It gives a ridiculous amount of pleasure to be the first to tell you – if you haven’t already heard – about one single result that came out of the 2014 Decanter Magazine World Wine Awards. If you read The Pour Fool, you already know that I’ve come down hard on awards and competitions and lists and practically any process by which we try to say that this one thing is the “best” or “Number One” in all of…well, you fill in the blank – “state”, “region”, “country”, hemisphere”, “world”, whatever. The basic premise is that unless you sample ALL the versions from all the producers of whatever the thing is, from BBQ to Swiss watches, and unless the judges are of impeccable credentials and can be certified as having no biases, no result is ever going to be definitive. And that remains true.
But Decanter has been running their version of “Best of the Planet” for some time, now, and if you’re not absolutely sure your wine is a mind-bending, earth-shaking masterpiece, you don’t go stickin’ your nose out there to begin with. The Decanter awards are, at very least, held up as the pinnacle of recognition within the screwy confines of the international wine culture and, while the judges are by no means immune to their own assumptions (which is probably why the French clean up, most years), they are certainly the cream of the crop of wine judges on the whole globe and winning anything there is, therefore, a Big Deal to end all Big Deals.
In the premium category of “Blended Red Wines Over 15 £” (that would be priced in excess of $25.47 at retail), the winner was, for once, NOT French. It was, in fact, from right here in the Soggy Corner of the US – Washington’s Walla Walla Valley – from a winery that’s been in business for over forty years, now; an eternity, by standards: L’Ecole No. 41.
I’ve made the statement before, starting with a Columbia Valley Cabernet 1997, that I haven’t found a winery anywhere in the Northwest that was better across the board – whites, reds, sweet wines – than what Martin Clubb and his staff in that old schoolhouse in Lowden, WA, has been quietly doing for four decades, and, here in 2014, is the best ongoing record of achievement of any winery in Washington. There are others, of course – including their next-door neighbor, Woodward Canyon – that deserve consideration but most of those have been primarily red-wine houses. Anyone who has ever tasted a L’Ecole white knows that, in the often-overshadowed world of American whites not labeled “Chardonnay”, L’Ecole’s Chenin Blanc and Semillion are among the best whites from anywhere in the Pacific NW. I’ve found nothing to change my mind about that blanket opinion. Every two or three years, there are new shiny-bauble wineries that debut with tons of buzz and quite a few of those manage to make it past the honeymoon and turn into something special. But none has done even a molecule better – vintage in vintage out, bottle for bottle – than L’Ecole.
The wine that won the International Gold is called “Ferguson” Estate 2011, a blend of 57% Cabernet, 32% Merlot, and 11% Cab Franc. It was racked five times over its 22 months aging and is, having come from a vineyard planted only six years ago, astoundingly integrated, refined, subtle, and richly reflective of both its terroir and the glorious, brooding Walla Walla Valley fruit. The Ferguson Vineyard, named for Marty’s wife’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, is the sole property of L’Ecole and is an 18 acre plot situated on a high-elevation hillside just outside Milton-Freewater, Oregon. The purity and clarity of Ferguson is uncanny; most wineries don’t produce juice like this even from 60 – 80 year old vines. The flavors are bell-clear, resonant blackberries, black plums, and Bing cherries, graced with mocha, graphite, glove leather, sweet herbs, and fresh figs – all underpinned by a breath-taking, distinct stratum of crushed stones, lime, and mineral soils. It’s every bit as remarkable as you might presume from the Decanter honor and the irony of it is that this may not even be the best blended red L’Ecole has produced. The ’99, ’07, and 2010 Apogees have to at least be in the discussion, IMHO, but, by any yardstick, Ferguson is an extraordinary wine.
Is it the best Washington Red Blend ever? That’s a conversation that has no clear resolution. I can make a case for a dozen other wines that cannot be ruled out. But, in thinking about this award, I go back to what I said at the event at which I first tasted the ’99 Apogee: “This is as good as a Red Blend ever needs to be.”
The heartiest congratulations to Marty and his entire family, staff, and crew at L’Ecole…and a fond hope that this is just the first of many awards that finally recognize the perennial and growing excellence of our fascinating Washington wines.