb went to look for a distributor in 1990, when production the winery’s was about 1,000 cases. He knew the business had outgrown the tasting room and needed to expand to retail. “Selling direct was crazy,” he says. “That was not going to work in the long term.”
But 11 of the 12 distributors in Seattle rejected Clubb, completely brushing him off. The only one that said yes was Elliot, “because they were willing to work with us. They weren’t too big, and they weren’t too small. And they helped fuel our success by getting our wine in the marketplace.”
The second is about pricing, which Clubb takes special pride in. L’Ecole wines, despite the critical raves, remain eminently affordable. Its top-end labels cost as much as one-half less than what he says are comparable California wines—and he laughs when he says consumers tell him he should charge more money. The key, says Clubb, is not about charging more, but pricing the wines so the people who buy them turn into enthusiastic advocates for the wine. What’s better, he asks, than having a customer sell the wine to another wine drinker?
Finally, says Allen, do not think Clubb is only about grape growing, winemaking, and running a business. He is also famous for the stories he tells, compiled over three decades in the wine business. “He is very knowledgeable about the history in Walla Walla and why it is such a great area for growing grapes,” he says. “And I never get tired hearing the stories.”
Just as Clubb has never tired of helping others.
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation, and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened up the submission process to the industry at large. With over 100 nominees, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who they felt has truly positively impacted the US wine culture over the past year. Read more here.