Viticulturist and winemaker Chris Figgins stands at the edge of a panoramic overlook taking in the neatly planted rows of his newest vineyard like a painter scrutinizing his masterpiece.
“I see a piece of ground as an artist sees a blank canvas,” he explains. “To me that land is telling me how it’s going to get planted.”
For six years Figgins, the CEO and director of winemaking for his family’s Leonetti Cellar, has painstakingly worked this northeastern Walla Walla County land in preparation for a new food and winemaking venture that showcases his passion for sustainability and quality.
The launch of his single-vineyard estate wine, FIGGINS, and a grass-fed cattle operation, Lostine Cattle Co., mark an expansion for the owners of Leonetti, one of Washington’s oldest wineries established in 1977 by Figgins’ parents, Gary and Nancy Figgins, and heralded for setting the gold standard for Walla Walla wine country.
Leonetti and the two newest additions to the operation will be managed by Figgins under a single umbrella company announced Friday and called Figgins Family Wine Estates.
“My dad has always had a saying: ‘Push those ahead of you, pull those behind you,’” Figgins said as he meandered through the rows of vines.
The wisdom has helped spur his son to follow in the footsteps of a wine industry pioneer. It has resulted not only in a transformation for Leonetti to 100 percent estate-grown wines in recent years, but now to a company capable of providing a “whole table” experience with the beef. It’s also helped inspire a habit of looking ahead, which is how in 2004 Figgins began laying the groundwork near Leonetti’s Mill Creek Upland Vineyard for the new brand.
“I started from scratch with this,” he said. “I put two years just into the soil work.”
The first vintage of FIGGINS will be available for direct sale online in fall 2011. The wine will be a red blend of the cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and merlot planted on 32 of the 60 acres at the site. Production that first year is about 900 cases before building up to 3,000 – half the annual production of Leonetti. A winemaking facility has not yet been constructed at the site. A tasting room is not in the works.
Figgins, who cut his teeth in farming picking strawberries at Klickers, cherries in Milton-Freewater, driving a wheat truck and packing onions before he planted his first vineyard as a high school student, is eager to distinguish his new ventures from anything he’s done in the past.
Most visibly, the FIGGINS Estate vineyard is home to eight Scottish Highland cows. The cattle are part of a “lucky” selection from the more than 200 at the Lostine Cattle Co. in Wallowa County and will live at the estate to “mow the lawn,” Figgins quipped.
Beef will be available for sale this fall direct from the Internet at Lostinecattlecompany.com. Though the beef operation is new – and fulfills a lifelong interest for Figgins – the approach to that side of the business parallels the estate-grown wine model, Figgins said.
“You’re harvesting the sun using soil as a medium for a quality product, with biological diversity and no harm,” he said. “The big difference is that a grapevine doesn’t move.”
The sensibilities he’s learned at Leonetti are also helping with his FIGGINS Estate.
“Everything my dad has built has been with generational thinking,” Figgins said. He emulated that at the FIGGINS Estate with sustainability and heritage in mind. A well house on the property was built from an old root cellar in Milton-Freewater. More than century-old limestone was brought in from Kansas to serve as end posts to trellis the vines.
Figgins even removed rows of grapes in the vineyard to plant wild roses, lavender and lupine to attract beneficial insects.
“Those are our friends,” he explained. “It’s a lot of wine down the drain, but in 40 years it will be good for the vineyard.”
When his two daughters are older, he hopes he will have created an operation that will inspire them to join in the family business, too. For him it’s become a work of art – right down to creating the curves in the road that lead that scenic overlook.
“Who knows?” he wondered. “Maybe I’ll plant a vineyard that trumps it someday.”