Leonetti Cellar, located in Washington’s Walla Walla Valley AVA, makes some of the most collected, sought-after, recherché, and praised wines in America. The term “cult winery” seems to be a uniquely American term (we don’t know of any Bordeaux or Burgundy cult wineries) that refers to wineries whose wines are available only via mailing list and have received huge scores and praise from the wine press at large. By those measures, certainly Leonetti would be considered as one of America’s cult wineries.
The paradox is that when you meet Chris Figgins, president and winemaker at Leonetti, you are immediately struck by how down-to-earth he is. We pulled up to Leonetti Estate on a September morning where the air was filled with smoke created by surrounding wild fires burning in Oregon to the immediate south, Montana to the east and British Columbia to the north. Even in that haze, the property that houses the winery and the Figgins’ family home and their neighbouring Loess Vineyard is beautiful. Chris comes out to meet us with a big smile and a warm handshake. Conversational and affable, there is nothing of the “rock star winemaker” in his way, just an extremely passionate guy who loves to grow wine.
Chris is the fourth generation in his family to grow crops in Walla Walla. His great grandparents, Francesco and Rosa Leonetti , immigrated to the United States from Italy. Theirs was a classic story: hard working and adventurous they came to the New World by boat carrying all of their worldly possessions and landed at Ellis Island. Then they made the long journey to Walla Walla. Once there they worked and managed to acquire the 20 acres that now is the core of the Leonetti Estate. Chris is deeply impressed by his lineage and the efforts of great grandparents and his other forebears who provided stewardship over this land. As an homage to this lineage he named their recently acquired vineyard Serra Pedace (pronounced sara pedatchy), after the town in Italy his great grandparents left to come to Walla Walla.
In 2001 Chris took over the winemaking reins from his father Gary Figgins. Gary was the original Washington winemaker. Perhaps not the very first to make wine, but the very first to make wine commercially. In 1974 Gary planted his first Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling grapes on the land his grandparents had acquired. In 1977 he and his wife Nancy created Leonetti Cellar and became the first bonded winery in the state of Washington. Chris told us how it was a humble start. “My Dad had to stay on in his job as a machinist for the early years and my mom cleaned houses and babysat just so they could afford to buy new French barrels.” Chris is proud of those beginnings. “I am glad my father did not sell a tech company to start a winery.”
Chris takes us up into the Loess Vineyard that covers a hill just behind his parents’ house. It is a gorgeous vineyard on a steep west-facing slope, one of seven that now are in the total Figgins’ estate. Walking the vineyard with him is a special experience: he is so connected to this land, to the work he does on it and to the product he creates from it that it seems to transform him. As we stop among the rows and talk about the soil and the vines growing on it, Chris’ passion comes out, full bore. He kneels down to pick up some of the soil and let it run through his fingers. “The cool thing about these soils is that even when they’re wet they’re really well drained… super deep”. Chris becomes more animated as he talks about it: “And the beauty of it from a viticultural standpoint is that it’s very consistent and very homogenous if you stay on consistent aspects and slopes – so we plan our vineyards accordingly. Wind deposits are much more consistent than water deposits.” The vineyard is named after the loess soils that cover it; loess is a wind deposited soil. That consistency will affect your pick dates. “If you don’t have good homogenous blocks you end up with some ripe stuff, some green stuff and end up having to pick for the least common denominator so if you can get it all to the finish line at the same time you end up with a better product, lower alcohols and a more balanced wine.”
Chris’ passion is equally well matched by his knowledge. He has that quiet confidence that is the hallmark of those who really know their stuff. He does not try to impress you with jargon and nor does he make things overly complicated. His explanations are thorough and said with ease; an ease that comes from knowing these vineyards so intimately. Chris obtained his horticultural degree from Washington State University, before they began their viticultural degree program. “All of my courses were on the viticulture side”.
