Steve Lessard usually gets at least a weekend off between a summer of fighting blazes and the start of harvest.
THIS TIME OF YEAR, during the inevitable march toward harvest, Washington winemakers are busy prepping their cellars, buying new barrels and even trying to squeeze in one more sales trip or family vacation.
Steve Lessard spends his summer in the wilderness battling blazes. The co-owner and winemaker for Corvus Cellars in Walla Walla is a wildland firefighter, something he learned to do more than 20 years ago while working in the California wine industry.
Lessard moved to Washington in 1996 to become the head winemaker for Hedges Family Estate on Red Mountain. Soon after, he met Randall and Jennifer Hopkins, and they became fast friends. It didn’t take long before they started talking about starting their own winery.
Three from Corvus
Corvus Cellars 2014 malbec, Red Mountain, $40: Washington grape growers and winemakers are really dialing in great malbecs, and this is a classic, thanks to aromas of black pepper and cherry, followed by rich flavors of ripe dark fruit and a hint of cocoa powder.
Corvus Cellars 2012 cabernet sauvignon, Red Mountain, $45: Cab is king on warm Red Mountain. This focused, nuanced example unveils aromas and flavors of sage, dusty minerality, plum and shaved dark chocolate. Delicious now, or cellar for a decade or more.
Corvus Cellars 2012 syrah-petite sirah, Red Mountain, $35: This blend of two Rhône grapes is Corvus’ signature red. It’s plush and fleshy with notes of ripe red and black fruit; a hint of clove; and a round, opulent finish.
In 2001, Lessard moved to Walla Walla to become head winemaker for Whitman Cellars. The Hopkinses bought land on Red Mountain in 2004 and planted it almost immediately. A year later, they all launched Corvus Cellars as a side gig — but it became their sole focus after Whitman Cellars was shuttered in 2011.
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Lessard decided to join a private wildland firefighting contractor in 2001, a move that he finds deeply fulfilling. He has been sent to fight fires across the Western states, including the Carlton Complex disaster in 2014 and the Colville reservation fire last summer.
So far, firefighting and winemaking have not conflicted, with Lessard usually getting at least a weekend to rest between the end of fire season and the start of harvest.
Corvus is somewhat unusual because its estate vineyard is on Red Mountain — as are all of its other grape sources — yet its winery and tasting room are in Walla Walla. A majority of its 1,000 cases are sold through the busy tasting room, while most of the rest is distributed in Seattle.
Also on Red Mountain, Corvus maintains a five-bedroom home that is rented to wine lovers looking to explore Washington wine country for a weekend or longer. It is perfect for four couples, and it keeps busy from spring through fall.
Lessard and the Hopkinses focus their winemaking on small-production reds that reveal depth, complexity and beauty. They are well worth seeking out.