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Catching Up with Leonetti

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 10, 2008 10:29am ET

It has been several years since I visited with Gary Figgins and his winemaker son Chris at Leonetti in Walla Walla. I have always liked their wines. They are graceful wines; their rich textures and complex flavors find a balance with sufficient acidity and moderate alcohol levels. In the early days, they stood out as beacons of what Washington could be. Today, they're still consistently outstanding, even if many of the state's best wineries have caught up with them in terms of sheer quality.

In recent years, the winery has stopped buying grapes from Columbia Valley, using exclusively Walla Walla fruit. The reserve wines always were Walla Walla, but Leonetti made their standard-bearing Merlot out of purchased grapes from Columbia Valley growers until 2006, and the Cabernet until 1999.

Leonetti owns the Mill Creek Upland Vineyard and a share of Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla. They always had 2 1/2 acres adjacent to the winery, and in 2002 they started planting a much larger vineyard on an adjacent hillside just east of the winery. That vineyard is now called Loess (after its soil type), and now that it has reached a level of maturity it's starting to find its way into the wines, replacing the Columbia Valley fruit.

In my blind tastings, I sensed a bit of this transition. As the Merlots and Cabernets still score in the 90s routinely, the style seems to be morphing into something different. Maybe it's the changing grape sources. Chris says he wants to focus more on the character of the grapes. The wines seem less dependent on the spice and complexity from oak. Chris and Gary confirm that they are backing off on the percentage of oak, and using almost exclusively French oak. Earlier vintages used more new American oak.

"As we put more and more work into the vineyard," Chris says, "we want the wines to be more terroir-driven." Adds Gary, "When you increase the density of fruit in your wines, the oak doesn't show as much."

Tasting the 2006 and 2007 vintages from barrel, I was struck by the silky textures and sense of elegance. These are two very good vintages in Washington, and I am encouraged by the depth of fruit flavor in these wines without their being too big or brawny.

The Leonetti Sangiovese has been one of America's more successful attempts at capturing the magic of this Tuscan grape variety. My ratings of this wine typically have topped out at 89 points (with the exception of the 1995 at 90 points), which is darned good. I think it's often been short of outstanding because it's always had a percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon blended into it. While we tasted the un-bottled vintages, the father-and-son team revealed that they have stopped using Cabernet in the Sangiovese. The 2005 vintage (which I rated 89) is the last to use it. A percentage of Syrah, grown next door to the winery, seems more complementary than Cabernet.

The 2006 Sangiovese, aged in puncheons and in large Italian ovals, is very open and pure, with great fruit, a polished finish and impressive length. It also showed a distinctive floral character, which in the past seemed to have gotten lost against the Cabernet component. The 2007 showed similar proclivities.

Leonetti also bottled five cases of its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon using the Vino-Lok glass stopper in place of corks. Like other winemakers, Gary is getting frustrated with the inevitable percentage of cork-tainted bottles, and he and Chris find the glass classier than screw caps. So far the results are encouraging. We tasted one of each. Even after 10 months in bottle, the one under cork was more advanced (read: older-tasting), the one under the inert closure showing purer, more concentrated fruit.

A new underground bottle storage room, built in the space that the old, tightly packed barrel storage room occupied, has been fitted out with nifty-looking sandstone bins. I'm betting that the bins of future vintages will have those glass stoppers in them, another sign of progress at one of Washington's most venerable wineries.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 10, 2008 12:48pm ET
I really like glass stoppers. The whole thought of my wine coming into contact with a petroleum-based stopper (screwcap) for an extended length of time (2+ years) is repulsive.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  March 10, 2008 1:37pm ET
Harvey, really great blog, will have to check out his wines. What % of syrah is he using in his Sangiovese? Why does he not feel that the sangiovese fruit is strong enough to stand up on its own as a 100% bottling? Was any of your tastings just sangiovese fruit?
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  March 10, 2008 2:18pm ET
Very interesting read. Thanks, Harvey. I couldn't help but feel a little shocked in that there was such a difference between the cork and class stopped wines after only TEN MONTHS in the bottle! Wow! Hopefully others in the industry, including the Figgins', will continue to evolve with alternative closures going forward.
Jon C Martinez
Overland —  March 10, 2008 2:49pm ET
I like their wines.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  March 10, 2008 4:53pm ET
I am not sure how much I like my wines to be in contact with a dried piece of tree bark either that 1-5%% of the time can make my wines taste like moldy cardboard! Thus far, I have been just thrilled with wines that have come under cap -- boths reds and whites--always fresh, clean, fruity. i wish I could afford to put my (home)wines under screw cap as well. I have not yet tried the glass stopper, although I have a bottle of the 2006 Sineann Zin in my cellar -- I'll check it out this weekend. Each year, I always buy as much Lenoetti as I can afford -- great stuff. Thanks for the update!
Ross Heeter
Seattle, Wa —  March 10, 2008 7:16pm ET
I'm glad to see someone else mentioning that screwcaps = plastic contact, as the seal is made of plastic or foam.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 10, 2008 10:03pm ET
I have bad news for those who have a problem with the lining on screwcaps. First, it's the same material as Saran wrap. If you wrap your leftovers in it, you're getting the same exposure. And secondly, the O-ring on the Vino-Lok closure, which is what seals the wine, is made of ethylene vinyl acetate (trademarked Elvax by Alcoa). It's plastic, folks. If you drink out of plastic cups...

Everything I can find on these materials suggest that they are inert.
James Marinello
spokane, wa —  March 10, 2008 10:58pm ET
Thanks for the blog Harvey. I've been reading a lot about the transition for leonitti. I like the idea that they are moving away from the huge oak that brought them comparision to cali cabs in the past. I think one thing that is becoming more and more obvious in WA it the intense terrior. It's so specific in walla walla, red mountain, pockets of yakima and CV. And with Horse heaven hills, rattlesnake and wahluke , we are really getting a feel for what each individual area is bringing to the grapes. I've heard nothing but smooth and silky in the reviews of leonitti since the changes and I love it!!
Jared Wagner
Maple Valley, WA —  March 11, 2008 12:11pm ET
Harvey,Since you are in Walla Walla, does this mean we should be getting the 2005 Cayuse tasting report soon? Thanks for all your hard work drinking wine!! :)

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