Figgins, Gary (b. 1948)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/23/2024
  • Essay 22830
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Gary Figgins (b. 1948) launched the Walla Walla Valley wine industry in 1977 with Leonetti Cellar, the first of the Walla Walla wineries and long considered to be among the best. Figgins became famous in 1982 when his 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was named the best Cabernet in America. He and his wife Nancy Figgins (b. 1949) went on to win many more accolades, leading one writer to dub him The King of Merlot. Despite the fame, Figgins chose to keep the winery small and exclusive, selling most of its bottles only to members of a subscription list. Gary and Nancy semi-retired in 2018 and turned the operation of the winery over to their daughter Amy Figgins (b. 1970) and son Chris Figgins (b. 1973). Gary Figgins has won nearly all of the Washington wine industry’s top honors and is widely considered the father of the Walla Walla wine industry. The ’78 Leonetti Cabernet is still considered "the most significant wine ever made in Washington" (Perdue).

Walla Walla Born and Raised

Gary Steven Figgins was born in Walla Walla on March 13, 1948, to Berle Wilson Figgins and Virginia Leonetti. His maternal grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, were among the early Italian immigrants to the Walla Walla Valley. Frank arrived in 1902 and Rose arrived in 1906. They farmed a patch of land just a little southwest of Walla Walla, growing spinach, alfalfa, grains, and most important, Walla Walla sweet onions. "Their main income was the Walla Walla sweets … they were pretty successful doing that," said Figgins (Kershner interview). When Gary was a boy, his dad worked for Continental Can Co. in Walla Walla. The family lived in town but Figgins spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ farm. "I worked out there a lot, and so farming was natural for me," he said (Kershner interview).

Figgins's Walla Walla upbringing was mostly unremarkable except for one thing. He was exposed at a young age to wine culture, uncommon in the U.S. during that era, and unusual even among Figgins's fellow pioneers in the Washington wine industry. The Leonetti's farm actually had a few wine grapes growing on it. "They grew what they called Black Prince, also called Black Malvoisie," recalled Figgins (Kershner interview). His grandfather and uncles made those grapes into homemade wine, and young Figgins watched them at work, stimulating his curiosity.

He also got plenty of chances to drink some of that red wine. "They would always give me a little, watered down, and they'd have these Italian dinners, all Italian food," said Figgins. "Grandma was this wonderful southern Italian cook and passed a lot of it on to my mom as well. But they'd always give me a little, there was a little water. When I got to be the grand old age of about 9, I got it straight. Straight wine" (Kershner interview).

Figgins graduated from DeSales High School, the city’s Catholic high school, in 1967. He married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Cosgrove, in 1968. He attended Walla Walla Community College and graduated with an associate degree in mechanical engineering. Then he was able to get a job as a machinist at Continental Can Co., where his father worked. He remained interested in wine, but the idea of a career in winemaking seemed farfetched. The Washington wine industry had yet to be born. Also, a freeze in the 1950s had destroyed the vines on the Leonetti farm, so even his uncles were out of the homemade winemaking business. But his taste for wine never slackened. "In fact, when Nancy and I were first married, that was my drink of choice," he said. "Of course, I'd have an occasional beer to quench the thirst, but everybody else would drink hard drinks, hard liquor drinks. and wine would be my go-to drink" (Kershner interview).

He enjoyed his work in mechanical engineering – he inherited that talent from his father – and he suspected that Continental Can was grooming him for a management position. "But I had other ideas," he said (Kershner interview).

First Steps in Winemaking

Those ideas involved wine. He already knew something about the Walla Walla Valley that few else knew. He realized that it could produce wine grapes, because his grandparents had already done so. He did extensive research into the best sites and conditions for grapes, and talked to his uncles about how they did it (and how best to avoid those killing frosts). Around 1969, he decided to become a winemaker, just as a hobby, while continuing to work at Continental Can. He had to make wine himself, he said, because there was little for sale on Walla Walla shelves besides Gallo and a few others.

He also joined the Army Reserve, which had the surprising result of deepening his interest in winemaking. For one thing, he met Rick Small (b. 1947) in the Reserve. Small was the son of a Walla Walla farmer and "we both hit it off, we were both wine nuts and we were both drill sergeants," said Figgins. They spent hours tossing wine ideas back and forth. During Reserve sessions in California, they found time to tour wineries and pick up some tips. Also, the Reserve income provided him with extra money to throw into his passion. "I utilized all of my Reserve money to buy barrels, pumps, whatever I needed," he said (Kershner interview).

