How do you take a well-established, classic winery to the next level while preserving its golden reputation? W.E. gives you profiles of six young and innovative winemakers in Washington and Oregon who have risen to the challenge.
Who: Chris Figgins
Winery: Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla, Washington
When the company was started: 1977
By whom: Gary and Nancy Figgins
Leonetti Cellar, the first modern-era winery to open in Walla Walla, expanded their holdings after Chris Figgins joined the team in 1996 with a degree in Horticulture from Washington State University. Upon joining the team, Chris—who says he “basically grew up as [his] dad’s cellar rat and gofer”—located, designed and planted Mill Creek Upland Vineyard in 1997, and was also instrumental in expanding Leonetti’s holdings of Seven Hills Vineyard. After planting the Loess Vineyard in 2002, Chris was promoted to winemaker—a transition that changed the wines.
“I want[ed] to make terroir-driven wines, with hints of vanilla as a background spice and let the fruit shine through,” Figgins revealed in a 2006 interview with Wine Enthusiast. To do so, he turned to younger vines from new vineyards, relied less on new oak, extended bottle aging for some releases and experimented with rootstocks, clones, trellising and sustainable farming.
Latest endeavors: Chris is currently the consulting winemaker for former quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback project. He also recently launched his own Figgins brand—a single wine from a single vineyard. Long-term thinking is intrinsic to his approach. “A continuing focus on quality and sustainability from our three estate vineyards at Leonetti and two future vineyard sites now in development. I’m kicking some dirt outside of the Walla Walla Valley,” he says, adding, “but if anything like that comes to fruition, it will have the same focus on pedigree and quality as Leonetti and Figgins.”
Who: Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser
Winery: Sokol Blosser
When the company was started: 1971
By whom: Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser
An estate winery from the start, husband and wife team, Bill and Susan Blosser, first planted vines on an abandoned prune orchard in the Dundee Hills. Over the decades, the duo became committed to environmentally-friendly farming practices, and before Susan retired in 2007, Sokol Blosser’s vineyard holdings were certified organic.
In 2007, Susan decided to retire as winery president and pass on her responsibilities to her children, Alex and Alison. It was a gradual transition, which Alex describes:
“During the three year transition, a big challenge for her was letting go of being at the winery on a daily basis as the key decision maker. A major turning point that unfortunately forced her to step away from work was when she broke her ankle. She points to this as the gods telling her that she needed to let go.”
Latest endeavors: Alex is co-president, oversees vineyard and winemaking activities and Alison is in charge of company sales and marketing. As a leader in wine country tourism, the winery offers visitors the chance to taste new releases at the vineyard, and guided, three-mile tours around the estate. But Alex’s main focus is to produce outstanding Pinot Noir. “Alison and I want to be great stewards of the winery and vineyards,” he explains. “We want to leave them in a healthy spot for the third generation to take it to the next level.”
Who: Jason Lett
Winery: The Eyrie Vineyards
When the company was started: 1966
By whom: David and Diana Lett
Jason Lett had big shoes to fill when he joined the family business in 2005 after his father’s health began to decline. After all, David Lett was responsible for planting the first Pinot Gris in the country, earned second place in the 1979 Wine Olympics in Paris (beating out all but one Burgundy with the now-legendary 1975 ‘South Block’ Pinot Noir) and he played an integral role in attracting the Drouhin family to Oregon.
When David released his 35th and final vintage in 2004—one his son calls “a landmark wine made by someone who understood Pinot Noir better than anyone in the country”—Jason began working as winemaker, striving to keep the wines restrained and elegant, with the European style his father had perfected.
Last July, Jason managed the vertical tasting of the Eyrie South Block Reserve Pinot Noirs—29 vintages in all, of which only the first two were released. “My father liked this wine too much to actually show it to anybody,” he says. The pristine, complex and evocative wines were cellar certified—each lot was opened, tasted, reblended, rebottled and recorked. Jason describes the project as “the fruition of two generations of work.”
Latest endeavors: Jason oversees The Eyrie Vineyards in their entirety, as well as his own project, BlackCap.
Who: Luisa Ponzi
Winery: Ponzi Vineyards
When the company was started: 1970
By whom: Dick and Nancy Ponzi
Luisa Ponzi, who became winemaker at Ponzi more than 18 years ago, has come a long way since she first started working in the family business.
