Does L’Ecole No 41 Ring a Bell?

Yes, L’Ecole No 41 does ring a bell in fact! A school bell too!

Last summer, in July 2009, I attended my second Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa California. During our last session, organizers announced that the third conference would be held in Walla Walla Washington the following June.

To introduce us to Washington wines and inspire us to commit to attending, we had on our tables the very memorable and beautifully bottled Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica riesling, delicious and refreshing and summertime perfect, not too sweet and with plenty of acid to make it food friendly. I took an extra bottle home where it was a HUGE hit at our house with friends and my husband was truly wowed.

We also had on our tables a bottle of L’Ecole No 41 merlot (available for $25 from the winery) which was equally memorable with its playful school house label and soft, gentle flavors of cherry and berry, nicely balanced and structured with tannins and oak. It was my first Washington merlot and I remember being surprised at how much I liked it. I brought an open bottle home from the conference and shared it with friends. So many seem to turn their noses up at merlot these days but I insisted they try it and we were all pleasantly rewarded. Yes, a few snooty California eyebrows were raised!

If we Californians knew more about Washington merlot, we wouldn’t be so surprised at how good it is.

Merlot is the principal varietal at L’Ecole No 41 (and an important varietal throughout Washington state); L’Ecole No 41 has been making merlot since 1983 when they were the third winery in the Walla Walla region and the 20th in the state. They also make Semillon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah for a total of 30,000 cases in 2005.

In case your French is worse than mine, the name L’Ecole Nº 41 is French for “the school” located in district number 41. It was chosen to honor the original viticulture efforts in the region by the French who settled there and made wine as far back as the early to mid 1800s. The name also reflects the “old school” approach they have toward wine. The emphasis on tradition at L’Ecole No 40 extends beyond the name to winemaking practices which includes producing “clean, ripe, stylistically expressive and aromatic wines that let the individual site characteristics of our vineyards shine through.”

According to their website, what is important to them and to me is very similar. They believe in

–well-balanced wines, good acidity, firm but not over-powering tannins, complementary oak extraction, and vibrant, expressive aromas and fruit flavors. To achieve these ends, they have a high quality dual focus on vineyard management and winemaking practices;

— an intense involvement in all aspects of vineyard management, including designated blocks or rows, a direct personal relationship with the on-site vineyard manager or viticulturalist, and tight winery controls on yield and other vineyard practices, for both estate grown and contracted acreage using sustainable biologically-based vineyard practice and hand picking on the harvest date selected by the winemaker; cool mornings for the whites and warm mid-day temperatures for the reds.

— winemaking practices that assure wines will be more expressive, more aromatic and show their individual site characteristics. With a hands-on, highly focused attention to detail for each vineyard lot, they prefer limited manipulation and handling of the fruit, exemplified by the following:

  • gravity assisted fruit movements, without the use of a must pump
  • small bin fermentations for temperature control, cap management and oxygen pickup
  • frequent monitoring of sulfites throughout aging to assure clean and stable wines
  • cap managed by punch downs, as opposed to larger tank pump overs to avoid skin and seed extract
  • soft pressing to minimize tannins and harsh flavors
  • whole cluster pressing on whites for reduced solids and phenolic extraction
  • unfined and unfiltered red wines

In fact, L’Ecole No 41 is 100% certified sustainable and certified Salmon Safe in all of the vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley!

So for tonight’s dinner, I chose to follow up on that wonderful merlot experience and discover what their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Columbia Valley had to offer with a nice juicy steak.

The moment when the steak touched down and joined the hot baked potato on my plate, the warm air near my glass released the wine into the air and cherry and plum notes wafted over the meal to my nose leaving me quite delighted.

Dense and dark in color, this full bodied wine lives up to its reputation. In addition to cherry and plum, I found some currant and earth. It has plenty of varietal characteristics but it also offers something different, which I’d attribute to the Washington terroir. Their website says it could cellar for another 10 years. I wish I had the patience to keep the bottle open for a few days and see how it develops but I have to admit that we drank most of it with dinner! However, over the course of six hours, from when I opened it before dinner until now, it opened up and changed subtly with never a dull moment and is leaving me with lengthy finish and a haunting sense of walnuts.  It’s got a real cork closure and is 14.4% alc. (which does make it a little on the hot side if you’re drinking it without food).

While I know a lot of wine drinkers regularly spend $20-25 for a bottle of wine, spending $25 on this wine (from the Ventura Wine Company or $29 from the winery) makes it a special occasion.

Sometimes that special occasion is as simple as a full moon in Libra on a beautiful clear night when we’re on this side of the glass. And a dream.

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