Berle "Rusty" Figgins is making the jump from Syrah to Merlot when he becomes the first full-time winemaker at Northstar, Stimson Lane's new winery in Washington's Walla Walla appellation. Figgins has been making exclusively Syrah at his own winery, Glen Fiona. At Northstar, all the wines will be based on Merlot.
Figgins, 37, who was born in Walla Walla, acquired his interest in Syrah while studying and working in Australia, but he has had plenty of experience with Merlot. Before starting Glen Fiona in 1995, he worked at Château Palmer in Bordeaux, and for the past three years, he has consulted with Black Hills Estate in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, on that winery's Bordeaux blends. He also spent several years assisting his older brother, Gary, at Leonetti Cellars, which makes one of Washington's most sought-after Merlots.
"I made nothing but Syrah at Glen Fiona partly because I love the wine and partly to differentiate myself from my brother," said Figgins. "I'm proud of what we've done at Glen Fiona, but I'm ready to go back to Bordeaux-style wines. I feel like I've established myself as myself."
To work for Stimson Lane, Washington's largest wine company and owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, Figgins must divest himself of his one-third interest in Glen Fiona. "I'll let my partners map out the exit strategy," he said, adding that he and his partners had received several offers to buy the winery.
Figgins enters the picture at Stimson Lane a few weeks before Northstar's new Craftsman-style winery opens its doors in the rolling hills south of Walla Walla, just in time for the 2002 harvest.
Northstar's five previous vintages of a Columbia Valley Merlot -- three of which have been released -- were made at Stimson Lane's winery in Grandview. The first vintage, the "rich, ripe and welcoming" 1994, received 88 points, as did the 1998 ($50) for its "bright and juicy" flavors.
Figgins will continue to make one wine with a Columbia Valley appellation, along with a new blend only from Walla Walla vineyards, and a lower-priced wine that carries the broad Washington appellation.
He wants to experiment with blending with other Bordeaux varieties. "Pomerol style wines are based on Merlot, but they get complexity from other varieties, mainly Cabernet Franc," Figgins noted. "We haven't had much Cab Franc to work with in Washington until recently, and I'm excited about seeing what we can do with that variety. We also have some Carmenère, and we will see what that can add to the blend."
Stimson Lane has set up Northstar as a separate facility and now, with Figgins, it has a winemaker dedicated only to that brand's wines. "They told me, 'Don't think of this a corporate winery. Operate it like it's your own,'" Figgins said.
Although he will be making high-profile Merlots in the same wine region as his better-known brother, Figgins doesn't see it as competition. "I prefer to say that the Figgins brothers set the standard for Washington Merlot."
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