By Andy Perdue
A complete vertical of Leonetti Cellar’s legendary Cabernet Sauvignon — including perhaps the single most important wine ever made in Washington — went up for bid at the 30th annual Auction of Washington Wines and sold for $32,500.
The money will establish a scholarship in a Kennewick couple’s name to help children of migrant workers attend Washington State University’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center in Richland to study viticulture and enology.
Hank Sauer, 62, a retired educator who grew up in Walla Walla and built his career in Kennewick, donated his collection of Leonetti wines to the Auction of Washington Wines, held last month on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. He said he hoped the wines would do more good for the world through the auction than they did collecting dust in his custom-built basement wine cellar.
Dating back to the infancy of Leonetti — the early 1980s when the Walla Walla producer rose to prominence nationally — Sauer began to collect the wines. It wasn’t necessarily because he thought the wines were great, but because he and Gary Figgins, owner and founding winemaker for Leonetti, were childhood friends. They lived down the road from each other, prowled around town together, got in trouble together. When Gary started making wine, Hank began buying it. Year after year he accumulated it, to the point that now he has a collection that includes every single red wine ever made by Leonetti Cellar.
This isn’t about wine, it’s about enduring friendship.
“Gary and I grew up together,” Sauer said. “We were 10 houses apart. We were very close.”
He still remembers the old neighborhood and every kid who lived there.
“If you ask me, the story in the neighborhood was the good food over at the Figgins house — Italian. But if you ask Gary, he’ll tell you the good food was the German food at the Sauer house.”
The legend goes that Gary’s Italian heritage led to winemaking. Walla Walla has a long heritage of Italian immigrants arriving with their traditions, including vineyards and wines. The first winery in Walla Walla opened in 1876 by Frank Orselli, who had immigrated from the Tuscan town of Lucca. Upon arrival, he did what came naturally, he planted grapes and made wine.
Figgins’ family — particularly the Leonetti side — also made wine. Gary followed suit.
Sauer remembers the first Leonetti weekend vividly.
“The word on the street was that Gary was making wine, so (my wife) Nancy and I decided to check it out,” Sauer said.
Little did Sauer realize that he was witnessing the beginning of a phenomenon.
It was 1981, and Figgins had just publicly released his first red wine, the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon. It had won a gold medal in summer 1980 at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival, an award that earned it entrance into a 1981 competition staged by Winestate Wine Buying Guide, a nationally circulated publication out of California that today is a top periodical based in Australia.
That same year, Wine & Spirits magazine named the Leonetti Cab the best in the nation, sealing the upstart winery’s reputation and raising the bar for all who followed.
Figgins told the Tri-City Herald he almost didn’t enter the judging because he didn’t want to give up two bottles of his wine.
The Walla Walla wine was competing against gold medal winners from 55 California producers and 13 from elsewhere in the United States.
Figgins’ 1978 Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon won best of show at the judging — essentially becoming the best wine in the country — and that became a seminal moment in the Washington wine industry. Suddenly, attention was drawn to the state as a red wine producer, paving the way for a Walla Walla wine industry that until that moment didn’t exist.
By the time of that first release weekend, Figgins had just 42 bottles of this award-winning Cab left. He had raised the price from $15 a bottle to $50, according to the Tri-City Herald.
“I’d been drinking wine since 1969,” Sauer said. “So it was an opportunity to grow from rosés to reds. Nancy was still into whites, but that’s OK. So we went to Gary’s house, there wasn’t a lot of wine, but the crowd was nice and everybody knew everybody because it was a hometown crowd. You went down into their basement, which was the size of a closet. Three people could go down at a time.”
Hank and Nancy bought three bottles, a sizable investment for two young teachers who weren’t big on red wine.
“That was how it all started,” Sauer said.
It was the beginning of his now overflowing cellar.
Through the years, Sauer’s collection of Leonetti grew. He typically buys the full allotment each year — about three cases — and takes his greatest joy in sharing it with others. Nancy will attest to the fact that when they go out to dinner and bring a bottle of Leonetti, Hank is prone to wandering the dining room, providing tastes to other patrons. That outgoing personality and giving heart have never diminished. Sauer’s civic work led to his selection as the 2008 Kennewick Man of the Year.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Leonetti Cellar, and the Auction of Washington Wines was looking for a way to celebrate the anniversary when Sauer approached Executive Director Sherri Swingle about donating his vertical.
“We (were) honored that Hank and Nancy Sauer have entrusted the Auction of Washington Wines with such an amazing offering,” Swingle said. “This lot will establish a legacy and provide opportunity for members of our industry with big dreams and a passion for our industry. This offering is symbolic of Washington wine — blending friendship, hard work and patience for something that will be simply legendary.”
The proceeds from the auction lot will establish a scholarship in Hank and Nancy’s names that will help children of migrant workers attend Washington State University’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center in Richland to study viticulture and enology.
To own a 37-year vertical of Leonetti — every Cab ever made — is remarkable, said Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes.
“I’ve only seen it once,” he said. “It was a vertical I put together for a customer several years ago.”
Charles pointed out it was equally rare the wine has been stored correctly since it was purchased from the winery, so each bottle’s provenance can be accounted for.
The last time Charles saw the 1978 Leonetti Cab was several years ago when he was having two bottles recorked at the celebrated Walla Walla winery.
“They were absolutely spectacular. They were just stunning,” he said.
Charles got into the wine business the same time that wine was released. He was working at the legendary Oyster Creek Inn on Chuckanut Drive, a windy, scenic road that skirts the coastline south of Bellingham. He was running the wine program, and they had the 1978 Leonetti Cab on the list for $125 per bottle. Astonishingly, it had no problem selling out, even though Leonetti and Washington reds had no track record.
“We sold all that we had, about a half-dozen bottles,” he said. “Nobody was ever disappointed.”
Now as a wine shop owner and buyer and seller of rare wines, Charles still considers that 1978 Leonetti the iconic wine in Washington history. He puts it on a pedestal with the Bordeaux First Growths and the 1973 Cab from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that shocked the Judgment of Paris in 1976.
“(The 1978 Leonetti Cab) is the most significant wine ever made in Washington,” Charles said. “It’s the pinnacle of Washington wines. I think it deserves that rarified air. I don’t hesitate to say this wine stands out.”
The auction, ranked among one of the largest charity wine auctions in the country, supports Children’s Hospital in Seattle and Washington State University. This is the first time Hank and Nancy Sauer attended the semi-formal gala. The Sauers shared a table with Gary Figgins and his wife Nancy.
The auction raised $4.19 million this year.