Despite Washington State’s relative youth as a wine-producing region, a number of its wineries have decades of history. Many of them not only helped put Washington on the wine map, but set a high bar for quality.
At the center of several of these wineries are the families that founded them, in some cases, extending to sons, daughters and grandchildren. These operations have continued to grow, adapt and thrive in an ever-changing industry, while simultaneously keeping things all in the family.
Here’s a look at six of Washington’s founding family wineries, and how their pioneering spirit has spread across generations.
Almost immediately after Gary and Nancy Figgins bonded Leonetti Cellar as Walla Walla Valley’s first commercial winery in 1977, it made an impact. The winery’s inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1978 vintage was named the best in the country by Winestate Wine & Spirits Buying Guide, and graced the national magazine’s cover.
“It gave my dad a pretty good boost of confidence,” says Chris Figgins, who now serves as Leonetti’s president and winemaking director. The recognition not only catapulted the winery into cult status, it was also a key building block in establishing Washington’s reputation as a premier wine growing region.
Chris started full-time work at the winery in 1996 after he graduated from college. “I graduated on a Saturday and went to work on Monday,” he says. “I was their first full-time employee.”
Chris has relentlessly driven the brand forward. He transitioned the winery to all estate grown fruit, slowly increased production and created two wineries: FIGGINS, which produces a vineyard-designated, Bordeaux-style red blend and estate Riesling; and Toil Oregon, a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir project.
“We’re still trying to earn it,” says Chris of his customers’ support. “I tell that to my team all the time. We have to earn it every single year.” And they do, releasing consistently high-scoring wines of character, complexity and ageability.
His sister, Amy, is involved in the winery, as are their parents, although Gary’s role has reduced greatly in recent years. “When I was an overly ambitious 20-something-year-old, I was pushing really hard to take on more and more and push Dad out,” says Chris. “Now that I’m in my 40s, I’m fighting harder and harder to pull Dad back in.”
Walla Walla Valley is now home to more than 120 wineries and tasting rooms, and it’s hard to overstate Leonetti’s impact on the valley and the state’s wine industry.
“We feel so blessed about what this hobby has done for us and our family,” says Chris. “We never take it for granted.”
Alex and Jeannette Golitzin started their winery for a very simple reason. In the 1970s, fine wine was scarce in Washington. “You had to go down to Portland,” says Alex.
With the encouragement of his uncle, Napa Valley wine legend André Tchelistcheff, Alex set out to rectify that problem. He bonded Quilceda Creek in 1978 to become the state’s 12th winery.
What separates Quilceda Creek from its peers? It’s not just high quality and profound ageability—it’s also an unwavering focus to perfect a single variety.
“I think the big deal for us is that we specialize in Cabernet,” says Alex. Indeed, outside of a red wine made from declassified barrels, Quilceda Creek only makes Cabernet Sauvignon, which includes its flagship Columbia Valley wine and two vineyard designates.
The Golitzins’ son, Paul, became involved in the winery at a young age. He crafted reserve Cabernet Sauvignons in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in some cases before he was of legal drinking age.
The success of those wines led Paul to progressively larger roles at Quilceda, and today, he acts as president and director of winemaking.
“Paul is in the quest of making world class Cabernet Sauvignon,” says his brother-in-law, John Ware, who started working at Quilceda full-time in 2000 and now serves as vice president and general manager. “He’s never satisfied.”
Alex and Jeannette retired two years ago, but “they are still involved, even though they are not doing the day-to-day business,” says Ware.
The family has built a state-of-the-art winemaking facility and replanted key sections of Champoux Vineyard, the backbone of its flagship wine, to high density. They’ve also explored new vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, all in the never-ending mission to achieve Cabernet Sauvignon greatness.
When John Williams and Jim Holmes planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975, the area was so desolate they had to bring electricity in three miles and construct a road to access their site. In 1980, Williams and Holmes launched Kiona Vineyards with Chenin Blanc and Lemberger, the latter being the first in the U.S.
John’s grandson, JJ Williams, now represents the third generation at Kiona.
“I worked from the bottom rungs up, starting when I was about 14,” says JJ. “Digging ditches, training vines, setting up irrigation lines and bottling wine.”
It was not always an easy life. “You’d start in the morning before you went to school and then take a shower and go off to school, come back, put your boots on again and work until it was dark,” he says.
When he graduated from college in 2009, JJ returned to work at the winery. He now manages the business while his father, Scott, focuses on grape growing and wine production.
JJ says that a family winery means wearing a lot of hats. “I think it’s fairly uncommon for a 25,000- to 30,000-case winery to not have a sales team,” he says. “I am the sales team. On any given day, I’m out selling wine or running a tractor or forklift. Whatever it is that needs to be done.”
JJ’s brother, Tyler, is working on a master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology and plans to join the team upon graduation.
After starting with roughly 10 acres in 1975, the Williams family now owns and farms 236 acres in Red Mountain, which has an estimated 2,700 acres under vine.
