Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Once Upon A Time: Leonetti Cellar

It's exciting to, not only taste the wines of some of the new "Rising Star" wineries in Washington State and especially in Walla Walla, but it's just important to continue to enjoy the "Shining Stars," as well.

Leonetti Cellar is one of those shining stars of Washington State and especially of Walla Walla. It is known as the winery that "started it all" - meaning it was one of the earliest wineries producing limited wines that lovers and critics started to take notice of in the Walla Walla Valley. Something tells me that Gary Figgins, winemaker and creator of Leonetti, just didn't wake up one day and say, "I am going to become a 'cult' winemaker." It was probably the furthest thing from his mind.

Once upon a time ...

It started when Gary was a young father and in the army reserves. While in the reserves, he made treks to Northern California, and side trips to the wine country. But most of all, he was influenced by his maternal-grandparents who settled in the Walla Walla valley from Italy in 1905. As many European families did, they brought their wine making craft to America.

In the mid-70's, Gary would start home wine making and used a variety of local fruit. Other friends joined Gary's enthusiasm for home wine making, Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Cliff Kontos of Fort Walla Walla Cellars. No doubt, at the time Rick and Cliff ever imagined they would also become significant winemakers in the valley.

In 1974 the family of Leonetti planted their first estate vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling and in 1978, Leonetti released their first wines and currently becoming the first winery in the valley. And as the story goes - - the rest is history.

Leonetti woke the sleepy giant of Walla Walla's agriculture who had relied on wheat and peas for so many generations, as well as small crops of asparagus and the famous Walla Walla Sweet Onions. As our nation started looking at our food differently, concentrating on more fresh and local, our canneries and frozen food processors started to pull out of Walla Walla leaving behind empty lots and buildings and unfortunately taking away seasonal employment that many in our community relied on.

In 1995, Leonetti was one of six wineries in the valley - - and in 5-7 years time, the Walla Walla Valley industry grew - - and grew! As Leonetti took lead, other wineries came along and opened their doors and more vineyards were planted. Walla Walla finally had an alternative crop and a new flourishing industry that brought new life to our downtown and most important revenue and jobs to our city and county.

Today, more than 100 wineries and over 2,000 acres of vineyards later, the wines of the Walla Walla Valley, and especially Leonetti Cellar, continue to receive national and international acclaim. A very happy ending.

Leonetti Cellar Wines currently available: 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 Merlot, and 2008 Reserve (Bordeaux-style red blend).

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