Making History: 21 Vintages of Leonetti’s Red Wine Reserve


“Iconic” is the word that comes to mind when I consider the impact the Leonetti family and their wines have made on Washington State. Today, many names can be associated with the region's upper echelon of fine wine, but only one remains in that sub-group that has been there since the beginning. The Leonetti wines not only produced the spark necessary to bring attention to Washington State Bordeaux blends, but they also continue to be a guiding force in the region by setting the bar high. Leonetti remains family-owned and operated, aiming to honor the past while looking fearlessly toward the future. 

A twenty-one vintage vertical of Leonetti Reserve.

A Bit of History

The Leonetti family has deep roots in Walla Walla going back to 1902 when Francesco Leonetti immigrated from Serra Pedace, Calabria, Italy. Together with his wife, Rosalina, Francesco Leonetti purchased the family farm in 1906, focusing on a broad range of agriculture, but like many Italian immigrants, making wine for their family's consumption. Francesco or “Frank” Leonetti inspired his grandson, who was transfixed by the bubbling fermentations, sounds and smells of his grandfather’s winemaking hobby. That grandson, Gary Figgins, the founder of today’s Leonetti Cellar, joined the military service and, while stationed in California, made regular weekend trips to wine country where he caught the wine bug. By trade, Figgins was a machinist, but it wasn’t long before winemaking became his passion. By 1973, he was making wine in his basement with purchased fruit, and by 1974 through 1977, he began to plant his first vineyards around the family homestead. Of those plantings, the 1977 block of Merlot still exists outside of the modern-day winery. This block is regarded as Walla Walla’s oldest vineyard. 

Gary and his wife, Nancy Figgins, continued to work by day and began to raise a family, all while making wine and fine-tuning their brand until 1977, when Leonetti became Walla Walla’s first bonded winery, and then 1978 when they released their first commercial vintage. Chris Figgins, the current owner and winemaker, explained, “Mom and Dad struggled to make ends meet. Mom would make cold calls to doctors to make sales since doctors were known to buy wine or place a sign on the road that would read, ‘Winery Open House’. Things moved slowly for them.”

As slow as Chris Figgins recalls, in hindsight, recognition came relatively quickly when, in 1981, Gary Figgins submitted his 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon to Wine & Spirits Magazine only to have it finish first place in the tastings and achieve a spot on the front cover, touted as Top United States Cabernet Sauvignon. Figgins added, “They only produced about 170 cases and would sell it at $12 per bottle, which was pretty aggressive at the time. After the article, with just two cases left, they sold the bottles at $50 a piece, and our family took a road trip to Disneyland.” 

Chris Figgins is in his element.

The recognition that was shone upon the region motivated a wave of new wineries and plantings throughout Walla Walla, but also Washington State, and was followed by more attention as the likes of Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate continued to lump praise upon Leonetti. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that Gary Figgins felt secure enough to leave his day job and make winemaking his full-time profession. “My Mom’s efforts often get overlooked, but she was the glue that held the family together. In the end, their biggest hope was to make a living and get the kids through college,” stated Chris Figgins. 

In college in the nineties, Chris Figgins found his love of wine, having begun with a focus on engineering. He recalls the phone call to his parents to explain his intention to join the family business and that his father seemed unimpressed but was later told by his mother that he began to cry after the call. He shared, “You know, my dad doesn’t cry. I think it was their hope all along, but they never wanted to push me into coming to the business.” And so, Chris Figgins began to study viticulture and integrate himself into the winery's day-to-day operations.  

One of the first projects the family embarked on was a push toward higher-elevation plantings and a desire to have all-estate vineyards. This was a faithful endeavor, as frost in 1996 ravaged vineyards throughout the region. Their goal was to avoid frost damage in the future, yet today, their high-elevation sights have protected them from global warming. The first of these was the Upland vineyard, planted in 1997 in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, along with the expansion of the Seven Hills Vineyards. In the early 2000s, the Loess Vineyard was added near the winery, and in 2010, the Serra Pedace Vineyard was planted above Seven Hills Vineyard. By 2003, the winery production was from all 100% estate-grown fruit and all within the Walla Walla AVA.

The Leonetti barrel aging cellar.

