By Catie McIntyre Walker
We’re celebrating an anniversary here in the Walla Walla Valley. It’s the 30th Anniversary of when the Walla Walla Valley became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA).
What does this mean and what is an AVA, you ask?
An American Viticultural Area is a designated wine grape growing area that is located in the United States. This area must be a distinguishable region with geographic features that are collectively unique to no other. These boundaries of the areas are defined by the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
So what are these requirements?
First of all, there must be evidence that growing conditions such as climate, soil, elevation and other physical features of the area are distinct. Once an AVA is established, at least 85% of the grapes in the area are to be used to specifically produce wine.
The wine history of Walla Walla is rich and has seen many generations producing wine since the late 1800s when the first settlers from the Hudson Bay Fur Company settled here. Many families have handed the history of their winemaking down from generation to generation.
The Figgins are one of those Walla Walla families who have handed down their winemaking craft to the next generation and, in fact, were the leaders in building the Walla Walla wine community. Leonetti Cellar was founded in 1977 by Gary and Nancy Figgins and became the first commercial winery, after prohibition, in the Walla Walla Valley. Gary’s grandparents, Francesco and Rosa Leonetti, left their home in Serra Pedace, Italy; their journey brought them across the Atlantic, though Ellis Island, and eventually to Walla Walla. It was here that Gary Figgins would spend time with his grandparents on their 20-acre farm. In 1974 Gary and his uncles planted the first commercial wine grape vineyard located on the same site as his grandparents’ farm.
Gary and another local young man by the name of Rick Small, spent time together, often on Friday evenings, and taste various wines from around the world and chat about each wine’s characteristics. Rick is also from a long-time Walla Walla family; one of the earliest farming families in the valley. Rick continued the farming legacy as he studied and earned a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture at Washington State University at Pullman. In 1976, Rick began planting grape vines on his family’s wheat farm in the Woodward Canyon area. A self-taught winemaker, like Gary Figgins, Rick and his wife Darcey Fugman-Small founded Woodward Canyon Winery in 1981.
It just so happens that Rick and Darcey’s next door neighbors were also doing their own home winemaking projects. Baker and Jean Ferguson purchased and set up their home at the old school house in School District 41 located in the small hamlet of Lowden, 12 miles west of Walla Walla. Jean was a Washington State University home economics graduate, who was passionate about food and wine. Baker followed in his family’s footsteps, and became President of Baker Boyer Bank, a long-standing bank with rich history here in the valley. 1983, the Fergusons founded L’Ecole N°41 which is the third commercial winery in the Walla Walla Valley. Jean became the winemaker and vineyard negociant, while Baker became the marketing director. Today the winery is still operated out of the old school house.
These three historic wineries put the Walla Walla Valley on the wine map, and have produced a new generation of family members. Gary and Nancy Figgins’ children, Chris and Amy are the new generation of Leonetti Cellar with Chris as president and winemaker and Amy as winery manager/partner. Rick and Darcey Small’s daughter Jordan and son Sager both serve on the Woodward Canyon Board of Directors. Jordan is in charge of sales & production support. Baker and Jean’s daughter, Megan, and her husband Marty Clubb, eventually became co-owners of L’Ecole N°41 with Marty as manager and managing winemaker. There is a third generation at L’Ecole as Megan and Marty’s adult children, Riley and Rebecca, are now involved in winery operations.
As of this year, thirty years since the federal designation of the Walla Walla Valley as an American Viticultural Area on February 6, 1984, there are now over 120 bonded wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. As they say, “The rest is history…”