MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. – Chris Figgins knows he has a good thing going. He wants to put his own mark on his family’s famous winery while also paying tribute to his Italian heritage.
Figgins, president and director of winemaking for Figgins Family Estate – including famous Leonetti Cellar – is exploring the world of heritage Italian red wine grapes at his newest vineyard in the southern Walla Walla Valley. Depending on what kind of wines he can make from these grapes, this could mean some new wines being added to the Leonetti lineup.
We recently traveled with Chris Figgins to his newest vineyard to see the project and find out more. Here’s the interview:
Leonetti Cellar’s Italian heritage
Chris Figgins’ great-grandfather Francesco Leonetti came to the Walla Walla Valley more than a century ago – in 1902 – from the southern Italian town of Serra Pedace, which is not far from Calabria and is basically in the instep of the boot-shaped country.
His great-grandmother Rosa showed up three years later – it was an arranged marriage – and they began a family. In the 1970s, Chris’ father, Gary, began making a little wine, and it was pretty good. In 1977, he launched Leonetti Cellar, naming it for the Leonetti side of the family. Success came quickly. His first Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1978 vintage gained national attention when a wine publication proclaimed it as the best red wine in the United States.
This led to a run on Leonetti, which led to the development of “the list” – that is, the customers who could purchase wine directly from Leonetti each spring. The Leonetti release weekend – the first weekend in May – became so popular that other wineries that followed in the Walla Walla Valley began holding open houses, too. Today, Leonetti Weekend is believed to be the largest retail weekend of the year in Washington wine country.
Today, Gary Figgins is all but retired from winemaking, and he and his wife, Nancy, have handed the operation to their children, Chris and Amy.
“I was so blessed by my parents to hand to me a winery that had a reputation and a sales list,” Chris Figgins told Great Northwest Wine. “And, of course my father being an amazing winemaking teacher.”
It’s one thing to be the keeper of the faith at Leonetti and to continue to produce collectible wines of grace and power, wines that are revered throughout the nation. It’s another thing to have that same entrepreneurial spirit that drove your parents and want to put your mark on the family business.
Adding an Italian twist to Leonetti
Since the 1990s, Leonetti has produced a Sangiovese – and it’s the one nod to the family’s heritage. Chris Figgins decided to change that by exploring the other wines of Southern Italy.
About a decade ago, the Figgins family teamed up with Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 and Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge Winery to expand upon their estate Seven Hills Vineyard near Milton-Freewater, Ore., in the southern Walla Walla Valley. The project became known as SeVein, and each of the partners planted new vineyards there.
Figgins named his new vineyard Serra Pedace – that town where Great-Grandpa Leonetti started life.
The vineyard has paid off, as some young Cabernet Sauvignon from Serra Pedace has shown so well, it has made the cut for Leonetti’s Reserve – the winery’s most expensive and collectible wine.
“It’s a pretty amazing spot,” Figgins said of SeVein. “The Cabernet off this site is the best young-vine fruit I’ve ever seen.”
He planted Serra Pedace in 2010, and alongside some of those standard Leonetti varieties – primarily Bordeaux grapes – Figgins also decided to plant some Italian grapes, including Aglianico, Sagrantino, Nero d’Avola and Montepulciano.
Most folks haven’t heard of these grapes, and Figgins would like to help change that a little.
“Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, you saw more Cab and Syrah being planted in Italy,” he said. “There is a need to preserve some of these heritage varieties. My generation is the first to grow up on Starbucks and microbrews. We don’t want to have a few choices. We want to have a lot of choices.”
Of the wines Figgins makes, the one he drinks the most at home is his Sangiovese.
“It’s versatile and food-friendly,” he said. “I love its rusticity. I love that you can have that core of fruit and leanness, firmness and freshness.”
First up: Aglianico
The first wine Figgins has made from these heritage Italian grapes is Aglianico. He previewed it last May at his annual open house, even though the wine was far from being ready to release.
He describes Aglianico as the world’s oldest documented grape variety. Pliny the Elder wrote about the grape before he died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption. It turns out Aglianico probably has Greek origins.
Figgins’ first commercial vintage of Aglianico will be from the 2013 vintage. He is aging the wine in clay vessels and plans to bottle it soon. It’s a big wine, full of acidity and tannins – with a wild, rustic streak of red and dark fruit running through it.
Because nobody has made these wines in the New World, it’s difficult for Figgins to understand what directions to go with his winemaking. His 2014 version shows a little more restraint as he dials in the style he’s aiming for.
Aglianico is a later-ripening grape, and that’s something Figgins is keeping in mind.
“With global warming, we’re seeing earlier harvests more often than not, so I’m starting to explore some varieties that ripen later,” he said. “I think it’s only prudent. We think generationally in our company. What if it’s too warm to grow Merlot here some day?”
Figgins will soon be bottling his Aglianico, then he’ll need to decide to release it to his customer list next May or possibly 2018.
He expects it to remain little more than a personal project.
“I don’t necessarily want to be this New World champion of Aglianico and make 5,000 cases of it,” he said with a laugh. “But a few hundred cases of it, expose my mailing list customers and Italian restaurants,” that would be OK, he figures.
“It keeps me energized as a winemaker,” he said. “It keeps consumers energized, as well.”
Changing face of Leonetti
Figgins has so far been unafraid of trying new projects.
In addition to Serra Pedace, he has planted his Figgins Estate Vineyard east of downtown Walla Walla. From that, he makes a single-vineyard blend called Figgins. In one corner of the vineyard, he planted a little Riesling – which he released this summer to his mailing list.
A couple of years ago, he became fascinated with Pinot Noir and launched Toil Oregon, a Pinot Noir brand. This spring, he bought land in the Chehalem Mountains near Newberg and established an estate vineyard.
“I want to try new things that are exciting and challenging,” he said. “What gives me more joy than anything is planting a new vineyard site and figuring out the varieties and all the decisions that go into that. Then years later, tasting that wine is exciting.”
He also started Lostine Cattle Co., raising grass-fed Scottish Highland cattle in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley.