IT COULD BE ARGUED that Chris Figgins is Washington’s most celebrated winemaker.
The president and head winemaker for Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla is responsible for some of Washington’s most collectible and most famous wines. He inherited a great obligation when he took the reins from his father, Gary, who created Leonetti before Walla Walla had a wine industry. Gary is responsible for crafting some of Washington’s most important wines and helping build Washington’s wine reputation.
When a cork gets pulled on a bottle of Leonetti, you get a bit more excited. When you are at a charity auction and Leonetti comes up for sale, your pulse quickens just a hair in anticipation of possessing a bottle.
With that kind of accountability, it might be easy to coast along, making the wine, maybe pumping up production a bit, maybe tweaking vineyard sources here and there, always striving to improve, always building on the previous vintage.
One thing to know about Chris Figgins: He’s never satisfied. He’s always exploring new vineyards and new winemaking projects. No resting, always toiling ahead.
His latest project takes him in a new direction: Oregon pinot noir.
This is curious. Considered one of the great wine grapes of the world, pinot noir is often thought of as the heartbreak grape. At its best, its aromas and flavors can haunt winemakers, a siren call that can send them crashing into rocks, obsessively chasing perfection.
Figgins began visiting the Willamette Valley in the 1980s. Apparently, the grape got its talons into him. When he started selling Walla Walla Valley fruit to Oregon winemakers, he decided to have the truck return with grapes on board. He made a couple of vintages, first in 2010, just to test the waters. His debut vintage of Toil Oregon was 2011, with the wines made in Walla Walla.
He’s now purchased land in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, where he is in the process of planting 22 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay. Plans are to build a winery on the property.