It's little wonder Leonetti Cellar wines are cherished by customers as something very special and a must for any discerning wine collector.
Leonetti is one of the most famous small wineries in the Pacific Northwest - and perhaps in the nation. The Walla Walla, Washington winery's Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots have received lofty ratings by international wine media and are ranked as some of the best in the world.
Gary Figgins, who founded the tiny winery 22 years ago, admits his operation has a cult-like following because his wines are sold primarily to a mailing list of customers during one whirlwind weekend in the spring. Furthermore, 1,500 more people want to get on the mailing list so they, too, can buy Leonetti wines.
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Wine Press Northwest conducted a rare interview with Figgins at his winery, which not only produces great reds but also is becoming an architectural showplace, complete with underground caves filled with barrels of future Leonetti wines.
When did you start making wines and why?
I grew up with Italian grandparents, and my grandfather Frank Leonetti was a pretty good home winemaker. I was exposed to wine all my life. I started making homemade wine around 1970 when Nancy and I werefirst married as a way to enjoy wine without having to break the bank to buy them.
When did you start making wines commercially, and did you ever see it becoming more than just a hobby?
I started tasting commercial wines, including many from California, after I began making my homemade wines, and I felt my wines were just as good. Washington's wine industry was in its infancy with just a few wineries that included Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery), Chateau Ste. Michelle, Preston and Hinzerling.
Rick Small (owner and winemaker at nearby Woodward Canyon) and I started making experimental wines together, and they were pretty good. After the success of my first cabernet (the 1978 - judged the best in America in one competition), I set myself a goal that I would be self-sufficient as a winery and quit my machinist job. We moved slower than a lot of wineries since we were operating on a shoestring and didn't want to go to the bank for any loans. Our growth has been funded entirely from the sales of our wine. I had a blue-collar job without an overabundance of money, a mortgage to pay and a family to raise.
Your first winery was a two-car garage and the basement of your home. Any memories of those early days?
It wasn't a garage - it was a former tack room for a horse and rabbits. I cleaned it out and put in a tank and some barrels. Our basement was where we stored the cases. We used our picnic table as our tasting room.
Didn't you also try white wines when you first started? Why did you change to concentrating on cabernet and merlot?
I made a gewürztraminer in 1978 and chardonnay and riesling up until 1983 but found that clearly reds were my forté. I started kicking out the whites to have more equipment to concentrate on the reds. I'm hoping to eventually make a barrel of chardonnay for home consumption.
Why have you been so successful with merlot and cabernet? Any secrets to pass on?
You can say I have a passion and drive to make the best wines I can without cutting any corners in the vineyards or at the winery.
Does that go for your winery, too? It has grown from that tiny barn into a French country-style building. And the new winery is a bit of a Taj Mahal, complete with a fishing pond. All of this for a winery that has visitors only one weekend a year and the few wine industry people the rest of the year.
Where you make a wine and the equipment you have available is as important as the ingredients you have to put in the wine. As for the caves, humidity affects the wine's alcohol balance and aids the barrels in gaining concentration of the fruit.
You have said you have an uncompromising approach to winemaking, which has established your reputation. What does that mean?
Our whole focus is to have the best wine possible in the glass. If you don't strain every nerve to be first, you do not become second - you inevitably become last. There are no secrets in making wine. You must make it as good as you can, and we are really blessed in the Pacific Northwest by our fruit. I would say that I'm 85 percent of the way in getting the best wine I can make, but it's that much harder now to gain those extra percentages. It's my goal to be better. All this new equipment and buildings allow me to do it.
You won a gold medal at the Tri-City festival in 1982 for your 1978 cabernet sauvignon. This wine later was entered in a national competition and was named "best of the best." Did this surprise you?
I was not surprised. I was so happy when that occurred because it was such a great wine. I still have some, and it's drinking great. What that did was give national exposure that's not very easy to come by for a small operation like ours. Everyone in this industry needs a break in the beginning, especially when you come from a new, emerging wine region and are up against California.
Did this change your goals?
No, our goal today was the same in 1978: to make a small amount of ultra-high-quality handcrafted wines.
Your success has been both a blessing and a headache.
I guess the blessing is you sell all your wine during one weekend a year and don't have to do much marketing or advertising. Furthermore, you are getting $50 and above for each bottle of wine you sell. I can remember when I bought a bottle of the 1978 for $10. What do you think of wine pricing here and elsewhere in the country?
I think wine pricing is getting a bit out of hand in the country, with some Napa Valley reds going for $100 to $200 a bottle. We are luckier here in that our land costs are less and so do our wines. I do feel that many of the newer wineries in the Pacific Northwest with high costs of startup and production do have to get $35 to $50 a bottle to turn a profit. Wines at these prices are a luxury item, but there seem to be plenty of buyers for them. I offered a 1996 cabernet sauvignon reserve this year for $75 a bottle, and it sold out in less than four hours.
