WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Today marks the release of a true club wine in Walla Walla that comes with a delicious story and impeccable pedigree — the Walla Walla Country Club Centennial Celebration Cabernet Sauvignon.
The all-star list of contributing wineries reads Abeja, Armstrong, Bergevin Lane, Corliss, Dumas Station, Dunham, Five Star, L’Ecole N° 41 and Reininger. They combined to donate Cab lots from acclaimed vineyards such as Ferguson, Pepper Bridge, StoneTree and historic Sagemoor.
“We made 100 cases. It’s the 100-year celebration of our club, and it’s $100 a bottle,” said Charlotte Klicker, who spearheaded the club’s historical committee on the Centennial Celebration Cab project. “And we’re a third of the way to our goal of selling out.”
On a scorecard, that pencils out at $120,000 for the equivalent of four barrels of wine. Sales for the fundraiser are limited to members of Walla Walla Country Club, a private club that opened on March 31, 1923. Some of those funds will pay for the Aug. 15 exhibition that features Nancy Lopez, who won 48 LPGA Tour events and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987.
The outline surrounding that memorable day of golf and the rewards surrounding the Centennial Celebration Cab bring a smile to the face of the club’s general manager, Jeff Blanc.
“We’ve been planning for the centennial for five years,” Blanc says. “We want to come up with some special things for our members who have been loyal to us to celebrate 100 years of history. This is a big deal, and the sale of this donated wine is going to help us keep down those costs to our members.”
The kickoff celebration for the club’s centennial is scheduled for Friday, March 31, 2023, and Klicker has enjoyed the planning and research.
“Someone pointed out that we have all these great winemakers in Walla Walla, and many of them are members, so maybe we should do a commemorative wine. I said to myself, ‘I want to be on that team,’ ” Klicker said with a grin.
Ryan McCarthy, the club’s food and beverage director, says, “There’s nothing really like this out there in the valley, and there will be a lot of interest in it this summer when people from outside the area come to the club to play.”
Venneri gets Centennial Cab from barrels to bottles
Klicker, who started on the Wa-Hi girls basketball team that won the state title in 1979, played point guard on her club’s wine project. One of the committee’s first moves was to recruit Gordy Venneri, a club member, co-founder of Walla Walla Vintners and now co-winemaker for Neher Family Wines in nearby Milton-Freewater, Ore.
“He has the connections, and he knew the logistics of how it needed to work with the labeling and the bottling,” Klicker says.
Blanc added, “And he gets stuff done. If we didn’t have Gordy, we’d probably still be wondering when to get the wine in the bottle.”
In fact, the Neher family arranged for the glass. And one of Venneri’s favorite artists — Bill Owen of Owen Design in Portland — developed the label.
“I didn’t make the wine, but the challenge was getting the donated wine into one place so the blend could be put together,” Venneri said. “You can’t just do it in your backyard.”
The process began when the historical committee sent out news of the project to membership, which includes representatives of approximately 20 wineries. Most of them attended the introductory meeting.
“Some decided it just wasn’t a good fit for them at that time,” Venneri said.
And while Klicker’s committee knew the quality of the wine would be high, the generosity of the wineries caught the group off-guard.
“We didn’t anticipate having the wine donated,” Klicker says. “That was a big surprise.”
Lots from the nine wineries were stored and put together at Corliss Estate, which served as the project’s bonded facility. Adam Tolliver and Katie Davis of Corliss, Venneri and Abeja’s Daniel Wampfler collaborated on the final blend — which included 2 percent of Petit Verdot from StoneTree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, courtesy of Reininger.
“We want the members to know that we took this seriously. We didn’t just throw it together,” Venneri says. “Sagemoor Bacchus Block 3 was the vineyard that helped put Leonetti Cellar on the map with that 1978 Cab.”
L’Ecole connection to club begins with W.W. Baker
Scheduled to participate in the golf exhibition with Lopez is Wendy Ward, a four-time winner on the LPGA Tour, a three-time member of the U.S. Solheim Cup team and a cattle rancher in Lincoln County — about 150 miles north of Walla Walla.
Walla Walla Country Club will be proud to add to its wall that includes portraits of famous golfers who have played the course — a list that includes Patty Berg, Fred Couples, Bing Crosby, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino and course designer A.W. Tillinghast.
The course itself has a strong connection to the modern-day wine industry. The original nine holes — which now play as the back nine — were designed by William W. Baker. At the time, he was president of Baker Boyer National Bank. Sixty years later, his grandson — Baker Ferguson — founded L’Ecole N° 41. The Lowden winery is now owned by Baker and Jean Ferguson’s daughter Megan and winemaking son-in-law Marty Clubb, who named Ferguson Vineyard in their memory. (Megan Clubb stepped down as president and CEO of Baker Boyer Bank in 2015, however, she serves as chairman of the board for the oldest independently owned community bank in the Pacific Northwest.)
According to Blanc, Tillinghast provided input on the reshaping of those original greens in 1936, and the second nine holes were laid out 75 years ago — 1948 — by Tillinghast disciple Francis James.
“That’s why when you play the front nine and then go to the back, they don’t seem that different,” Blanc says. “That’s rare when you have two different architects. Frank James is a very well-known architect, too, but we get most of our publicity from the association with Tillinghast.”
The club lost some of its history to a 1996 fire that destroyed the original clubhouse. Damage was estimated at $3 million. And while it’s not been as easy to grow the game of golf in the U.S. during the past decade, Blanc says Walla Walla Country Club is on solid financial footing.
“There are about 750 families that are members,” Blanc said. “It’s a healthy club. A very healthy club.
“And during the pandemic, we were fine because we had the support of the members,” Blanc added. “We had to close the restaurant, but we could still do to-go orders, and we would have 20 cars lined up outside the clubhouse to pick up the food they ordered.”
The club also credits the wine industry with some of its recent success.
“What it’s done is helped to get more people to move to Walla Walla,” Blanc says. “People are tired of living in Seattle, tired of living in California, tired of the traffic and want to retire here. And with the pandemic, more people could work remotely so they could come to Walla Walla and work from home — where there is better weather, the golf is affordable, there’s great wine and you can drive across the city in 10 minutes.”
And on March 31, the membership will party with those responsible for their Centennial Celebration Cab.
“We will have the nine winemakers here, a golf tournament for men and women that morning, and that night there will be a Gatsby gala dinner in the theme of the Twenties,” Klicker said. “We’re expecting 300 people for that, and there will be an 18-piece band. It will be really fun.”