He was making wine mostly for himself and his friends, using grapes purchased from vineyards he had scouted in the Yakima and Columbia valleys. In 1974 he took a fateful – and possibly risky – step. He planted his first vineyard, with help from Rick Small and Figgins's uncles. They planted a few Riesling vines and an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, probably the first in Walla Walla, on the old Leonetti farmstead.

How did he know that these vines – or any fine grape varieties – would thrive in the Walla Walla Valley? "Well, we knew it was going to be very good because of all the research that I had done ... We attained all the heat-unit numbers and we thought, 'Cabernet, it can definitely ripen here'" (Kershner interview.) The numbers fit with the numbers for Oakville, California, one of the prime Cabernet regions in the Napa Valley.

It took a few years for those vines to start producing, but in the meantime, Figgins was making white wines and some Cabernet Sauvignons with purchased grapes. He got to know Bob Moreman, whose Moreman Vineyard was just north of the Tri-Cities. Figgins offered to make some wine from Moreman’s Cabernet grapes, bottle it and split it. "So we did, and the first Cabs we made were outstanding," said Figgins. "Oh yeah. We knew right away. We knew right away" (Kershner interview). He knew that the conventional wisdom – that Washington was suited mostly for growing white wine – was wrong. Figgins was now convinced, more than ever, that fine red wines were in the future.

Leonetti Cellar

Bolstered by these successes, in 1977 he and Nancy came to another momentous decision. They decided to "try this on our own," as a commercial venture (Kershner interview). They licensed and bonded the winery as Leonetti Cellar that year, the name being an homage to his grandparents. It was the first winery in the Walla Walla Valley, followed shortly by Woodward Canyon, the winery started by his buddy Rick Small, and L’Ecole No. 41. He and Small, "my wine sidekick," would get together on Friday nights with their guitars, open a bottle of wine, play some John Denver or Neil Young tunes, and debate the merits of the wine (Kershner interview).

In 1978, Gary and Nancy Figgins began making larger quantities of wine in the basement of their house, which was set among some orchards just southeast of town. They later moved the wine operation across the lawn to "a small little shed building," formerly used as a horse tack shed. "And that little building was the birthplace of Leonetti Cellar," he said (Kershner interview). It is now one of several buildings in an expansive Leonetti complex.

He was confident of the quality of his wines – but he didn’t quit his day job at Continental Can. "We’re too small to make any money out of it," he told The Seattle Times in 1982 (Mahoney). They made only 1,000 gallons of wine in 1981. They stored it in their basement and used their back patio as their outdoor tasting room. Yet they had already earned a reputation for quality among the state’s wine aficionados. Each bottling was nearly sold out upon release, at $15 each, a relatively steep price for the era. "I want people to look at me and the winery as small and reliable, instead of a winery tripling production and the quality deviating," said Figgins in 1982. "When you are small, you can be selective" (Mahoney). He would never deviate from this principle, even during ensuing decades when the temptation to expand would be magnified.

Sudden Fame

Gary and Nancy – who now had two children, Amy and Christopher – were proud of the fact that they had never had to borrow money. "We couldn’t go into debt for this," said Nancy. "We couldn’t even buy a four-spigot bottle-filler until we could afford it. We have no aspirations to be big" (Mahoney). Gary’s skills as a machinist proved to be well-suited to his vocation as a winemaker, because he was able to build his machinery cheaper than he could buy it. This was the state of Leonetti Cellar in the spring of 1982.

It would prove to be the calm before the storm. Their lives were about to change forever. A few months earlier, the Wine & Spirit Buying Guide, the influential publication of the national Winestate operation, had mailed out a request for a two-bottle sample of the 1978 Cabernet. The magazine was holding a competition for the best Cabernet in America. Figgins very nearly failed to send it. "I mean, the best Cabernet in America? I mean, for a little guy, barely etching out an artistic living here? ... Okay, well, we hate to turn these loose, but here they are" (Kershner interview). Then, a few months later in December 1982, Figgins received a phone call at work at Continental Can. "Nancy calls me, asks the boss if she could talk to me ... So I go to the phone and she tells me, 'We won this thing. The whole thing! The whole thing!' It's like, the best Cabernet in the nation for some little guy in a shed making wine. And we had nothing better to do, but to celebrate it" (Kershner interview).

