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Monday, Feb. 07, 2011

Another door opens for Walla Walla winemaker

WALLA WALLA -- When the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office changed the locks at Whitman Cellars on Jan. 28, it effectively closed a winery that owed more than $2.6 million to the bank.

But it didn't leave winemaker Steve Lessard without options.

Instead, Lessard now will focus all of his efforts on Corvus Cellars, a winery he owns with longtime friend Randall Hopkins.

"I describe it as a situation in which it is important to choose who you work with," Lessard said. "We are in a time when good wines don't sell themselves. It takes more than that to be successful in this industry."

Lessard, who owns a 5 percent stake in Whitman Cellars, isn't in a position to talk much about what brought down the winery, though he has been given access to the Corvus wines that are being made in the Whitman Cellars facility.

Instead, he is happy to be working for himself for the first time.

Lessard grew up on California's Monterey Peninsula and worked in Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast before being hired as head winemaker for Hedges Cellars when it opened its chateau on Red Mountain in 1996.

That was when he met Hopkins, a curious wine lover who wandered into the tasting room one day. They became fast friends, and Hopkins made regular treks from his Seattle-area home to help during harvest.

In 2002, Lessard moved to Walla Walla to help launch Whitman Cellars. In the years that followed, Lessard and Hopkins frequently talked about getting into business together and finally moved forward in 2005, when they launched Corvus. It was a small project, with just 80 cases of cabernet sauvignon made that first year and released in 2007 to critical acclaim.

In 2006, Hopkins purchased land on Red Mountain and planted six acres of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and petite sirah. Production has grown to 1,200 cases, and the two plan to grow that to 2,000 cases, an amount they are comfortable with.

"There's a sweet spot there where it's both fun and work," Hopkins said.

"It's where we see our best quality," Lessard said, adding with irony, "And we have no banks to report to."

In addition to estate grapes, Lessard also buys fruit from Corliss Estate on Red Mountain, a vineyard he has worked with since 1996. He also uses grapes from a select handful of other vineyards on Red Mountain and in the Walla Walla Valley.

In October, Corvus moved into a winery incubator building at the Walla Walla airport that had recently been vacated by Trio Vintners. The tasting room opened in November.

Corvus has four wines: a cabernet sauvignon, a viognier, a red blend of syrah and petite sirah, and a red blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc.

Lessard's dual role at Corvus and Whitman was not without its challenges, and Hopkins said they worked hard to find a balance.

"Steve was someone working at one winery and also part owner of another. We always wanted to be respectful of Whitman. Thus, we weren't able to promote Steve as much as we wanted to because we didn't want to take anything away from Whitman," he said. "I've been a fan of Steve's wines since he came up here. Now that we have this thing that is our baby, that's extremely motivating, and we will be able to fine-tune our wines and take them to the next level."

Added Lessard: "A change was needed, and a change has come. The change required some hardships. I want to believe in the people I'm working with, so there's a sense of relief. It's time to turn the page to the next chapter."

* Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly wine magazine owned by the Herald. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.