On December 14, 1982, Washington red wines burst onto the national scene when a Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla's Leonetti Cellar is named the best in the nation. The award is the result of a blind tasting in California by Winestate magazine's Wine and Spirits Buying Guide, one of the nation's most prestigious wine industry publications at the time. The results are scheduled for the January 1983 edition of the magazine, but word leaks out in advance and is announced in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin on December 14, 1982. "We're still in a state of shock," says Nancy Figgins, the wife of Leonetti winemaker Gary Figgins ("Leonetti's '78 Cabernet"). The Union-Bulletin points out that "California winemakers have long contended that their state produces the only classic Cabernets," and that the award "could be the boost" needed by the burgeoning Washington wine business. It did indeed provide that boost. The award vaulted Washington red wines into the nation's consciousness and presaged the emergence of a world-class Washington red wine industry.
"We'll Just Make a Few Barrels"
In 1977, when Gary Figgins started Walla Walla's first bonded winery, Leonetti Cellar, Washington's fledgling wine industry was known mostly for white wines, especially Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. Winemakers were not yet certain that the Walla Walla and Yakima valleys were suitable for fine red wines, although a few vineyards were experimenting. In 1978, he decided to try a small batch of red wine.
That year, he made 200 cases of Riesling, 100 cases of Gewürztraminer, and 100 cases of his first red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon. "We never had a business plan, but we had this passion for making wine," Figgins said in a 2017 interview. "The thing I still think about today was saying (to Nancy), 'We'll just make a few barrels and maybe it'll pay for the kids' college, and maybe someday give us enough income to live on'" ("A Look Back").
Little did he know that this first red wine would change his life. When the Cabernet was ready to drink in 1981, Figgins offered it at $10 a bottle and sold some to friends and other Walla Walla wine enthusiasts. In 1982, he entered it in a local contest, the Tri-Cities Northwest Wine Festival, where it won a gold medal. He was subsequently asked to enter the wine in Winestate's national competition. Figgins was initially reluctant because he had only about 40 bottles left and didn't want to spare two of them (he had upped the price to $15).
He finally decided to send in the bottles. The Winestate competition was of a different order of magnitude from the local contests. The Leonetti Cabernet was now competing against the top wines in the nation. The tasting included 68 wines from around the country, including 55 California wines, all of which had been gold medal winners from other competitions.
'A Seminal Moment' for Washington Wine
When Nancy called Gary at his day job with the news of their award -- he was a machinist at the Continental Can Company -- he was shocked. Their wine was subsequently on the cover of the magazine, with the headline "The First American Wine Championship." The magazine's review extolled the Leonetti's "classic varietal nose of great elegance and depth" and its "excellent balance with a good acid backbone (and) expansive finish" (Winestate).
The price of the few remaining bottles of Leonetti's 1978 Cabernet immediately rocketed to an astonishing $50 per bottle. The Union-Bulletin stressed the fact that the blind tasting was conducted in California, with California judges, and that the Leonetti wine emerged victorious over a number of premium California wines, including some from the Napa Valley. It was the first indication that Washington red wines could compete, and even excel, against the Napa Valley behemoths.
Seattle Times wine columnist Tom Stockley trumpeted the news a week later and wrote, "You may have heard the cheers and howls of delight from Walla Walla all the way over here in Seattle" ("Top Honors"). Wine enthusiasts from around the country descended on Walla Walla. According to one account, the Gallo brothers of California wine fame "sent a private jet to Walla Walla to buy a case of the amazing wine and to meet Gary and Nancy Figgins" (Pihl). Washington wine writer Andy Perdue called it "a seminal moment in the Washington wine industry ... paving the way for a Walla Walla wine industry that until that moment didn't exist" (Perdue). Leonetti Cellar became the "first cult winery in the state" (Kelly).
However, Figgins did not quit his day job until 1989. He remained, in the words of wine writer Paul Gregutt, "a modest do-it-yourselfer, who conducted his winemaking experiments largely on his own, sometimes discussing things over a bottle or two with his good friend, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon" ("Leonetti Embellishes ..."). As of 1986, Figgins was still making his acclaimed wines "in a rustic shed behind his modest rambler on the outskirts of town, still tending a shy acre in his backyard that he had planted to Cabernet and Merlot in 1976" ("Leonetti Embellishes ...").
Other Walla Walla wineries, such as Woodward Canyon, had already started producing quality Cabernets for a market that was now national and international. Other wineries began to proliferate, and most of them were making red wines. Washington's red wines slowly built a national following. By 2000, Walla Walla had more than a dozen wineries, and Leonetti Cellar was no longer operated out of a rustic shed. It had grown into an estate featuring a picturesque Tuscan-style winery with three underground barrel caves. By 2020, Walla Walla had hundreds of wineries. Leonetti Cellar remained one of the most prestigious and exclusive wineries in Walla Walla, and it continued to make award-winning Cabernets and other red wines. Yet none of its releases could ever reach the legendary status of that 1978 Leonetti Cabernet.
The legend was still potent 35 years later. In 2017, Washington wine collectors Hank and Nancy Sauer donated a "vertical" collection of Leonetti wines to the 30th Annual Auction of Washington Wines, a charity auction at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. A "vertical" contained one bottle of every vintage in Leonetti's history -- including that 1978 vintage. The Sauers had purchased three bottles of it, back in 1981, during a basement tasting at the home of their friends, Gary and Nancy Figgins.
Many other excellent Leonetti vintages were in that vertical auction lot, but the 1978 Cabernet was clearly the star attraction. A few days before the auction, Anacortes wine merchant Doug Charles called it "the most significant wine ever made in Washington" (Perdue).
When the gavel banged down, the entire vertical had sold for $32,500, setting a record for the Auction of Washington Wines. "It's the pinnacle of Washington wines," said Charles. "I think it deserves that rarefied air" (Perdue).