“I first began working at the winery before I remember working at the winery,” she deadpans. “There are pictures of me helping at age one or two, though actual useful work probably didn’t occur until I was a teenager and learned the value of money.”
Her parents were among the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, and achieved immediate winemaking success—something Luisa showed interest at an early age. But her mature and confident winemaking techniques didn’t come into fruition until she studied viticulture.
After earning her Bachelor of Science from Portland State University, Luisa moved to Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy, to continue her viticulture and enology education. She apprenticed with Christophe Roumier of Domaine Roumier and later, with Luca Currado of Vietti in Piedmont, Italy, and in 1993, was the first woman to earn Certficate Brevet Professionnel D’Oenologie et Viticulture.
In 1996, while working at Ponzi, Luisa hit a turning point when her father took time off during harvest, propelling her into winemaking. “In retrospect, I think that may have been a calculated move to let me prove to myself that I could handle it,” Luisa recalls. “At the time, however, I remember some panic.”
Today, Ponzi remains a familial property. Luisa’s sister, Maria Ponzi Fogelstrom, is the director of sales and marketing and her parents still provide what she calls “the big picture view.”
Latest endeavors: Luisa defines her role as the link between the legacy and the next generation. “In the past 15 years, my brother, sister and I have grown the business from farming 50 acres to over 120 acres; our production has grown from 10,000 to 50,000 cases and we built a new state-of-the-art winery in 2008. Our intentions are to maintain our current production while continuing to farm our land in a responsible way, take care of our employees, produce high quality wines, spread the word on Oregon wine and have fun doing all of it!”
Who: Jesse Lange
Winery: Lange Estate
When the company was started: 1987
By whom: Don and Wendy Lange
As he explains it, Jesse Lange has been helping his parents farm and make wine since he was three feet tall.
“I basically began assisting my folks in the vineyard, doing hand work like hoeing, shoot positioning, pruning, etc.” Jesse confesses. “They never let me drive the tractor until I was, like, 15!”
While he managed to get is feet wet at a young age, Jesse’s formal training began at New Zealand's Lincoln University, where he enrolled as an exchange student from Oregon State University in 1999. Later, he worked as a cellar rat for winemaker Bruce McGuire at Santa Barbara Winery.
In 2000, Jesse made his way back into the family business, seamlessly working his way up to the top. “There was never a kneel-down moment, wherein I was appointed winemaker or general manager. The transition was more organic,” he says.
Latest endeavors: Jesse is currently responsible for winemaking, vineyard oversight, distribution and general management. He also serves as President of Oregon Pinot Camp.
“I'm very proud of the fact that while we've grown our business from a humble 700 cases in 1987 to about 20,000 today, we've always managed to increase the quality of our vineyard and wines at every step,” he explains. “We have many new acres coming online and into production this year; additional fruit from our finest vineyard sites. I think the challenge for us is to take our viticulture and winemaking to the next level. And I think we're up to it.”
Who: Paul Golitzin
Winery: Quilceda Creek
When the company was started: 1979
By whom: Alex and Jeanette Golitzin
Few wineries in the Northwest can compete with the string of high scores and critical accolades Quilceda Creek has earned since its inception. The winery acquired vineyard land on Red Mountain and in the Horse Heaven Hills AVAs, adjacent to such landmark vineyards as Ciel du Cheval and Champoux.
Paul Golitzin began punching down grapes with his dad on evenings and weekends by age seven, but it was in 1992, as a full-time employee, that Paul changed the face of the winery. He convinced his father to make an experimental reserve bottling of the winery’s Cabernet in order to monitor the influence of more new oak barrels. It was so successful that the reserve soon became the regular Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Paul is the leader here,” declares Alex. “Basically, this place does what he decides. He comes out with the best combinations as far as the wine blending is concerned. He also is, how should I put it, intuitive, less willing to compromise.”
Paul, in response, claims: “A lot of businesses have a consultant; I have an insultant!”
Latest endeavors: Quilceda Creek currently produces four wines: two single-vineyard Bordeaux blends, the hallmark Cabernet Sauvignon, and a second wine simply labeled Red. “I intend to stay focused on our four wines and express what the best of what our vineyard sites have to offer,” Paul says.