LOWDEN, Wash. — It sounds odd to matriculate from college back to a century-old schoolhouse, but Marcus Rafanelli couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work again for Marty Clubb at storied L’Ecole No. 41.
Only now, Rafanelli will be Clubb’s winemaker rather than a harvest intern. The move was announced jointly on Monday by L’Ecole No. 41 and Walla Walla Community College where Rafanelli spent the past four vintages as instructor of applied winemaking within the renowned viticulture and enology program.
“For a community college to accomplish what they have done is amazing, and Marcus has been at the center of that and helping to make it happen,” Clubb, owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole, told Great Northwest Wine. “He will bring to us that innovation and allow us to be a part of the new post-modern world of winemaking.”
Rafanelli, who grew up in the Seattle area, graduated from Boise State University in 2006 with a biology degree and enrolled in the WWCC winemaking school that same year. He worked the 2007 crush at L’Ecole for Mike Sharon, whom Rafanelli replaces.
“We agreed to a mutual separation and knowing how good of a winemaker he is we hope the best for him,” Clubb said of the post-harvest move. “Mike has done a tremendous job of being a part of our team and in leading us in the quality of winemaking we’ve become known for.”
Clubb has stayed in contact with Rafanelli for more than a decade and reached out to the educator with news of the opening in the L’Ecole cellar.
“I am so excited to be chosen winemaker for such an iconic Washington winery,” Rafanelli said via text. “I have been a fan of the winery since 2005 when I was first getting into wine, and I always felt like they were family after working harvest there in 2007. I modeled much of my winemaking style after theirs, so I feel like there won’t be a huge departure in their style or mission to make great Washington wines.”
Rafanelli spent 5 years at William Church
Rafanelli’s résumé includes five years of award-winning winemaking in Woodinville for William Church Winery, earning a reputation for stellar work with Viognier, Malbec and red blends.
“I am sad to leave the school, but Marty and I have had a good working relationship since 2007,” Rafanelli said. “He always would come try my William Church stuff at Taste Washington.”
He resigned from William Church in early 2014, leaving to work harvest in Australia the day after witnessing the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl in New Jersey. That summer, he worked a second harvest in Germany at famed Riesling producer Dr. Loosen.
After spending the 2015 vintage on the sidelines, Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at WWCC, carved out a faculty position in 2016 for Rafanelli.
“We’re all really happy for Marcus,” said Donahue, calling it a “feather in the cap of our program having another graduate head up winemaking for such a prominent brand.”
At College Cellars, Rafanelli, Donahue, Sabrina Lueck and Joel Perez have spearheaded the viticulture and winemaking program that leads to dozens of small-lot projects by students, many of those wines going on to earn gold medals at international competitons.
“Tim is probably the smartest winemaker and enologist I know,” Clubb said, “and Marcus was his first lieutenant in a sense, so he learned from the best. We’re a bit ‘old school’ here at L’Ecole in the way that we do a lot of things using traditional methods that work for us, but this whole business of analyzing phenolics in the vineyard and in winemaking that can help with balance and expression of fruit, those are things that we can afford to do.”
Responsibilities go from 5,000 to 45,000 cases
Production for College Cellars can hit 5,000 cases in a year. The move to L’Ecole and its 45,000 cases represents a massive jump for Rafanelli, yet Clubb’s voice boomed with confidence.
“He’s got the stuffing to do it,” Clubb said. “I wouldn’t be hiring him if I didn’t believe that, but he’s not stepping into a void by himself. It’s always been a winemaking team at L’Ecole. He will bring an added perspective to an already strong team.”
While it’s no huge surprise that Rafanelli will be joining a College Cellars alum at L’Ecole — in this case, cellarmaster Dan Loomis — the departure does create a sense of concern that WWCC will not replace Rafanelli.
“I know there is a bit of a challenge for Tim in making sure that the funding stays in place for that position, and we will do our best to help in doing whatever is required there,” Clubb said. “Our whole community college system is facing challenges right now, but that’s an important position.
“I’ve been a supporter of this community college program since its inception and was President of the board when it was created with the leadership of Steve Van Ausdle and Myles Anderson,” Clubb added. “It has accomplished so much for the wine industry, and so many of the students are making a significant impact in our state.”
Recent data issued by the college indicates that 84% of the more than 300 graduates now work in the Washington state wine industry.
“For a community college to do that is amazing, and Marcus has been at the center of that, helping to make it happen and being a part of the innovations and learning new technology,” Clubb said. “And now he’s bringing that background to L’Ecole. He’s an educator, and he’s got the personality to work well with our team.
“There’s a higher level of competition than ever in the wine world,” Clubb continued. “If we are going to continue to rank among the Wine & Spirits Top 100 wineries in the world, which we have for 15 years, we need to be at the cutting edge of winemaking and vineyard practices, and Marcus is going to help bring some of that knowledge to us.”
And in 2014, the L’Ecole 2011 Ferguson Vineyard Red Wine made international headlines by winning the top award for Bordeaux varieties over £15 at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards in London.
“There’s that saying that as winemakers we are like chefs in a kitchen, so how are we going to make that same dish better each year?” Clubb said.
Sharon’s career at L’Ecole ends after 24 years
Sharon’s era at L’Ecole began in 1996 when the late Eric Dunham was Clubb’s assistant winemaker, just ahead of the launch of Dunham Cellars. A decade later, Clubb named Sharon as winemaker. This fall, it was agreed that Sharon would work through harvest, according to Clubb.
“He spent 24 years here and did a great job, and now we’re moving in separate directions,” Clubb said. “I have a lot of respect for Mike’s winemaking and his abilities, and he’s helped guide our team to making great wines over time and L’Ecole becoming what I hope is a respected Washington state brand.”
And now that Clubb, and his wife, Megan, have made this change in staffing, it comes with more demands of their winemaker.
“I’m 62 and don’t have any plans to retire soon — and our family owns the business — but I need someone willing to be the spokesman for the winery in a larger role,” he said. “I’ve done it forever, but over time, my goal is to build more of a leadership position for Marcus where he would be representing us at wine dinners, conferences and speaking to the industry and getting our name out there.”
That meshes with some of Rafanelli’s goals.
“We have stayed friends for many years,” Clubb said. “He would come and talk to me and bounce career opportunities off me along the way. He was on my short list, so I reached out to him pretty quickly.
“Marcus is looking to build upon his own career, and this was a window of opportunity to work for a winery with a reputation and be a great winemaker of his own accord,” Clubb continued. “He’s gained some great experience in enology and in education, and we have a new opportunity available. It was a good fit.”
When asked if there were any plans to add Viognier — one of Rafanelli’s most acclaimed projects at William Church — Clubb said, “We have a pretty extensive plate of wines already, but I wouldn’t rule anything out, particularly on a small scale for wine club.”
At this point, L’Ecole has enjoyed a following and markets served through national distribution. There seem to be no plans to hit the 50,000-case level.
“We’re at a stage where what we really want to do going forward is to focus on our Walla Walla estate wines and build upon the success of our Ferguson, Perigee and Apogee wines,” Clubb said. “It’s a tough world out there right now.”