In 1978, Gary Figgins’s Leonetti Cellar produces the first successful premium wines in the Walla Walla Valley. Figgins’s grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, were Italian immigrants who had cultivated a vineyard and made their own wine in the Walla Walla Valley. With the help of his uncles, Figgins had planted an acre of vinifera grapes in 1974 on a hillside behind the original Leonetti homestead. Three years later, he had bonded a winery, Leonetti Cellar. Within 30 years of the establishment of Leonetti Cellar, the Walla Walla Valley, with more than 80 wineries and over 1,200 vineyard acres, will emerge as a leading producer of premium wines.
Wine in Walla Walla: Early History
When she reached Fort Vancouver in 1836, Walla Walla Valley-bound missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) observed the presence of grapevines and wine at the fort. (No tasting notes are extant, since the Whitmans were teetotalers.) It is possible that grapevines were planted around that time in Walla Walla Valley as well, by French Canadian fur traders who had settled in the area that came to be known as “Frenchtown.” It is known that a number of early settlers in the valley in the late 1850s and early 1860s planted different varieties of European grapes that they had obtained from the Willamette Valley and France. Italian immigrants were also planting vineyards and making wine during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
By the 1870s, commercial winemaking was being explored. Walla Walla may very well have been where “Washington’s early wine industry ... got its start” (Irvine and Clore, 63). But Walla Walla’s isolation, after it was bypassed by the transcontinental railroad, and a harsh winter in 1883 seem to have brought an abrupt end to the region’s early wine industry.
Wine in Walla Walla: Modern History
By the early 1970s, vineyards of concord grapes, for juice, had been planted in the Walla Walla Valley and some commercial attempts to plant vinifera grapes and produce wine had been made as well. But the first winery to draw attention to the possibility of a modern wine industry in Walla Walla was Leonetti Cellar, which was bonded by Gary Figgins in 1977 and produced its first wines in 1978. Figgins traces his interest in wine back to his grandparents, Frank and Rose Leonetti, Italian immigrants who had their own vineyard and made their own wine. With the help of his uncles, Figgins planted an acre of cabernet sauvignon grapes and some white riesling grapes in 1974 on a hillside behind the original Leonetti homestead. One reviewer claimed that Leonetti’s 1978 cabernet sauvignon was the best in the country.
Other pioneer winemakers in the valley included Rick Small, who founded Woodward Canyon in 1981, and Baker and Jean Ferguson, who founded L’Ecole N° 41 in 1983. In the 1980s, these wineries’ cabernet sauvignons and merlots received impressive accolades. In 1984, with only four wineries and some 60 acres of vineyards, the Walla Walla Valley became a unique American Viticultural Area (AVA). Although nearly all Walla Walla wines were made initially with grapes from the Columbia Valley, substantial plantings were started in 1981, by Seven Hills, and in 1991, by Pepper Bridge. Outside interest and investors were soon drawn to the area, and the number of wineries and vineyards quickly grew. By 2007, there were more than 80 wineries and more than 1,200 vineyard acres in the Walla Walla AVA. Wine writer Paul Gregutt claims that “the region that best embodies the spirit and style of [Washington] state’s wine industry is Walla Walla” (Gregutt, 24).