They went home, opened a bottle and let the new news sink in. It was a gratifying vindication of their approach to making wine. "We went, 'Yeah, we’re doing good ... We’re on spot,'" said Figgins (Kershner interview). Yet it took a few weeks for the magazine to hit the streets, at which point the full magnitude of the award became clear. "You may have heard the cheers and howls of delight from Walla Walla all the way over here in Seattle," wrote Tom Stockley in The Seattle Times. "A Cabernet Sauvignon from Eastern Washington has been named the best in the country" ("Top Honors"). 

It was not just a triumph for Leonetti Cellar. It was an industry-shaking moment for the entire Washington wine industry, which now had indisputable proof that its red wine could compete with the big California reds. And it instantly established Walla Walla – known mostly for its sweet onions and state penitentiary – as a wine region to watch. "It really was a wakeup call, because all of these California wines were involved in the taste-off," said Figgins. "And, boy, did it get a lot of people’s attention all of the sudden. 'Wow, what the heck?'" (Kershner interview). People from all over the country were clamoring for the ’78 Cabernet. The Modesto office of Ernest & Julio Gallo sent a representative to purchase a couple of bottles. They wanted to analyze this award-winning wine. Figgins soon raised the price from $15 to $50, and then $70, a price unheard of for a Washington wine. Before long, Figgins had only 40 bottles left, and word had barely leaked out. For those who hadn’t already signed on to Leonetti’s subscription list, it was impossible to find. Stockley offered some consolation in his column. "Don’t let the fact that you can’t have a bottle of Leonetti Cabernet with your Christmas dinner spoil your holidays," wrote Stockley. "There will be other vintages coming" ("Top Honors").

"Everybody that gets going in this business at some point needs that big hit like that," said Figgins. "They really do need that to get really sparked and going. Some people would treat it differently. But we didn't do anything any differently" (Kershner interview). Leonetti just kept making small batches of fine wine and selling out mostly through its subscription list. Ensuing vintages proved to be equally spectacular, and the Leonetti reputation kept growing. So did the Walla Walla Valley’s reputation. In 1983, Figgins and Small cruised the valley in Figgins's pickup truck, determining the boundaries for what they hoped to be a new American Viticultural Area (AVA). In 1984, the Walla Walla Valley AVA was officially granted. Small, by this time, was winning big awards for his own Woodward Canyon Winery.

Figgins slowly began making improvements to the winery but continued to be cautious about growing too big or going into debt. In 1985, he dug a wine cellar near the small winery shed, but it was covered with hay bales as insulation for two years because Figgins wasn’t quite ready to build the new three-story winery on top of it. On the winery grounds he had also planted a small Merlot vineyard, grapes which would later help give Leonetti an national reputation for a second fine varietal. Yet it wasn’t until 1988 that Figgins finally felt secure enough to take the big step and resign from his day job at Continental Can. His daughter Amy – today the estate manager – said, "But, dad, what are we going to do for groceries?"

"That's a fair question," recalled Figgins. "I said, 'It's okay, honey, we're going to be all right.' But really, we didn't start out with much. By the time we were ready to sell our next vintage after we got out of Continental Can Company, we paid for all the barrels, the grapes, bottle, corks, caps, all that, and just before we were ready to sell the next vintage, we had $3,000 in the bank. So anything could have tipped us over. Any hiccup along the line could have caused some major problems" (Kershner interview).

Instead of hiccups, more accolades arrived. In November 1994, the Wine Spectator, one of the most influential wine publications in America, posed this question on its cover: "Who makes America’s best Merlot?" The question was answered in a headline inside the magazine: "The Merlot Master: In the isolation of Eastern Washington, Gary Figgins makes the country’s best Merlot, and classic Cabernet, too" (Laube). The story marveled at Figgins's ability to marry the grapes with just the right amount of oak from the barrels. Figgins described himself as "more an alchemist than a chemist" (Laube). "Not that you need that much oak, but it becomes such a great extension of the wine," said Figgins ("Mad About Merlot").

Leonetti Cellar was now known for its mastery of both of the world’s top two red varietals. This helped establish Washington as a premier Merlot producer, a reputation that it would retain over the decades. Leonetti would later branch out into Sangiovese and Aglianico, but Cabernet and Merlot would continue to be its headliners.

