Washington Wine History Interviews: Gary Figgins, Leonetti Cellar

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/23/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22831
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Gary Figgins (b. 1948) was the founder and winemaker of Leonetti Cellar, the first winery in Walla Walla and widely considered one of its best. Figgins gained instant fame in 1982 when his 1978 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet was named the best Cabernet in the nation by an influential wine magazine. This gave Washington’s red wines instant credibility and jump-started what would soon become a thriving Walla Walla wine scene. Yet wine was not completely unknown among earlier Walla Walla settlers, especially among the valley’s Italian immigrants. In a September 14, 2023, interview with History Link’s Jim Kershner, Figgins describes how he discovered wine at a young age, thanks to his grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, who were immigrant farmers in the valley.

Italian Heritage

Gary Figgins: They were sort of, I would say southwest of Walla Walla, just a little bit. Pretty close to Walla Walla, just a little farm. Just on the other side of where the current country club is. They grew primarily garden crops, sweet onions, did all kinds of things: green onions, spinach, you name it. They had plenty, they had 20 acres that they were farming on. They grew grapes ... and then they grew feed, you know, cattle feed, hay, both alfalfa and some grain crops. But their main income was the Walla Walla sweets; they grew enough of those and they were pretty succesful doing that.

Jim Kershner: What kind of grapes did they grow?

GF: They grew what they called Black Prince, and it's also called Black Malvoisie. So it's grown in France. It's grown in Italy, by the way. And they called it Black Prince here. And we are trying to figure out whether they were able to bring cuttings with them.

They not only grew grapes, but they crushed them in the basement and made them into red wine. During the 1950s, when most Americans drank little wine, the Leonettis made it part of their dinnertime routine. Figgins, as a little boy, grew up with that culture:

GF: It is an interesting story. I may have told it a couple of hundred times, maybe. Maybe more [laughs]. But they would always give me a little watered down and they'd have these Italian dinners, all Italian food. 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 straight. Straight wine. It was red. Always red. Yeah, it was always the Black Malvoisie, Black Prince ... It's one they settled on because it was powdery mildew resistant. They didn't have to spray it. And back then chemicals were hard to come by, and so things were grown more organically and natural. And so it would produce medium-body wines and a fairly large crop with no requirement for spraying the grapes to keep fungus out.

First Plantings, 1974

This made Figgins unique among the pioneers of the Washington wine industry, most of whom discovered their love of wine in their 20s. Figgins, on the other hand, never knew a time when wine was not part of his family life. Watching his grandparents and uncles grow and make wine also gave Figgins an insight that few had in the 1960s and early 1970s. He knew that growing fine wine grapes was possible in the Walla Walla Valley, and he believed that the quality could be excellent. He bolstered this knowledge with his own meticulous research.

GF: We planted our first vineyard in 1974 out at the Leonetti homestead, where they had their 20-acre garden farm and the hillside vineyard. Yeah, we actually planted grapes where grandpa used to have grapes. We planted Cabernet Sauvignon. We knew it was going to be very good because of all the research that I had done, suggested that Walla Walla was the same heat units as Oakville in Napa Valley. I and others, we attained all the heat unit numbers and the long growing season, and we thought Cabernet, it can definitely ripen here. And to be in our region, region two to region three, you have to be around 2875 to 3000 heat units, which fits right in with Oakville, Napa Valley. And of course, Oakville is a very, very high-end properties there, considered to be very high-quality Cabernets. And so we knew we could. 

This was a bold move, at a time when Washington’s fledgling wine industry was known almost entirely for cool-season white wines, such as Rieslings. Figgins at the time was working as a machinist at Continental Can Co. in Walla Walla and serving part-time in the Army Reserve. But his avocation, and his obsession, was winemaking, done mostly in his basement. His little vineyard started producing grapes, and he also began buying grapes from some of the new Cabernet vineyards near the Tri-Cities area, as well as his own small vineyard. In the mid-1970s, he started making a few bottles of Cabernet at home.

GF: Some of my original vines or grapes came off of that Sagemoor Vineyard out there, as well as the earliest Cabernet we brought in was from Moreman Vineyard, which is out Road 68, north of the Tri-Cities there. And Bob Moreman, I got to be friends with him. He had Cabernet, and we got to talking and, "Yeah, try a little of your fruit, and we'll make some wine and we'll bottle it up and split it." He goes, "Great." So we did. The first cabs we made were outstanding. Oh yeah. We knew right away. We knew right away.

