Just 40 years ago there was no Walla Walla wine industry. But Gary Figgins and Rick Small — a couple of friends, who’d grown up here — had been planting some vines and getting together on Friday nights after work to play guitar, drink wine and dream a little.
From that friendship the Valley’s first two post-Prohibition wineries were born: Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon. And from the start, the friends’ wives — Nancy Figgins and Darcey Fugman-Small — were essential to building those businesses. With their support, the two young men planted vines, made wines and started their wineries.
Still good friends, Gary and Rick agree that, even with no clear-cut paths to follow, their timing was perfect.
“We never had a business plan, but we had this passion for making wine,” Figgins recalls. “The thing I still think about today was saying (to Nancy), ‘We’ll just make a few barrels and maybe it’ll pay for the kids’ college, and maybe some day give us enough income to live on.’”
The nascent state wine industry included Tri-Cities growers Jerry Bookwalter and Bill Preston. Figgins and Small joined their wine-tasting group.
“When Bill and Jerry saw we were serious, they gave us access to good grapes,” says Small. “But Gary set the bar so high. He was so focused and so committed. Everyone else in Walla Walla followed his lead.”
In 1977, Leonetti Cellar became Washington bonded winery #16. In 1978, Figgins made 100 cases each of cabernet sauvignon and gewurtzraminer, and 200 cases of white riesling. The whites sold for $6 or $7, and the 1978 Leonetti Cab was offered at $10.
In 1981, Woodward Canyon became bonded winery #81. The first releases included white riesling, chardonnay, a blush cabernet and Cabernet Sauvignon Dedication Series #1 — about 1,200 cases total, priced from $5 to $10 a bottle.
Jump two decades past that Leonetti debut, and Walla Walla still had barely a dozen wineries. Though no year-by-year growth numbers exist, there’s been a 15-fold increase from 1997 to the present.
“We got in at the right time,” Figgins reiterates. “It’s a lot harder now. All you had to do back then was to want to make really good wine. That’s what took care of us along the way. The rest is luck and destiny.”
Both men held day jobs while their wineries got going.
“I ran the family’s grain elevator,” Small recalls, “in Lowden, across from the winery. I’d put out the tasting room sign, and if someone drove in, I’d shut the elevator down and run to meet them. By 1988 I was able to hire some help; that was a big deal!”
That same year, Figgins left his machinist job at Continental Can.
“At the end of that first year, after we paid for grapes, bottles, corks, everything, we had $3,000 in the bank. But we were able to weather freezes and everything.”
“It seemed that the market was more tolerant back then,” says Small. “They really wanted us to succeed.”
Fast forward to 2017. More than 150 Walla Walla wineries compete for customers. Almost 3,000 acres of vineyard are in the American Viticultural Area. “You have to get to critical mass before the world sees you as bona fide,” notes Figgins. Studies bear him out: Walla Walla’s reputation for quality exceeds Washington state’s.
Leonetti Cellar is now guided by son Chris and daughter Amy, and Figgins Family Estates also includes wines from FIGGINS and Toil Oregon. Rick and Darcey are turning more and more over to son Sager and daughter Jordan.
“It’s like a puzzle, with all sorts of nuances, sensitivities and subtleties going on,” says Small.
“Family dynamics is something else to deal with altogether,” adds Figgins. Transitioning was tough; I was The Guy! It’s your identity. And as you give up a little here and a little there, all of a sudden you’re not The Guy anymore. I’ve come to accept that as being liberated,” he says, laughing.
“If you’re a cyclist,” adds Small (who is a hard-core cycle rider), “it’s what you have in a pace line. Everyone takes a turn leading, and letting the others take a small break. I don’t want the children to be nervous because we are looking over their shoulder. They need to know they can make mistakes — hopefully not the same ones we made. If you are going to be cautious in business, you’re not going to do well. You have to bring it.”
Bring they have, and still do, and every winery in Walla Walla is the better for it.
Paul Gregutt is a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel. He authored the critically acclaimed “Washington Wines & Wineries — The Essential Guide.” He lives in Waitsburg with his wife Karen and rescue dog Cookie.