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Living History Performance: Francesco Leonetti, Grape Grower and Winemaker

  • Fort Walla Walla Museum 755 Northeast Myra Road Walla Walla, WA, 99362 United States (map)

Born in Pedace, Cosenza in the Calabria region of southern Italy, Leonetti emigrated to Walla Walla in 1901 when he was twenty-one. A truck gardener, Leonetti made room in his vegetable fields for an acre of Black Prince grapes, from which he made wine for family use.

The destruction of his vines in the infamous Black Frost of 1955 “broke his heart” and contributed to his death shortly thereafter. The Leonetti Winery, however, has continued with a reputation of creating exclusive wines found in the finest restaurants. Francesco Leonetti’s example inspired his grandson, Berle “Rusty” Figgins Jr., with Cave B Winery in Quincy, and his brother Garym, co-founder with his wife Nancy at Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, to pursue winemaking careers. Rusty as Francesco Leonetti explains the history of viticulture in the Walla Walla Valley and the Italian-American contribution to area grape cultivation.

Planted under Figgins’ direction in 1995, Fort Walla Walla Museum’s vineyard features Black Prince (“Cinsault”) grapes of the kind grown by Francesco Leonetti. The vineyard is one of the Museum's horticultural displays in support of its Italian Farmstead in the pioneer village. Black Prince grapes are known for their ability to withstand hot, dry climates. Unlike most vines in this region that are trained laterally on wire trellises, the Museum's Black Prince grapes employ a method common in the 1800s known as head-trained, where a vine is grown on a single, vertical stake. Pruning the grape vines to create an open basket allows more sunlight to penetrate and promote the ripening of the grapes.

Francesco Leonetti is portrayed by his grandson and noted winemaker, Berle Figgins Jr.

Earlier Event: October 7
AAUW Kitchen Tour
Later Event: October 10
Live Cinema: The Merry Wives of Windsor