What would happen if a winemaker were to apply the knowledge and craft of his trade — his ability to grow healthy grapes and make flavorful wines — to food?
Chris Figgins is finding out.
Figgins is president and winemaking director at Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla; his family’s historic winery, Leonetti Cellar, is the stuff of legend. Founded by Chris’ parents, Gary and Nancy, in 1977 and named after his great grandparents, Leonetti is Washington’s most coveted label, with a three- to five-year wait list just to get on the mailing list.
Since taking over winemaking duties from his father in 2001, the younger Figgins has been applauded by critics for his forward-thinking approach. He toned down the winery’s hedonistic style, aiming for structure and ageability over immediate gratification. And he’s shown an entrepreneurial streak, too, spearheading the development of SeVein, a 2,000-acre Walla Walla vineyard property that’s a continuation of the partnership (Leonetti, L’Ecole No 41 and Pepper Bridge) behind the famous Seven Hills Vineyard.
Last fall, Figgins released his first wine under a new label, called, aptly, Figgins. Unlike Leonetti, which blends grapes from multiple vineyard sites, Figgins is a Bordeaux-style blend (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petite verdot) sourced from a single vineyard. “I love that Old World model where the land, the wine, the winery, the brand, they are a continuum,” says Figgins. “The whole idea is to make a terroir-driven wine off of a single vineyard.”
He also works as a consulting winemaker, most notably for his childhood pal Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback label. Not surprisingly, considering who his winemaker is, former all-pro NFL quarterback Bledsoe has managed to release one of the very few celebrity “vanity” wines to be taken seriously by critics.
And in 2010, as if he didn’t have enough going on already, Chris Figgins launched a completely different project — one that required blind tastings and farming know-how but resulted in a very different end product. It’s Figgins’ attempt to capture the characteristics of a specific site in the aroma and flavor of not a wine, but a side of beef. “A special place”
Lostine Cattle Co. reflects the terroir of the breathtaking Lostine River Valley in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, where Figgins used to hike and fish with his father as a kid. “It’s a special place with, I believe, terroir for beef, because a really high-protein grass grows over there,” says Figgins of the 1,700-acre ranch he shares with his family and business partner. “The short growing season and high elevation grow amazing grass, and beef, as a result.”
These steaks aren’t cheap: A single bone-in rib-eye, for example, will cost you $26 through the ranch’s website. But if you can afford wines from Leonetti Cellar and Figgins, you probably won’t be bothered by the fact that a raw hunk of Lostine meat is equal in price to a steak entree at a higher-end restaurant. And anyway, competitors are even costlier: The swanky New York butcher Lobel’s, for example, sells similarly sized bone-in rib-eyes online from $37 to $80 a pop.
“The whole goal of Lostine is to take the estate-grown, high-end winery model and apply it to beef,” Figgins says. “I started off wanting to grow the best grass-fed beef in the country. Having been immersed in the business and tasted a lot of beef, now my goal is to grow the best beef, period. I thought there was a time when we couldn’t compete with wagyu, but in fact I think we can, on flavor.”
“Wagyu” is the Japanese term for cow; in the beef industry, it refers to heavily marbled, juicy, fatty steaks derived from Japanese cattle breeds. Wagyu beef is raised most famously in Kobe, Japan, where it is said that ranchers feed their stock beer and sake and lovingly massage their muscles.
Selecting the breed
But Figgins doesn’t work with Japanese cattle breeds. Instead, the Lostine herd is all Scottish Highland, a wooly-coated breed hardy enough to thrive through cold mountain winters, and armed with horns to ward off predators in the wilderness.
“A lot of breeds, you put them out in the pasture and they will cherry pick the sweet grass — much like a horse will — and leave the other stuff behind. The Scottish Highland cattle aren’t so picky. They will eat willow branches and some of the less palatable grasses,” Figgins adds. “All of that contributes to flavor intensity and tenderness.”
Ever the methodical winemaker, Figgins and his staff dry-aged every cut of Lostine beef from 10 to 28 days, then sat down and blind-tasted the lot, assigning each sample a score. “Almost down to the cut, 28 days was preferred almost unanimously,” says Figgins. “So we ended up with this long aging time.” A 30-percent drop in weight (mostly due to moisture loss) during that time period makes the beef more expensive, relatively, but Figgins is satisfied that the resulting tenderness and flavor are worth it.
But how does the beef pair with the wines of Leonetti and Figgins? “In general, we make fairly bold red wines and I honestly have yet to try a pairing that wasn’t working very well,” he shrugs. “It’s really pretty forgiving. It’s just making sure that whatever goes on the beef (sauces and garnishes) pairs well with the wines, and not getting carried away there.” That said, he admits that a recent pairing of Lostine short ribs with Leonetti cabernet sauvignon was “off the charts” tasty.
Likewise, asked if he will provide detailed tasting notes on his steaks, Figgins refuses to engage in the baroque hyperbole of a wine critic. “I want flavor intensity but not gamy flavor,” he says simply. “I don’t want it to taste like cornfed fatty beef, but I want it to be clean and pure.”
You can’t barrel-age a cow or run beef through a “spinning cone” (a high-tech piece of winemaking equipment). But, inspired by the specialized diets of Kobe cattle, Figgins admits that he did start out feeding grape pomace (skins and seeds, left over from winemaking) to his cattle — his sole exception to his rule of foraging only. Blind taste tests, however, showed no discernable difference. So he’s back to composting his pomace and returning it to the soil at his vineyards.
The wine, after all, is the most important thing.
Follow Oregon’s wine scene with Katherine Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/kcoleuncorked and on YouTube at youtube.com/kcoleuncorked. 
- ^ Figgins Family Wine Estates (www.figginsfamily.com)
- ^ Doubleback (www.doubleback.com)
- ^ Lostine Cattle Co. (www.lostinecattlecompany.com)
- ^ Katherine Cole (www.oregonlive.com)
- ^ twitter.com/kcoleuncorked (twitter.com)
- ^ youtube.com/kcoleuncorked (www.youtube.com)
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