"Amazing Wine"

He and his wife Nancy weren’t the only people who thought those early Cabernets were outstanding. His friends who tasted it were equally enthusiastic. It was enough to encourage Gary and Nancy to license and bond their home operation in 1977 as a commercial winery, called Leonetti Cellar, in homage to his grandparents. Leonetti Cellar was a smash success right away, in a manner previously unheard of for any Washington red wine.

GF: And as luck would have it, we hit it big on our '78. A lot of people tasted that wine and just went, "Oh my God, this is just amazing wine." And it was a great vintage, and we made an amazing wine. And believe it or not, it still tastes good today, starting to lose its freshness of course. Oh, we still have some, a few bottles, rarely get into it though. And that came out in '80. And then in '82, we had, Wine & Spirits Buying Guide sent out a request for samples. They wanted two or three bottles of each to do a judging and tasting to determine the best Cabernet in America. I mean, the best Cabernet in America? I mean, for a little guy, barely etching out an artistic living here? We sent the samples. "Okay, well, we hate to turn loose these, but here they are." And forgot about it. And all of a sudden, I was at work and Nancy calls me, asks the boss if she could talk to me. Oh, yeah. 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. And we had nothing better to do, but to celebrate it.

Suddenly, Washington Cabernets had a national reputation and Figgins was a winemaking star. Subsequent vintages were outstanding. Yet Gary and Nancy decided to keep the winery small – almost a mom-and-pop operation – instead of growing to meet the skyrocketing demand.

GF: We didn't want the headaches of making all that wine and doing all that marketing. The income that we were bringing in for what we were doing and how much we were making was perfectly satisfactory for us. And so we did scale up the production ever so slowly to about where we're at today, right around seven [thousand cases]. We started at around, I think that first Cabernet, I think we had 100 cases [laughs]. We bumped it up over time, over the years. And we were making, I'd say, all told with everything we did. We did whites for a while, and then got rid of those, and then just reds. And I'd say we were 2,000, 2,500 for a lot of years, and then we took another, after you take a breath and you're comfortable with that, and then made the next move. And then 2000, we built the new winery.

They sold most of their wine directly to their biggest fans, the people on their exclusive subscription list. Leonetti’s wines were so popular that there was a years-long waiting list to join. It was a marketing strategy that meant that Leonetti Cellar did not, and still does not, have a tasting room open to the public. There is no reason for one. Gary credited Nancy with implementing this wildly successful strategy.

GF: Nancy was instrumental. I go, "How do we do this?" I said, "Well, let's get all the doctor and lawyers on the list" [laughs]. And so we sent everybody out a flyer. “We're selling wine. Here it is. Come get some” ... It turned out that the doctors were the biggest buyers. Meta science, and they appreciated that. And they appreciate the health benefits of wine over other types of alcohol. And I guess that was part of their choice for gravitating towards wine and had a certain cachet to it. 

Focus on Walla Walla Grapes

Early on, Figgins had planted a small Merlot vineyard on the grounds of the estate. When son Chris Figgins took over as head winemaker in 2001, they began working toward acquiring more of their own vineyards and using grapes entirely from the Walla Walla Valley.

GF: Yeah, we were looking for more land, and we kept looking, and we wanted the best sites. Over time, the best sites proved to be anything that's more elevated than the lower ones, because the cold air settles in and you get major cold damage on some of the lower vineyards, but the upper ones were surviving ... We knew it, but you couldn't really, there wasn't anything available. Everything was wheat farms in the higher elevations. And then gradually over time, we were able to eke out pieces here and there, and we were able to purchase those. And so the Loess (Vineyard) is top quality Cab, Merlot. We pulled a Cab off of it today, and Merlot off at previous stage. So the harvest is going in gangbusters. Plus we have our Mill Creek Upland Vineyard, which is up at Mill Creek, and that's been a flagship Cabernet for us the whole way through. And generally always good, because Leonetti does a blend of Cabs, so we pull from all parts of the valley. 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 (vineyards) together.

Gary Figgins is semi-retired but remains a keen observer of the Walla Walla wine industry. He believes that the burgeoning wine scene will inevitably have to slow down.

GF: We've bought some really nice sites, and going forward down the road, it's going to be harder to access those. Although there is a lot of land, the problem is getting water for that land. You have to buy water rights from something else. I think it's a built-in throttle for the industry here. I don't think it'll be runaway (growth). I mean, in a sense where people are just in a planting flurry that puts the valley in, not a good stead because there's too many grapes and not enough people taking them. So I think it's kind of a built-in governor, and I think it's going to prove out to be really good. Although it's tough for new guys coming in to buy a piece of dry land and establish a well on it.

More: Jim Kershner's biography of Gary Figgins

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