A complete vertical of Leonetti Cellars’ legendary Cabernet Sauvignon — including perhaps the single most important wine ever made in Washington — will go up for sale at the 30th annual Auction of Washington Wines.
The Auction of Washington Wines takes place Aug. 17-19 on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. The gala auction, where this one-of-a-kind lot will be sold, takes place Aug. 19.
Hank Sauer, a retired educator who grew up in Walla Walla and built his career in Kennewick, is donating his collection of Leonetti wines to the Auction. He hopes they’ll do more good for the world through the Auction than they are 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, every kid in the neighborhood and where they lived.
“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 come 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 Nancy (Hank’s wife) and I decided to check it out.”
Little did he 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-City Wine Festival, an award that earned it entrance into a 1981 competition put on by Winestate Wine Buying Guide, a nationally circulated publication out of California and 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 newspaper 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' Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon won best of show at the judging — essentially named 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,” said Sauer. “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 over-flowing cellar.
Through the years, Sauer’s collection of Leonetti has grown. 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.
This marks the 40th anniversary of Leonetti Cellar, and the Auction of Washington Wine was looking for a way to celebrate the anniversary when Sauer approached Executive Director Sherri Swingell about donating the vertical.
“We are honored that Hank and Nancy Sauer have entrusted the Auction of Washington Wines with such an amazing offering,” Swingell 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 name that will help children of migrant workers attend Washington State University’s 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.”
He pointed out it was equally rare that 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 he saw the 1978 Cab was several years ago when he was having two bottles re-corked at the 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 California’s Stag's Leap cab that won the Judgment of Paris in 1976.
“It is the most significant wine ever made in Washington,” he 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.”
That it is coming up for auction should be exciting to Washington wine geeks.
“This is one of those fantasy wines,” he said.
The Auction, considered one of the biggest charity auctions in the country, supports Children’s Hospital in Seattle and Washington State University. This is the first time Hank and Nancy Sauer will be attending the semi-formal gala, and they’ll be sitting with Gary and Nancy Figgins.
If you are not able to attend the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines, you may designate an Auction representative to be a proxy bidder in your absence. For more information, contact Sherri Swingle at 206-949-3372 or firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 p.m. Aug. 18.
This story was originally published August 3, 2017 12:25 PM.