Expanding the Winery

In the spring of 1995, a Seattle Times reporter made the trek to Walla Walla and described the state of Leonetti Cellar on the heels of its Merlot triumph. "Leonetti Cellar is literally a 'mom & pop' business,” wrote Jack Broom. "Pop is Gary, who at any given moment could be welding a pump, pruning a vine, sniffing a merlot or running a forklift load of cardboard cases out to the UPS van that pulls up at 3:30 every afternoon in the spring shipping season. (A glance at one day's UPS labels reflects Figgins' national attention: cases on their way to Texas, Virginia, New Hampshire, California, Arizona, Oregon and Florida.) Mom is Nancy Figgins, who processes orders, inquiries and invoices from her personal computer in the winery's top-floor office. At the busiest times, her sister, mother and cousin pitch in to help" (Broom).

The story also pointed out one significant difference between Leonetti Cellar and almost every other winery in Washington. It had no tasting room open to the public. There was no reason for one. Nearly every bottle went directly to members of the winery’s subscription list. People were waiting years just to get on the subscription list. The Leonetti Cellar compound was – and continues to be -- guarded by two locked gates on either side. "Well, we had to do that," said Figgins. "In the early days we'd be sitting in our backyard at the end of the day, having our first glass of wine, and people come up, drive up and want to buy wine. And so we go, oh, this is going to be an inconvenience, we can see. Over time, we made it so that people have to know the code to get in, and then we know they're coming, and they have to set that up previously" (Kershner interview). It fits in with his original plan to keep the winery small and exclusive. In 1996, wine writer Stockley joked that acquiring a bottle of Leonetti "requires merely crawling on hands and knees and begging" ("Mad About Merlot").

Gradually, the Leonetti grounds were transformed into a Tuscan-influenced set of buildings, glowing with warm stonework. That wine cellar soon lost its cap of hay bales, and the three-story winery arose above it. Figgins himself did some of the stonework, using stone he brought down from the nearby Blue Mountains. He later joked he could have done the whole thing himself except, "I was only one guy and I was making wine, too" (Kershner interview). Their original house was also remodeled in stone, and is now known as the Stone House, which remains Gary and Nancy’s home.

Around 2000, something else was rising in Walla Walla – a remarkable wine industry. Figgins said he always believed that Walla Walla could become a hotbed of wineries, but even when Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, and L’Ecole were getting attention in the 1980s, Figgins said he "quit looking for it to happen ... there were only a handful for a long time" (Skeen). But as the 1990s blended into the 2000s, that changed. "And when I wasn't even looking, all these wineries just started popping up just like mushrooms after a spring rain," said Figgins. "Well, I thought it was wonderful. I kept saying to myself, I didn't think it was going to happen in my life" (Kershner interview). By 2007, there were 100 wineries in the Walla Walla area. Figgins takes some pride in the fact that, "we led the way, we proved it" (Kershner interview).

By this time, Figgins was making a gradual shift away from fruit purchased from the top Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley vineyards, and toward Walla Walla-grown fruit. He purchased shares in the renowned Seven Hills and SeVein vineyards south of Walla Walla. He also began establishing his own vineyards to complement the Leonetti Old Block, the small plot he already had next to the winery. In 1999, he acquired the hillside east of the winery, which he named the Loess Vineyard. Figgins also established the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard, on high ground east of Walla Walla, and the Holy Roller Vineyard, across the state line near Milton-Freewater, Oregon. He often blends grapes from all of these sites together. "So we pull from all parts of the valley," said Figgins. "So when you get a Leonetti Cab, usually you get a pretty overall look at everything from the valley. And when we do reserves, it could be maybe two together sometimes" (Kershner interview).

A Family Business

Gary and Nancy made an even more significant shift beginning in the 2000s. They began the process of bringing Chris and Amy into Leonetti Cellar as partners. Amy Figgins earned a business degree from Washington State University and worked in the corporate engineering world for several years. Then, in 2007, Figgins asked if she wanted to return to Leonetti. Nancy was ready to retire. Amy stepped into Nancy’s role as manager and "just crushed it, hit it out of the park," said Figgins (Kershner interview). Her title as of 2023 was estate manager and partner.

Chris had always been fascinated with the family business and with that in mind, earned a degree in horticulture from Washington State University. He went to work at Leonetti the day after he graduated in 1996. He took over as head winemaker in 2001 and was a driving force in Leonetti’s shift toward making wine from its own vineyards. He also launched his own single-vineyard estate wine brand under the FIGGINS label. As of 2023, he was the president and winemaking director for Leonetti and the Figgins Family Wine Estates and had cemented his own national reputation as a winemaker.

