Gary Figgins has compiled a long list of firsts during his long, successful career: He and his wife, Nancy, founded the first winery in Walla Walla back in 1977. He was the first Washington winemaker to make a huge splash with Cabernet Sauvignon, when his 1978 estate release was named top Cab in the nation by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Leonetti Cellar was the first cult winery in the state as the demand for his elegant wines exploded almost from the start.
But here’s a first not many know: As a home winemaker, Figgins made lots of fruit wines, including a batch of banana wine. “Yeah, it wasn’t so good,” he said. “But we were cutting our teeth, learning and we made wine out of all sorts of fruit – choke cherries, apricots, blueberries.”
Figgins’ iconic status is unlikely to slip with this revelation. In fact, it will probably come as no surprise to his ardent fans, who celebrate the self-taught winemaker’s pluck and determination.
“In those early days, Nancy and I put in a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat equity, into getting the winery going,” Figgins said. “For a long time, there was just one guy doing everything.”
His passion for wine ignited in the early 1970s when he was at Army Reserves training at Ford Ord, California, along with Woodward Canyon’s Rick Small. “We’d play guitars together and drink wine. At that time, you could drink some good Bordeaux and Burgundies for not a lot of money.”
At that time, the California wine movement was really heating up.
“It was Heitz Cab that really got us excited,” Figgins said of the venerable Napa Valley producer. “The ’68, ’69 and ’70 really knocked it out of the park. Those wines were very influential. That really planted the seed. It wasn’t long before we started our homemaking projects.”
In 1981, Figgins was working as a machinist for Continental Can Company when he got the word about his first commercial Cabernet coming out on top in a field crowded with competition from California.
“My boss called me to the phone, saying, ‘Your wife is on the line,’ ” he remembered. “It was a very big deal. It really launched us. Everybody needs moments like that along the way.”
Still, it was years before Figgins quit his day job.
“We were very frugal,” he said. “When I did quit, I paid myself the same salary I was making at Continental Can, about $30,000, and by the time we paid for grapes and corks and caps, we had about $3,000 in the bank. We were really cutting it close.”
During those startup days, Figgins read everything he could get his hands on about winemaking, especially the use of oak. “The material was out there,” he said. “I was a little surprised not many people were using it.”
He also conceded that some of his approach was intuitive. His style was set from the get-go, aiming for an international style wine, combining old world and new. “It’s always been fruit forward with cosmetic oak. Balanced, not huge and over-extracted,” he said. “These days, we’re a little less lavish with the wood.”
He has kept meticulous records over the years and, at one point, considered writing a book about oak. “Then, a couple of books came out and I decided against it, but I can always go back to it,” Figgins said.
The biggest change over the past decade at Leonetti is the growth of the estate vineyards, and the dramatic improvement of the fruit. “That’s been huge for us,” Figgins said.
Beyond the winery’s estate vineyard, he’s a partner – along with fellow Groundbreaker Norm McKibben – in the vast 2,000 acre Sevein vineyard development project near the famous Seven Hills vineyard (where he also is part-owner). After acquiring the land, the partners dug a free-flowing well and have been selling parcels of the former dryland wheat land to various producers, including JM Cellars and Cadaretta. Leonetti’s first crop will be harvested from that property this year, a haul that will include an obscure, heritage Italian grape, Aglianico.
Figgins also was at the forefront of wine education in Washington state, helping launch the enology program at Walla Walla Community College, and he continues to support the program with annual scholarships.
These days, his son Chris has taken the reins as winemaker and head of operations, a high-profile job he’s been in training for the past 20 years. “He started helping out back in high school, even before that, he’d be out in the vineyard with me, pruning vines,” Figgins said. “It’s always been our dream to have our kids take it over. We couldn’t be happier.” Daughter Amy manages operations of the winery with her brother, Chris.
But Dad’s not exactly ready for retirement. “I’m here a lot, watching over things.” Still, he and Nancy take regular trips to Kauai and they also enjoying spending time at the family cabin in the Blue Mountains. “It’s Shangri-la up there,” Figgins said.
And in his spare time, the science-obsessed winemaker who helped put Washington state on the wine world’s radar is learning about quantum mechanics and particle physics. “It keeps your brain engaged,” Figgins said.