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Wednesday, March 29, 2006 - Page updated at 06:34 AM


Wine Adviser

The Leonetti legacy: change with respect

Special to the Seattle Times

When I first visited Walla Walla in 1986, I was on assignment probing the far reaches of the known wine world for a magazine.

My editors were dubious until I mentioned that I would be visiting Leonetti Cellar to taste wine with Gary Figgins. Even in those primordial days, the name Leonetti brought with it a lot of prestige. Figgins was still working at Continental Can, still making his 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 1974. Success had come quickly — his first commercial wine, a 1978 cabernet sauvignon, was named the best cab in the country by the Winestate Wine Buying Guide. Yet Figgins remained 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 was the first modern-day winery established in Walla Walla; but a decade later there were still only a half-dozen. And though Walla Walla had been officially designated as an AVA (in 1984), there were few grapes to be found in the area apart from the Seven Hills vineyard, which was actually in Oregon.

Figgins had to scout far and wide to find good sources for his merlots and cabernets. Yet he quickly established his winemaking style, a sensual blend of rich fruit and gorgeous barrel flavors that is still being emulated up and down the West Coast. He was also one of the first in the state to blend cabernet franc and petit verdot into his wines.

When he finally retired from his machinist's job in the summer of 1989, he told me, "The knot in my stomach's gone. I've been making wine with a handicap for years. Now I've got a new lease — you haven't seen anything yet."

Time has proved him right. With Leonetti now entering its 29th commercial vintage, the decades of struggle and scraping by seem almost to have vanished. The Leonetti estate has grown, parcel by parcel, to include 28 acres of vineyard (the Loess Vineyard), several homes, a spectacular Tuscan-style winery with underground barrel caves and even a dedicated Tea Shed (the original winery building, now used to brew special compost for the vines). Production has climbed past 6,000 cases — roughly half merlot and the bulk of the other half cabernet sauvignon. In the best years, a small amount of a Walla Walla Valley Reserve wine is produced. Perhaps the best-kept secret is the (very) limited sangiovese, the least expensive (at $50) of the wines and, unfortunately, the rarest.

Leonetti wines have been remarkably consistent. The only new addition to the original lineup is the sangiovese, and the tight focus on just three or four releases annually only serves to heighten consumers' anticipation. The wines are introduced in March and doled out to mailing-list customers, restaurants and a few retail outlets. Highly allocated, but not impossible to find. (You almost always can find Leonetti offered at charity auctions, large and small, throughout the state).

Pick of the week

Little Penguin 2004 Pinot Noir; $7 in 750 ($11 magnum) Hey look! It's "March of the Penguins" meets "Sideways." You get it all with this one — cuddly penguin, boffo wine, great price. But seriously, if you, like many consumers, have recently discovered the pleasures of pinot noir, this is a real find. It's the soft, fruity, slightly sweet style of pinot, not its evil twin the hard, tannic, austere pinot. Nor is it dark purple, jammy and zin-like. Just a pleasant, drink-now, strawberry/cherry flavored delight, with nice hints of chocolate shavings. The big bottle is the best deal. (Noble)

No great winery stands still. Recently, I've noticed subtle changes in Leonetti releases, becoming more pronounced with each passing year. The newer wines seem more fruit-driven, more classically-styled. The oak is more laid-back than laid on, and the wines seem less buttery and fat than before, perhaps better suited for aging. I knew that Chris Figgins, who now shares the winemaking with his father, was instrumental in developing the winery's growing vineyard holdings, which include Loess, Mill Creek Upland, part of Seven Hills and the 55-acre C.S. Figgins estate.

As we tasted through this month's new releases, Chris Figgins shared his vision for the winery's ongoing evolution. "We try to think long-term," he began. "One thing you'll notice across our wines — we're going towards being entirely estate-grown, and all of that pushes me philosophically towards showing off our vineyards. The crux of the matter is, I'm going for less oak and better integration of that oak."

He went on to describe a "slow evolution" in his and his father's thinking about where and how to institute changes. The development of estate vineyards has been Gary's goal from the beginning, and Chris has a degree and a particular interest in soil science. So it is entirely natural and laudable that he would want to focus on that aspect for the winery. He believes, and I would agree, that the most significant future improvements in Washington winemaking will be centered in the vineyard.

"In terms of the winemaking, we're very much a team," he assured me, "with Dad standing back and making sure I don't screw things up. There was never a conscious decision to cut back on oak; I like where we're at now. I want to show off our vineyards; we spend so much time in them. I want to make terroir-driven wines. Let's have hints of vanilla as a background spice and let the fruit shine through."

It's a bit startling to realize that Leonetti is a winery in transition. But change is inevitable, essential and even desirable when it is handled this well. The new Leonetti wines respect the winery's rich legacy, and point to an even brighter future.

Leonetti Cellar 2004 Sangiovese; $50. Beautifully crafted, aromatic and high-toned, with plummy, pretty cherry fruit. It's lightly spiced and shows a bit of chocolate as it breathes open.

Leonetti Cellar 2004 Merlot; $60. There was no Pepper Bridge or Seven Hills merlot in the mix in 2004, but this is as good as any other Leonetti merlot, which is to say as good as it gets. Soft, lush and beautifully aromatic.

Leonetti Cellar 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; $70. Here are the more classic bourbon barrel/vanilla flavors, but with big fruit — layers of berries, currants and blueberries — showing through, bright and polished. Crisp, tight, polished and silky.

Leonetti Cellar 2003 Reserve; $100. More tannic and dense than the cabernet, this estate-grown blend shows hints of mushroom, jasmine, blueberries, raspberries and dark chocolate. A subtle, deeply scented, sensuous wine.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at

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