The Modern-Day Leonetti

When the opportunity arose to spend some time with the current owner and Director of Winemaking, Chris Figgins (his father, Gary Figgins, is now happily retired), my request was to taste through a vertical that would showcase the modern-day wines, how they can mature and the changes that were made over time. The bottling I chose was the Red Wine Reserve, a wine that has been produced in every vintage since 2000 and is intended in each vintage to showcase the best of any given year. The Red Wine Reserve was first made in 1985, labeled the Seven Hills Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon because of the exceptional fruit that year. This occurred again in 1987 and 1989, but Leonetti decided to halt production through the 1990s. The return of the Red Wine Reserve marked an evolutionary turning point for Leonetti because it was also at this time that Chris Figgins took a leading role in the winemaking process and began to fine-tune the work in the vineyards and cellar. Cabernet was removed from the label, as the family decided that this would now be a wine representing the best fruit and vineyards, which would change from year to year.

Upon assuming the role of winemaker, Chris Figgins reduced dependence on new oak, one of the first significant changes. “Being all-estate vineyards, I wanted to show off the quality of our vineyards and how carefully we farm. In the 1980s and 1990s, Leonetti was a style-driven winery, not a vineyard-driven winery. I wanted to show the terroir of Walla Walla Valley, and dialing back the oak was important,” Figgins explained. This was an important shift of direction for Leonetti, as they began to follow a Bordeaux-inspired practice of creating wines of longevity and refinement. Figgins added, “Dad would use all new oak, but 30 to 40% of new American oak. It can be very interesting aromatically if there are small amounts in the blend, but it will otherwise overpower the wine. He also pressed fairly early and with a lot of sugar. We still don’t press completely dry, but much later than Dad. The original wines were very showy in their youth. More hedonistic.” New oak represents about 70% of the mix today, and Leonetti focuses more on barrels that add texture instead of aromas and flavors. 

These adjustments were paramount in creating the Red Wine Reserve and the portfolio we know today. As for the Red Wine Reserve, Figgins's top expression of each vintage is built through a selection in the vineyards and the cellar, using all of Leonetti’s parcels, which are vinified separately. This means location and the varietal makeup of each vintage. The blend in the early 2000s relied heavily on a classic mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Cabernet Franc was quickly removed from this combination, and then in 2006, Malbec was added. Figgins commented, “I love Malbec. It has a laser-like focus and softens Cabernet differently than Merlot. Merlot is about fat on the mid-palate, while Malbec is more about juiciness. It’s a completely different creature.” The addition of Malbec peaked in 2015 at 29%, but as stated before, all the varieties are chosen for their merit from vintage to vintage, with some years, like 2017, where Petit Verdot was featured at 32% of the blend. 

Gary Figgins, founder of Leonetti and inspiration to Walla Walla winemakers.

Twenty-one Vintages of Red Wine Reserve

The 21-vintage vertical was an eye-opening experience, as I’ve always known how well these wines can age, but I didn’t realize how balanced they would show through long and open drinking windows. Moreover, while the varietal composition and small changes in winemaking occur from year to year, the process is very similar from 2004 through 2020. Only from 2000 through 2003 was any American oak used to refine the wines. From 2004 on, it’s a combination of French barrique, neutral puncheons and large oak casks, where the wine matures for 22 months. Case productions were at their highest from 2007 through 2015, and it was also in 2015 that the winery changed out its entire barrel inventory to remove a growing problem with brett that can be sensed mostly in the 2013 vintage. The Red Wine Reserve production has been lower since 2016, around 900 cases, partly due to Leonetti’s new single-vineyard lineup, but that’s a story for another time.  

There are times that I feel fortunate to do the work that I do. Tasting through this lineup was one of them. In nearly all cases, these wines surpassed my expectations. Each was opened just before my arrival and was tasted over two hours. I can also guarantee that nearly all of them would have only improved if there had been more time to sit with them. The wines show best after ten to fifteen years, as it was only when arriving at the 2008 and 2009 vintages that they began to show any signs of maturity. As for the older vintages, 2006, 2005, 2004, and 2001 were spellbinding and in a perfect place. While from the more recent years, many of which were stunning, the 2010 and 2018 were off the charts. Anyone lucky enough to have these in their cellar will smile from ear to ear over the coming decades.

I tasted the wines in this article at the Leonetti estate in Walla Walla, Washington in May 2023.

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