In some ways, it felt as though we were held in suspended animation in 2020. On the sunniest of summer days, the Schoolhouse tasting room was quiet, the parking lot mostly empty, our iconic Schoolhouse Bell silent for days on end. Our back lawn and playground sat deserted. Our wrap-around deck, normally full of smiling guests and ringing with laughter, seemed rather perfect for a hermit’s day of reflection and silence.
With such calm, a mother bird decided to build her nest and raise a family in one of our small topiaries.
It’s true that we kept busy, even if we saw each other most often as floating squares on our screens and heard each other’s voices into our earbuds. When the opportunity arose in September 2020 to expand our hospitality program, to create a new space in the historic Marcus Whitman hotel, it seemed like a stretch – but, only for a moment!
The prospect was irresistible, and – under the layer of quiet and virtually deserted downtown streets – we saw a bright future. Our modest city of Walla Walla was weathering COVID like a spunky little champion, and the community was rallying. We were compelled by the opportunity to create a new L’Ecole space in such a visible marquee space in town, and the idea of meeting guests with another face of L’Ecole.
Founded in 1983, and receiving guests at the Schoolhouse for decades, the experience – aside from some loving improvements and periodic refreshing of the décor – has remained much the same. On the road, pouring a Semillon or Merlot for a wine-lover, I would often hear the refrain, “Oh, I love L’Ecole – I had a great visit there — in [insert year]”. I knew that, upon their next visit, it would feel familiar, as only a landmark space, so lovingly cared for, can. Indeed, many wine lovers visit L’Ecole on nearly every visit to the Valley, and locals make it part of their itinerary when hosting visiting friends.
Now, the opportunity arose to imagine reaching people in a different way. It took only days to settle on the concept, and only a few moments to know how best to proceed. If we were to make a new L’Ecole space, it had to meet certain standards – a timeless design, solid materials, a warm atmosphere. To devise the perfect plan, we had a secret weapon! Becca Clubb-Olson, Marty & Megan’s daughter and co-owner of L’Ecole, a native of Walla Walla, and a successful interior design professional – was ready to (remotely!) take on our new Wine Bar project. In the ensuing months, she was instrumental in navigating COVID-area challenges – delays, supply shortages, limitations to in-person meetings.
Those who love L’Ecole would find a certain familiar tone, while others could get to know us there for the first time. Our aim would be to welcome and then to delight! After decades of settling into who we are, vintage after vintage of perfecting our cuvées and tucking cases into our library, we knew we could create something special.
Slowly, as winter thawed, the space took shape, our anticipation grew while the world began to open. We designed a wine list to feature themed wine flights, presented elegantly, incorporating some library selections perfectly cellared.
We brainstormed ways to make the space special for our Vins de L’Ecole Wine Club members. We familiarized ourselves with our neighbors at the corner of Rose & 2nd Avenue – finding them unvaryingly helpful and welcoming.
On the occasion of our team’s toasting of the space in early April, the afternoon sun was glowing, casting a golden light on the sepia prints of Jean and Baker Ferguson. They seemed to smile down on our group.
In one image, Jean stands in the doorway of the 1915 schoolhouse at the outset of their shared dream. In another, Baker is perched on an unsteady stepstool with an improvised winemaking implement in hand.
The Heritage Wine Bar was envisaged as a physical expression of L’Ecole’s founding family’s commitment to Walla Walla today, after generations of their family’s devotion to the community. After all and put simply, it’s a beautiful place, where we know many beautiful moments will be shared amongst our guests.
To make a long story short: the 19th century Nobel Prize recipient & philosopher Nicholas M. Buter once said, “Optimism is essential to achievement”; we are inclined to agree.