“When my dad graduated college, the notion that he could make a living growing grapes and making wine in Washington State was pretty out there,” says JJ. How times have changed.
The fifth-generation of a Walla Walla Valley farming family, Rick Small shared a love of fine wine with his friend and fellow Army Reservist, Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar. In 1976, he began crafting wine at home, and, soon after, began establishing a vineyard on family land. It represents some of the earliest modern-day plantings in Walla Walla Valley.
“My grandfather farmed there, my dad farmed there, and so I planted the vineyard there,” says Rick.
By 1981, Rick and his wife, Darcey Fugman-Small, founded Woodward Canyon, the second winery to call the valley home.
“It was about quality,” says Rick of his approach. “I never really thought about the financial aspect of it. I just really wanted to make the best wine that I could, whatever it was going to take to do that.”
Rick has dedicated himself to tending the winery’s 42-acre estate vineyard.
“During the season, I’ll be in the vineyard almost every day,” he says. “I want to be in the vineyards all the time.”
Darcey joined the winery full-time more than a decade ago and currently serves as general manager. “She’s the one who herds all the cats around,” says Rick with a laugh.
Their two adult children, Jordan and Sager, work at Woodward Canyon as well. Jordan is involved in direct-to-consumer sales, while Sager studies Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College and shadows his father on off days.
“Woodward Canyon is generational in every sense of the word,” says Rick. “I’m very proud of the fact that our kids want to make a go of it. The thing that I tell them is to make sure that this is what they want to do. It’s a lot harder than it used to be. But we will do everything we can to ensure their success.”
L’Ecole No. 41
A picture of the 1915 schoolhouse that houses this winery adorns every bottle. It’s as iconic as any label in Washington. When Baker and Jean Ferguson founded the winery in 1983, it was the third winery in Walla Walla Valley and the 20th in Washington.
“Baker understood early on Washington’s potential,” says Marty Clubb, the Fergusons’ son-in-law. Marty took ownership of the winery with his wife, Megan, in 1989, and is also the managing winemaker.
L’Ecole No. 41, a Wine Enthusiast American Winery of the Year nominee in 2017, makes over 40,000 cases of wine per year. That’s a large number by Washington’s standards, but Marty doesn’t approach production that way.
“We make wine like a small winery does,” he says. “It’s small-bin fermentation, punch down by hand and soft pressing to try and allow the fruit to express itself. We’re proud of that.”
In recent years, L’Ecole has been among the pioneers that have planted on hillcrests in the southern section of the valley. The shallow loess and fractured basalt soils of the winery’s Estate Ferguson Vineyard have displayed a distinct profile compared to other areas of Walla Walla Valley, with a firm sense of tannic structure and bright acidity.
“It clearly is a unique site,” says Marty.
The Clubbs’ two adult children, Riley and Rebecca, represent the third generation. Though not currently involved in the winery on a day-to-day basis, both have worked in the industry and have part ownership in the winery and vineyard.
“When your kids grow up in the wine business, there’s a lot of the winery that’s a big chore,” says Marty. “They never really saw the romance side of the wine business until they got older.”
Still, at 60, Marty has no plans to turn over the keys. “I’m going to be in it for a while,” he says.
Hedges Family Estate
Sarah Hedges Goedhart did not seem predestined to work at her family’s winery.
Goedhart’s parents, Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, founded Hedges Family Estate in 1987. They started off by selling négociant Washington wine to Sweden. In 1989, they planted an estate vineyard on Red Mountain and built a winery on the site in 1995.
“As kids, we always joked that the winery was the third sibling that got the most attention,” says Sarah. In high school, she worked the bottling line and did vineyard work. She was not impressed.
“I thought, ‘This sucks. I hate this business. I’m leaving for college.’ ” she says with a laugh.
But after she made wine with her now-husband in their apartment and worked at Sonoma-based Preston Farm & Winery in Healdsburg, California, Sarah gained an appreciation for the work. She circled back to the family winery in 2005.
There was only one problem: “They didn’t really have a job for me,” says Sarah.
That next year, the assistant winemaker quit a week into harvest. Her uncle and head winemaker, Pete Hedges, had a proposition.
“Pete said, ‘You’ve kind of been making wine, right? You want the job?’ ” Sarah agreed, and worked alongside her uncle until he retired in 2015. She then ascended into the lead role.
“We’re estate grown and bottled, family owned and operated,” says Sarah. “My parents are still very much involved. My brother, Christophe, is general manager and in charge of global sales.”
Hedges has been a leader in biodynamic farming in the state, something Sarah became interested in at Preston. “The land expresses itself better, the grapes express themselves better and that translates into the wine,” she says. “We don’t ever want to be stagnant. We’re constantly trying to reinvent ourselves.”
Sarah insists that one must visit the winery to understand Hedges. “You don’t really get the full story unless you come to the winery and meet the people, see the chickens running around, see my brother building things and eat the bread that I make,” she says. “We make wine, but we’re definitely a farm and an estate.”