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Living History: Francesco Leonetti, Grape Grower and Winemaker

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

Born 1880 in Serra Pedace, Cosenza Province in the Calabria region of southern Italy, Leonetti immigrated to Walla Walla in 1901, when he was twenty-one. He married Rose Fazzari in 1905. 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 Leonetti’s beloved vines in the infamous ‘Black Frost’ of 1955 is said to have broken his heart and is believed to have contributed to his death shortly thereafter. Frank Leonetti’s passion inspired his descendants to grow grapes and make wine commercially. His namesake winery, Leonetti Cellar, is notable for creating fine wine for the past forty years. Figgins as Frank Leonetti explains the history of viticulture in the Walla Walla Valley and the Italian-American contribution to area grape cultivation and winemaking.

Planted under Figgins’ direction in 1995, Fort Walla Walla Museum’s vineyard features Black Prince grapevines of the kind grown by Frank Leonetti. The Black Prince variety, brought here by train from a plant nursery in Sacramento, California, was discovered by Figgins to be genetically identical to Cinsault, a variety that is prominent in the southern Rhône and Provence in France. Black Prince grapevines are known for their ability to withstand hot, dry climates, and are known for use as both a table and wine grape. Black Prince produces light- to medium-bodied red and rosé wines, and as Cinsault, has enjoyed a renaissance in the Walla Walla Valley, where plantings have increased owing in large part to Figgins’ influence and the industry’s interest in Rhône Valley grape varieties.

The vineyard at Fort Walla Walla is one of the Museum's horticultural displays in support of its Italian Farmstead exhibit in the pioneer village. Unlike most modern grapevines that are trained laterally on wire trellises, the museum's Black Prince employ a method common in the 1800s where a free-standing vine is head-trained, that is, grown on a single, vertical stake. Pruning the grapevines in the form of an open basket or goblet allows more sunlight to penetrate and promote the ripening of the grapes. In recent years, students of Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology & Viticulture program have pruned the vines.

Local viticulturist, winemaker, and master distiller Rusty Figgins portrays his maternal grandfather, Francesco Antonio “Frank” Leonetti, during Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend. The performance will take place at 2 pm in the Pioneer Village, and an educational, interpretive tour of the small vineyard will immediately follow.

A Living History performance at Fort Walla Walla Museum brings history to life with reenactors portraying real people from the area's past. This year’s schedule continues the company’s tradition of 2 pm presentations every Sunday from April through October, and also on Saturdays from June through August.

Earlier Event: October 12
Dancing with the Walla Walla Stars
Later Event: October 16
2019 Small Business Industry Day