Some years ago, sitting in a classically rustic, slightly dank, thoroughly charming cellar in the bowels of a winery in the French hilltop town of Sancerre, I sipped...
SOME YEARS AGO, sitting in a classically rustic, slightly dank, thoroughly charming cellar in the bowels of a winery in the French hilltop town of Sancerre, I sipped the stony sauvignon blanc with Alphonse Mellot. Mellot, whose family winemaking history dates back to 1513, spoke passionately about the responsibilities of being the 17th generation in an unbroken line.
Some combination of wine and time has misplaced those notes, but more recently I visited Mellot’s Web site and found him as thoughtful as ever. He writes: “Every gesture accomplished by the wine grower can be compared to that of a clockmaker, delicate and precise. He is aware that any mistake can harm irremediably the sensitive balance . . . that is so difficult to create in a wine. Beware of too hasty a racking! If the blend is not perfect!! If the barrel is not filled to the right level!!! It is also our duty to maintain and pass on these 500 years of wine growers’ memory. A family obligation to quality — with no room for compromises.”
If any young winemaker in Washington can understand and feel the force of those words, it is Chris Figgins, son of Gary and Nancy Figgins, the founders of Walla Walla’s iconic Leonetti Cellar. Chris, who is just 33, married to his high-school sweetheart and the father of two active young girls, has methodically been moving Leonetti in a new direction, with a focus on creating a dynasty.
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Working with his parents, he first began following through on their dream of developing estate vineyards. Now, as those vineyards come into full production, he has gently pushed the wines away from the broad, oaky, luscious style that built Leonetti’s reputation, and into a more polished, elegant mode.
As we shared a bottle of Leonetti’s 2004 Walla Walla Valley Reserve, Gary Figgins acknowledged, with considerable pride, the ongoing changes. “This is holding the torch for Walla Walla wine right here,” he said, waving his glass of wine. “Because Chris is so darn capable and competent, he took right to it and started making some of his own decisions. He’d run it by me, and he was really progressive. That’s what every man wants from a son coming up in the family business. He is a challenge, like all opinionated, headstrong sons. He makes me better and more astute and more on my toes, no doubt.”
Chris Figgins emphasizes that the big picture now being planned and carried out has expanded well past his own tenure, or even that of his children. “The whole purpose,” he explains, “is to make sure that Leonetti passes not just from generation one to generation two, but to make sure that going forward — if there is a generation with no kids or no talent set — that there is a mechanism in place to carry on. The perfect example is Antinori: 26 generations! We want to think that long. The rough concept we’re working on is Figgins Family Wine Estates. There’s more than just Leonetti.”
For now, from my reviewer’s perspective, the original winery seems to have found solid 21st-century footing with its most current releases, 2004 and 2005. Bringing in fruit from young vines meant that for a few vintages Leonetti wines seemed lighter, less substantial than previously. Because the fruit sources were changing, the use of new oak was reduced. No matter how thoughtful and careful the adjustments, the fact was that a tried-and-true — and hugely successful — formula was being upended.
“As we matured and invested in our own vineyards,” notes Gary, “at the same time the industry was maturing. Crop levels started coming down. Along with that came green harvesting, leaf stripping, new trellis systems . . . so now we’re getting higher density, more extract, compact flavors, all the goodies of fully mature fruit. We were actually lucky in the past to produce the wines that we did. Now there’s some real intellect to what we do in the vineyard and in processing that fruit in the winery.”
“I think if you look at all the great wine regions and estates,” says Chris, “they have that vineyard focus. That is one of the ways that you transcend generations. It becomes more about the land, the vineyard, the brand. We are the steward.”
If I could put Alphonse Mellot in the same room with the Figgins family, I’m sure he’d be nodding in agreement. “Wine is our life,” Gary says, thoughtfully sipping the last of the Reserve. “We live it and breathe it. It’s not just a business; it’s how we define ourselves, how we assign self-worth. It’s family values, and it’s ethical values, it’s honest, hard work, and it’s constant re-investment. You’ve got to inspire those values to the next generation or you’re going to lose some of them.”
Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at email@example.com. Matthew B. Zimmerman does freelance photography and is a staff photographer for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.