Walla Walla Valley winery L'Ecole changes iconic label

One of Washington's most endearing wine labels is getting a new look.

Since its first vintage in 1983, L'Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley has featured a whimsical children's drawing. Today, owner-winemaker Marty Clubb unveils a new look that still highlights the Lowden winery's historic schoolhouse building but in a more formal way.

"I thought I could never leave the schoolhouse drawing," Clubb said. "But we decided it wasn't working in the national marketplace and wasn't speaking to the quality of winery that we have become."

The original label came from a contest held by founders Jean and Baker Ferguson with children in their extended family. The winner was drawn by Ryan Campbell, 8, who made a watercolor of the building. In 1996, a chalkboard was added to frame the drawing and dress up the label, and in 2004, the winery's two top-tier blends went to a completely different label that featured a photo taken of the schoolhouse around 1915.

The new design is an oil painting from that 1915 photo and will appear on all wines beginning with the 2010 chenin blanc, all 2008 reds and about half of the 2009 whites. The new package will appear in the marketplace in late April or early May.

Clubb said L'Ecole's growth from a Northwest winery to one that is recognized nationally and internationally forced the change.

"When it appeared in 1985, it was really out of the box," he said. "It was very colorful, very Northwest, and anyone who had been to the winery immediately recognized it. In the markets where customers knew about L'Ecole, it worked. The whole West Coast loves that label."

But as Clubb built his 30,000-case winery into one of the state's most broadly distributed brands -- L'Ecole is sold in 50 states and 20 countries now -- the label became problematic. The proliferation of wines with colorful labels that cost under $20 was the biggest issue, Clubb said.

"If you look at the really colorful packaging, it tends to be in the lower tier, and we were moving into the upper tier," he said. "If I was selling only in the Northwest, I might not have changed the label."

Clubb and his wife, Megan, spent two years developing the new label, and they began thinking about the future while they were at it. Their children are getting involved in the family business and eventually will be the third generation to run L'Ecole.

"We just completed our 28th harvest," Clubb said. "We're looking at turning the business over to our kids in the next 10 years. We need to position the winery to become the most visible in the Walla Walla Valley."

L'Ecole actually will unveil three versions of the new look. A black label will designate wines that use grapes from the broad Columbia Valley, and a white label will be used on wines from Walla Walla Valley grapes. A more upscale version of the white label will be reserved for L'Ecole's two high-end red blends, Perigee and Apogee.

And what did Ryan Campbell, the boy who drew the original label, think of the change? He's all grown up now and a successful architect who has worked in Boston, San Francisco and New York.

"He's an easy-going person," Clubb said with a chuckle. "It wasn't much of an issue for him."

* Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly consumer magazine owned by the Herald. Reach him at 509-582-1405 or editor@winepressnw.com.