Gary and Nancy officially retired in 2018. Letting go was not particularly easy. Gary said he had a kind of "separation anxiety," and maybe even a little depression about no longer being in charge (Kershner interview). Yet he knew he had to get out of the way and "let Chris spread his wings" (Kershner interview). After a while, Figgins said he felt "liberated" and was quite happy with his new role as the winery’s figurehead and elder statesman. "I’m just going to meetings and making sure the guidance is there if they need it," he said in a 2023 interview. "I do tastings – they prop me up for a tasting once in a while. Where's Gary? Oh, there he is!" (Kershner interview).

He said the future of Leonetti Cellar was bright as of 2023. "We continue to knock down big scores [in tastings] and the reputation is solid," he said. "And the kids love what they're doing. We've got a great couple of grandchildren who know that this is probably what they want to do later on" (Kershner interview).

Wine critics were never shy about giving Figgins credit for, essentially, putting Walla Walla wine one the map. The influential critic Robert Parker Jr. noted that "more than a few California wines could learn a lesson or two by tasting this gentleman’s wines" (Kelly).  Tom Stockley dubbed Figgins "The King of Merlot" ("Mad About Merlot").

He could also rest secure in his reputation among his peers. In 2005, he was awarded one of the Washington Wine industry’s highest honors when he was named honorary vintner for the Auction of Washington Wines. In 2019 he and Nancy were both inducted into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame, not only for their Leonetti legacy, but also for helping establish the Institute for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. 

Few bottles are left of that best-in-the-nation 1978 Leonetti Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, but the legend lives on. In 2017, the Auction of Washington Wines auctioned off a complete vertical collection of Leonetti’s Cabernets, and the main attraction was that 1978 bottle. The entire Leonetti vertical, headed by that bottle, sold for $32,500, or almost $1,000 per bottle. Anacortes wine merchant Doug Charles declared the ’78 Leonetti Cabernet to be "the most significant wine ever made in Washington" (Perdue).

Yet his old sidekick Rick Small may have a differing opinion on which Figgins bottle was the most influential. Small still recalls a bottle of homemade strawberry wine, made by Figgins way back in the 1970s when Figgins was experimenting at home. Small remembered it as an eye-opening example of Figgins's "precision as a machinist" and his talent as, perhaps, an alchemist (Kershner interview with Rick Small). Small said it captured "that fresh Walla Walla strawberry at perfect ripeness ... with all the pieces and all the parts of the strawberries still there, the acid, the balance, the freshness" (Kershner interview with Rick Small).

That unlikely wine, not the ’78 Cabernet, was the "gamechanger" in Small’s life, launching him on his own lifetime adventure as a winemaker (Kershner interview with Rick Small).

More: Jim Kershner's interview with Gary Figgins


Jim Kershner interview with Gary Figgins, September 14, 2023, at Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla, recording and transcript available through History Link; Tom Stockley, “Mad About Merlot,” Seattle Times, November 10, 1996, p. 20 of the Pacific magazine; Sally Gene Mahoney, “Backyard Vintners Aim for Quality,” Seattle Times, May 30, 1982, p. A-1; Tom Stockley, "Top Honors -- Washington Red Is Named Best," Ibid., December 22, 1982, p. D-2; James Laube, “The Merlot Master,” Wine Spectator, November 15, 1994; Jack Broom, “Salute: At Leonetti’s Wine Making Is In the Blood,” The Seattle Times, June 4, 1995, p. 10 of the Pacific magazine; Thomas P. Skeen, “Walla Walla’s Wondrous Wines,” Ibid., September 10, 2003, p. C-6; Harvey Steinman, “Catching up with Leonetti,” Wine Spectator, March 10, 2008; Leslie Kelly, “Small Walla Walla Winemaker Making Big Time Wine,” Spokesman-Review, May 1, 1990, p. F-2; Andy Perdue, "Time In a Bottle: Here's Your Chance to Own Washington's Most Famous Wine," The Seattle Times, Pacific NW magazine, July 26, 2017; Rick Small interview with Jim Kershner, May 23, 2023, at Lowden, Washington, audio recording and transcript available through; Leonetti Cellar website,, accessed October 25, 2023

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