The heartache is that there is more demand from customers than you have wine. Does this present problems? What are they, and how have you learned to deal with it?
I'll let Nancy answer that.
Nancy Figgins: We try to make sure our longtime customers get their wines, but this last year, we had to cut the amount anyone could buy to a half-case of each variety.
(Leonetti makes 5,200 cases a year and has no plans to increase production because of demand.)
We sell only to a mailing list, and this list is adjusted every two or three years. If you don't buy after a couple of years, your name is dropped off. There is a waiting list of about 1,500 wanting to get on the mailing list, but no one has been added for the past two years. I have heard from people who ask if they can pass on their allotment of Leonetti wine as part of their will. It's difficult at times to please everybody, but we try.
What has success done for you?
It allows us to have a good lifestyle, although a modest one.
(They live in a nice home next to a wheat field that abuts the Blue Mountains. Their modest beginnings have grown to nearly 50 acres, which includes the three winery buildings, a new pond, a few acres of vineyards and grass areas. They like to get away to a cabin in the Blue Mountains. They have traveled to Italy and other wine-growing regions of the country. They have not been to France yet but say that trip will come someday. Gary also has a passion for race cars and is building his own 1965 Cobra.)
I understand your son, Chris, has joined you. How many family members are involved in the winery?
So far just Chris, who is 26, and Nancy. Our daughter, Amy, lives in Denver and may get involved in the business more in the future. I see Chris replacing me someday. We are a team, and all the stuff I used to do by myself we do together.
(Gary's brother Rusty learned his skills at his brother's side and now has his own successful winery, Glen Fiona, in Walla Walla.)
When you and Rick Small were the only two Walla Walla Valley winemakers, could you ever envision there would someday be nearly 30 wineries here?
About 10 years ago, I predicted there would be 24 or more wineries in the area. When it didn't happen, I sort of gave up that it would. This has restored my optimism about the Walla Walla Valley. I think we have a wonderful diversity in the valley, and everyone is striving to make high-quality wines.
What's the future of the Pacific Northwest wine industry?
I see nothing but growth ahead. There is a lot of interest from people in other wine regions thinking of locating here. We're going to see more wineries in the future, I'm sure.
Leonetti Cellar's Gary Figgins’ first exposure to the world of wine came as a child when his maternal grandparents—immigrants from Italy who settled in the Walla Walla Valley—served him small portions of diluted wine produced by hand in their dirt floored cellar. Frank and Rose Leonetti never conceived that years after their deaths these first tastes of wine would inspire the birth of a winery that would place their name on bottles of world-class wines: Leonetti Cellar.
Completely self-educated in the art of making wine, Gary discovered a further passion for wines when as a young father and army reservist he made frequent trips to Northern California. Side trips to California’s wine country inspired Gary to begin making wines at home. In the beginning, he fermented numerous fruits and berries from the bountiful Walla Walla Valley—with varying degrees of success.
Soon, Gary’s entrance into wine production would come full circle, when with the help of his uncles, an acre of cabernet sauvignon and a bit of white riesling would be planted on a hillside above the original Leonetti homestead in 1974. After several years honing his skills as an amateur winemaker, Gary would bond Leonetti Cellar in 1977 and produce its first wines in 1978.
What his early wines lacked in quantity—produced in a tiny cellar beneath his home—they made up for in quality. Pouring his wines for anyone who was willing to taste them, Gary and his wife Nancy soon realized they were on to something when demand for the limited bottlings gradually began to outgrow production.
Disregarding the skeptics’ advice otherwise, Gary expanded the winery until it was beyond the scale of an evening-and weekend-project. He then quit his job as a machinist at a local can manufacturing plant to pursue his winemaking passion full-time.
Over the years, Gary’s dream of an architecturally inspiring building to produce Leonetti wines in has been realized. After years of collecting native basalt stones with members of his family, he built a beautiful structure complete with underground barrel cellar. A further addition with subterranean caves was completed in 2000.
Gary’s philosophy of winemaking is to maintain total control over the winemaking process from start to finish. To that end, Leonetti Cellar has recently expanded its vineyard holdings in the Walla Walla Valley to complement its fruit purchased from elsewhere in the Columbia Valley.
Always an innovator in the wine industry, Gary utilizes an aggressive regimen of oak barrels to complement his intensely flavored wines. He has even gone so far as to hand-pick oak logs from throughout the nation, which have been air-dried for years at the winery and then sent away for cooperage.
All of this attention to detail has brought enormous demand for the consistent quality of Gary’s wines, and made Leonetti Cellar wines among the most sought-after in the world. Gary remains humble about his winery’s successes, choosing to resist the temptations for increased production and remain a truly hands-on winemaker.