(click to enlarge photos)
Published in The Seattle Times online on Nov. 2, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Nov. 5, 2023
For forty years near Walla Walla, a winery schools itself in success
By Jean Sherrard
When Baker and Jean Ferguson acquired Walla Walla’s historic Lowden Schoolhouse in 1977 and registered a name for their nascent winery — L’Ecole No. 41 — they eyed it as a retirement project. They began by adding a penthouse atop the two-story structure.
“It’s a great place to live,” Baker said in a 1979 interview with the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. “Magnificent view. A very high proportion of the history of the Walla Walla area took place right underneath these windows.”
He was not exaggerating.
Less than two decades after the Lewis & Clark expedition’s 1805 passage nearby, French-Canadian fur trappers established one of the Northwest’s earliest settlements and intermarried with native tribes at this spot 13 miles west of Walla Walla. Originally called “le village des Canadiens,” it soon became Frenchtown. Christian missionaries arrived, heightening cultural tensions while thousands of westward-bound Oregon Trail emigrants streamed through.
Following the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, newcomers — at first mostly white men — flowed into the valley, establishing farms and residences. In 1855, a four-day battle raged across Frenchtown after a bitterly contested treaty restricted tribes to a 510,000-acre reservation, ceding 6.4 million acres to settlers.
Meanwhile, in 1869 in nearby Walla Walla, Baker Ferguson’s great-grandfather, Dorsey Syng Baker, founded Baker Boyer Bank, the state’s oldest financial institution.
By 1870, Frenchtown had its own one-room school. In 1915, the town renamed itself Lowden, constructing the larger schoolhouse in our paired photos. In 1974, with only eight students remaining, the school was shuttered. Still, history forged a path there.
Neither Baker Ferguson, who had just retired as president of Baker Boyer Bank, nor his wife, Jean, had prior experience in winemaking. But both were quick studies. With a chemistry background, Jean assumed the role of winemaker, with Baker as general factotum.
Their dedication paid off when, in 1983, L’Ecole No. 41 became the third winery (after Leonette Cellars and Woodward Canyon) to open in the Walla Walla Valley. First-year production yielded a modest 500 cases. It was, Baker said, “a mom-and-pop operation. … At best, we earn maybe 35 cents an hour.”
In 1986, the Fergusons’ 1983 merlot received the sole gold medal awarded by the Pacific Northwest Enological Society. Decades of national and international acclaim followed.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the winery is still a family affair. Under daughter Megan and son-in-law Marty Clubb, who took the helm in 1989, L’Ecole No. 41 produces 50,000-plus cases a year, with worldwide distribution. Their children, Riley and Rebecca, foresee a robust path for generations to come.