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On Harvest with …Chris Figgins

The winemaker at Washington's Leonetti Cellars sees yet another outstanding vintage of Merlot in the family winery's future

Robert Taylor
Posted: October 31, 2007

During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks numerous winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Since there are so many factors that can influence the timing and quality of the harvest, ranging from the region to the variety to even the experience or opinion of the individual winemaker, it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This year, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.

Chris Figgins is winemaker at Leonetti Cellars, the winery his father, Gary, founded in 1977 in Washington's Walla Walla Valley. Gary started out making homemade wine (a family tradition) with his wife in 1970. He and fellow Washington winemaker Rick Small of Woodward Canyon eventually got more serious about it and started comparing ideas in the mid- to late-'70s, and Leonetti's Merlots have earned outstanding and classic scores from Wine Spectator's editors since the mid-1980s. Chris has taken over responsibility of Leonetti's vineyards, and shares the winemaking duties with his father. Chris took time out during this year's Merlot harvest to speak with WineSpectator.com.

The Grapes: Merlot

The Geography: Washington's Walla Walla Valley

So many grapes, so little time: "It's been a very condensed harvest but it's going very well. We had a very dry year, probably 25 percent under our normal precipitation, [which] resulted in really nice, small berries. We were right at average yields, perhaps a hair under. We had a very cool August to finish off the season and it resulted in really nice acids, and we started just a bit later than normal this year. September was just gorgeous—highs in the 80s and getting down into the 40s—which really compressed our season, so we went from the south end of the valley, which is warmer, to the cooler north end in very short order, in about two and a half weeks. Typically, that takes about a month or five weeks, so tank space got a little cozy at a few points but we managed to find space for everything."

So far, so good: "[The Merlot grapes are] very high quality in general, flavor-wise. It reminded me a lot of 2005, when we got great flavor maturity at slightly lower Brix than normal, so we picked our Merlot this year at an average of 24.5 to 25 Brix, with really solid acid numbers. We got great cold-soak color and we already have some wine pressed out and barreled down and it's some of the darkest Merlot I've seen in quite some time. I think [the drier growing season] and 5-degree cooler than normal nighttime temperatures for August really promotes great color. Seeing really dark Merlot with the fruit flavors to match is really exciting. We're getting some very pure, high-toned, floral aromatics. Pretty exciting wines at this stage."

Letting the fruit decide: "The biggest worries were just being able to get everything in—I never like to have picking decisions delayed because of winery space. You want the fruit to decide when it's picked, not the tank space. The main thing is just pure flavor, when the flavors pop. I get out in the field every day as it's getting close to harvest, and I try to go at the same time every day so you're not tasting stressed afternoon fruit or fresh morning fruit. Also, maturity of the berries is important—no green seeds, no green pulps. I'll also look at things like color bleed—I'll bite into a berry and spit it into my hand and rub the skin out. I like to see the color start bleeding into the juice and onto your fingers. That's a really good sign that it's becoming mature. We do look at sugar and acid numbers, but flavor is the primary determinant. And not just good flavor, but a bigger key is lack of vegetal or herbal flavors or aromatics, because if those are there in the juice, they'll inevitably show up in the finished wine. And of course, keeping an eye on good old Weather.com and the Doppler to make sure nothing's coming our way."

Everyday's a new day (but probably a lot like yesterday): "In the morning we do pump-overs at about 6 a.m., and make sure the harvest crew is working on whichever blocks I want them. Then if we've started pressing, we press in the mornings and finish up picking by 11 a.m. or noon and then 'Ill oversee crushing here at the winery. By the time we get that cleaned up it's time for afternoon pump-overs, and then usually in the afternoon I go out in the vineyards that aren't picked yet, tasting and sampling and making decisions on what we want to pick over the next few days. Then it's back home, say hi to the wife, grab a quick bite, and get back to the winery for nighttime pump-overs until about 11 p.m. or midnight. And then there's always clean up and time for a few beers now and then."

Just like a proud father: "I think my favorite part is, now that we've been planting estate vineyards in the last dozen years or so, the first time you harvest fruit off a block of grapes. There's usually two to three years of planning, soil prepping, GPS work and everything before that—it's just such a long process and the first time you press that wine out and taste it, it's just really fulfilling because you're tasting six or seven years of work and it makes you feel like it's all worth it. Now you're growing wine instead of growing vines. It's incredibly satisfying."

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