Experience the History of Washington Winemaking

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Walla Walla Vitners
Walla Walla Vitners

Two of the oldest wineries in the state, Walla Walla Vintners and Leonetti Cellars, tell the story of the history of Washington winemaking. Each has taken a very different path over the past 30 years. Gordy Venneri and Myles Anderson of Walla Walla Vintners started making wine as hobbyists in 1981. They joke that they couldn’t even give away their first bottle of wine! Now more than three decades later, they are still two unassuming old friends creating high quality wines at value prices. Their modest tasting room — inside their signature cedar barn with red roof depicted on all their labels — has concrete floors. The barn, set in the valley surrounded by beautiful vineyards, enjoys the shadows of Blue Mountain in the distance. Their commitment to the community and the next generation of winemakers inspired them to create the Institute of Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College, an important training ground for new winemakers.

Walla Walla Vintners Washington State Cuvee has always held a place on Coho’s list and will be joined by their 2011 Columbia Valley Cabernet Franc, a blend of 13% Merlot and 2% Carmenére. This lush and perfectly balanced wine has notes of sweet dark cherries ending with a rich buttery finish.

After a hard day of tasting, we went to dinner and enjoyed Walla Walla Vintner’s 2011 Sangiovese. We don’t always have the opportunity to try every wine on our list with a meal. Their Sangiovese was a perfect complement to pasta Bolognese and a richly braised lamb shank. As we scanned the restaurant, three other tables were also enjoying Walla Walla Vintner wines — their signature red-roofed barn label could be seen throughout the dining room. Over the years, Gordy and Miles have created a convivial community of customers who are now part of their large extended family.

Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellars, another pioneer Washington winemaker, rose from humble immigrant roots in Calabria, Italy. He and his wife, Nancy, founded the family winery in 1977. Their son, Chris, has taken over the reins of winery operations. He has become quite the force in Walla Walla as the winemaker for three powerhouse labels – Leonetti, Doubleback, and his own Figgins Family Estate. After having the pleasure of tasting through each of these labels, we could definitely taste Figgins’ deft hand, but to his credit, each label maintained its distinct brand and trademark characteristics.Af4Uzb1LNASb96mrWR1BFgGt402j82f5aLTMHwol524

“I grew up with wine in my blood. Some of my earliest memories surround family, wine and being with my dad in the cellar. I hope to pass that imbued knowledge on to my own children and grandchildren,” said Figgins.

His family’s wines are so sought after that there is a 3-4 year wait list. Despite their success, the Figgins have chosen to keep production small and focused on quality. Amy, Chris’s sister, manages the winery and graciously offered to meet with us. We had the pleasure of touring the winery and cellar operations and tasting through their lineup of wines, even though they were currently sold out. They maintain a certain allocation of wines for their library.

The Leonetti Estate and Vineyards is quite an impressive compound, with state-of-the art cellaring and production facilities. The family pays homage to their humble roots. Gary and Nancy still live on the compound in the historic home where Chris and Amy grew up. Their house, located in the core of the complex next to the tasting room and cellar operations, is surrounded by beautiful vineyards that Gary and Nancy planted. The family welcomes wine club members to the property twice a year during spring and fall release. The desanctified family chapel, where we enjoyed our tasting, is a warm cozy space with exposed wood wrapped beams and a beautiful wood tasting bar.

We are happy to report that it only took a bit of groveling for Coho to score an allocation of Leonetti’s 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. It will be available on our list next month. This wine is recommended for cellaring and can be enjoyed through 2035. I can’t promise that we will have any left by then!

Doubleback, Figgins’ second project, is a collaboration with Drew Bledsoe, former quarterback for the New England Patriots. Chris and Drew grew up a stone’s throw from each other in Walla Walla. After high school, they went their different ways. They reconnected in 2007 when Drew wanted to enter the wine business. Chris was at the top of Drew’s list for a consulting winemaker, although he was unsure of Chris’s interest outside of Leonetti Cellars. Serendipitously, Chris had just started his own consulting business. Chris’s hand was involved with all aspects of Drew’s venture, from planting the estate vineyard to the collaboration of the wine you taste in the bottle.

During our visit, we tasted their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and barrel-tasted the 2012 Merlot and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. Currently, Coho has the 2009 Doubleback Cabernet on our list. The ’09 has red ripe fruit that is nicely balanced with crisp acidity, with notes of dried fruits and berries and hints of saddle leather. Ensure ample time to allow the wine to breathe prior to enjoying.

DQrZeTtOoxwAdLDh3imvJ_-K1VXm1vgpjevn1ItpCv0Lastly, we visited his newest venture, Figgins Family Estate. Down the road a few miles from the family’s sprawling estate, tucked in the back of an industrial park, this modest and efficient winemaking facility and tasting room is his incubator. As his estate vineyards mature, we have much to look forward to. The 2010 Estate Red is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Vedot and has intoxicating aromas of cinnamon, dried violets and blueberries with a chalky minerality. This wine has great aging potential with a balance of structure and acidity.

We also barrel-tasted his 2011 Pinot Noir from Toil, Oregon, which will be released this spring. Most winemakers from Oregon’s Willamette Valley seek warm-climate fruit. Figgins is not like most winemakers, and is probably the first eastern Washington winemaker to seek Oregon’s difficult pinot noir grape.

“I remember, oh, about 15 years ago or so, visiting the Willamette Valley,” he recalled. “My dad and I went through there and I was smitten by the beauty…it was different from Walla Walla; the countryside was remarkable and as we drank the wines I just sort of fell in love (with) the area and pinot in general. I would argue that Oregon pinot noirs are closer in character to old world Burgundy than Walla Walla Bordeaux wines are to Bordeaux, and something about that is really appealing to me. Oregon wines are elegant with more red and blue fruits. I feel like Oregon is doing the best pinots in the country.”

This description personifies Chris’s style. His wine is defined first and foremost by a deep sense of place and connection to the land. His estate vineyards are young, but he wants to elevate “the site” through wine. He knows fine wine comes from high quality fruit. His style is pure and non-manipulative, allowing the fruit to tell the story. As a second-generation winemaker in Washington, Chris is continuing to write its history. We are lucky to be part of his journey and look forward to tasting the fruits of his labor as his latest project matures and unfolds.

By Libby Baldwin


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