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Sunday, Jun. 15, 2008

Leonetti Cellar: Celebrating 30 years of winemaking in Walla Walla

Who would have thought that a machinist at Continental Can Co. in Walla Walla, Wash., would launch a winery that not only would help define a statewide industry but also ultimately transform a town best known for wheat farming and a state penitentiary?

Certainly not Gary Figgins, founder of Leonetti Cellar, which crushed its 30th vintage last fall. His first tastes of wine came as a child when his maternal grandfather gave him watered-down reds made in the basement.

"Grandpa made wine for home use, about five barrels per year," Figgins said.

Figgins continued the family tradition, making wine at home beginning in 1970, then launching Leonetti Cellar with the 1978 vintage.

In 1982, Figgins entered his first wine, the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Tri-Cities Wine Festival and won a gold medal. Soon, Wine & Spirits magazine got wind and requested samples, as it put on a competition that tried to determine the best wines in the nation.

"That wine took the best Cabernet in the nation," Figgins said. "We knew it was a good wine, but we had no idea. That pretty much launched us."

The award landed Leonetti on the cover of the magazine, and the phone started ringing - and it really hasn't stopped since. Even Julia Child wrote a letter, stating how amazed she was that a wine from Washington could be that good.

When that '78 Cab was released, Figgins and his wife, Nancy, started a list of customers, primarily of doctors and lawyers in Walla Walla who they thought would buy their wines. After the Wine & Spirits article came out, the list grew quickly. Today, about 2,400 people are on "The List," with another 800 to 900 on the waiting list.

Through the years, Figgins made Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Gew├╝rztraminer, Riesling and blends. By 1984, he focused entirely on reds. In 1995, he added Sangiovese to the mix, a nod to his Italian heritage. And in 2000, he launched the Reserve, a Bordeaux blend that is his most expensive wine.

By 1989, Figgins retired from Continental Can. He and Nancy built a new winery building, borrowing a little money for the roof. The loan was paid off early, and they've never borrowed a dime since, spending only what they could afford. In recent years, they've built a stunning facility with underground caves where barrels of Leonetti wines age.

The success also brought difficulties. Because Leonetti wines became so highly sought after, wine lovers would show up at the Figgins home at all hours, hoping to purchase bottles, taste samples or tour the facilities. This created a bunker mentality for the Figgins family.

"We had to start blocking maneuvers," Figgins said. "We had to keep our sanity, keep people at bay."

Figgins erected literal and figurative walls and gates to keep away the crowds.

"We hoped people would respect that it was our home, that we couldn't let everyone come in."

Putting up the barriers had another effect: It created an aura of exclusivity, making Leonetti wines seem impossible to obtain.

"In some ways, it kept potential business at bay," Figgins said. "People who wanted it would spend time on the waiting list and finally get on. It sorted out those who were serious and those who weren't."

Today, Figgins feels good about the strategy, as Leonetti has a customer base he can count on to buy his wine each year. It also leaves him happier.

"It was stressful in the '80s and '90s," he said. "I am more relaxed these days."

Through the years, Leonetti has a well-earned reputation for making some of the state's finest and most-expensive wines. This year, the Reserve retailed for $125, putting it among the highest-priced wines in the Pacific Northwest. Yet compared with cult wineries in Napa or the First Growths in Bordeaux, Leonetti still is relatively affordable. Half of the wine's production goes to distributors, when Figgins could sell it all to customers on The List. Part of this is a nod to those he's done business with through the past three decades. Part of it is second nature.

"If you're a true entrepreneur, you feel it could all evaporate any minute," Figgins said. "It's always in the back of your mind. We came up the hard way, scraping to get by. We had to do this on a shoestring in the early years, and that sticks with you."

Dramatically raising prices to Napa and Bordeaux levels isn't likely to happen.

"That doesn't create friends," he said. "It's all about giving quality, moving prices up gradually and not thinking you're a cult winery that can charge $375 to $500 per bottle. We have world-class quality and are on top of the heap in pricing in Washington. We're very comfortable with that. I look at the ridiculous prices today in Bordeaux and shake my head."

Figgins also is pleased to see his success spread to others. As wineries opened in the Walla Walla Valley in the '80s and '90s, they realized they could do very well when Leonetti opened to those on The List.

"A lot of Leonetti customers with discretionary income and a fine palate would come to town and buy others' wines, too," Figgins said.

What was known as Leonetti Weekend now is called Spring Release Weekend and is the biggest retail weekend of the year for wineries.

"The bad part is we can't get out to visit our friends because we're so tied up with our deal," Figgins said.

Even during the holiday barrel tasting weekend in early December, Figgins has trouble getting to more than a couple of wineries. Part of this is his reluctant status as a celebrity winemaker, so everybody wants to corner him and chat. That makes him uncomfortable because he doesn't want to take the focus away from the winery he's visiting.

"There's no need to feel like we have a higher status because we happen to spoil perfectly good grape juice a little better than others," he said with a hearty laugh. e

More Info

Leonetti Cellar

- Address: 1875 Foothills Lane, Walla Walla, Wash.

- Web site: leonetticellar.com

- Wines: Leonetti produces four wines, all red: Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese. See Bob Woehler's column on Page 114 for more.

- Hours: Leonetti is not open to the public. The waiting list is five to eight years. To sign up, go to the Web site.

ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.