The other vineyards that the Figgins family owns or is a partner in are Seven Hills, Seven Hills Old Block, Serra Pedace, Mill Creek Upland, Holy Roller, Loess and Leonetti Old Block. Estate vineyards were not always a big part of the fruit source, and Chris was an important catalyst for this event taking place. “Initially I started down the architecture path but fell in love with wine during college – I remember calling my dad one night (at the time we only had 3.5 acres by the wineries and we were buying virtually all of our fruit) and asking ‘what if I came into the business and we started planting our own vineyards’ and my dad was funny, I’ll never forget the conversation. He (dad) played it very cool and said ‘well sure I guess we can talk about it and with your mom’ and years later my mom told me that he got off the phone and cried—he never cries, I’ve never seen him cry ever. Which is kind of cool – I never had any pressure from my folks to get into the business, which was great.”
Chris took us into the barrel room to try a few barrel samples and tell us about how the wine is made at Leonetti. Leonetti is purely a red wine house. They make a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot, a Sangiovese and in strong vintages, a Reserve. Chris tells us: “We make a wine that lays down and ages – if you can wait for the 7-10 year mark on your Cabernets you’ll be really happy; that’s when they just start to shed their baby fat and the complexity starts to really reveal itself.” As the tasting notes of some of their back vintages show (see below), we heartily agree!
Chris tells us about the harvest: “Typically we start picking at sun up, and then are done by 11am-1130; we crush in the afternoon; timing and execution is key; by 8:30am everything’s been pumped over & samples have been spun out; press is loaded; lots of fun but I rely on my team to keep things consistent timing wise.” Chris keeps it pretty simple inside the winery. “I like to crush – almost all of our vineyard blocks I like to break the skins on them. I’m not a big proponent of whole berries, but we do some for certain blocks. We use a bladder press that has a 360 degree press surface. This gives a softer press and better extraction.”
The grapes spend 2-3 days cold-soaking before warming it up and inoculating with yeasts to start the fermentation. So far Leonetti has mostly inoculated to start their fermentations, but Chris informed us they are now “starting to play with natives; starting to get more spontaneous fermentations as our vineyard matures” taking the native yeasts from than vineyard rather than inoculating with commercial yeasts.
We sampled through a number of different barrels of 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, coming from the different vineyards and different blocks within those vineyards. As these were barrel samples and not finished wines, no tasting notes were taken. But what we can tell you is that 2016 is looking like another very strong vintage at Leonetti. What we saw were very deep colours and what we tasted were rich black fruit flavours and smooth polished tannins. We have tasted a number of extraordinary Leonettis in the past; 2016 is setting up to deliver another batch of extraordinary wines.
Leonetti wines are hard to get a hold of. They are sold to a few select restaurants and retailers, but the majority of their wines are sold via their mailing list. That list has been closed for several years but there is a waiting list to get on the mailing list; about 3 – 4 years. Such is the case when you make limited quantities of wine that is meticulously crafted and every detail painstakingly executed. They are hard to come by, but trust us, to have a bottle of Leonetti is well worth the search.
*Past vintages of Leonetti Cellar Wines AdVINEtures has reviewed include:
2003 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine continues to amaze! Classic Cabernet with pure flavours of black currant, blackberry and blueberry. There is a wonderful spice component that adds complexity. Terrific mouthfeel: full and rich with acidity on the finish that keeps things focused. Likely at peak but certainly no signs of breaking down. A Washington gem!
2005 Leonetti Merlot
Consistently one of our favourite Merlots and the 2005 lived up to our expectations and beyond. At 11 years old, it’s still dark red in colour showing only a slight fade at the rim. Tons of complexity with notes of black cherry, stewed plum, spice, and earth. This is a full bodied Merlot that is big and bold yet incredibly balanced and smooth with a very long finish. The classic description of an “iron fist in a velvet glove” pretty much sums it up.
2002 Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon
Still very dark colour. Huge nose of raspberries, spiced black cherries and a whiff of mocha. We could smell the wine as soon as we pulled the cork! Thick, plush and oh-so balanced, the mouthfeel of this wine is incredible. Spicy notes add complexity. Seriously delicious. Sadly, our last bottle from this vintage.
2004 Leonetti Merlot
Still very dark in colour; big nose of raspberries and black cherries; medium body, dense, plush mouthfeel; lovely mix of mocha covered black cherries and a candied taste; finishes long with a touch of acidity.