Categorized | Interviews

Interview: Steve Lessard from Whitman Cellars

We recently had the opportunity to fire off a few questions to the winemaker of Whitman Cellars in Walla Walla. We appreciate Steve working with us on this and hope he and Whitman keep up the good work!

I had the chance to taste quite a few of their wines at the recent Taste Walla Walla event in Seattle and am really diggin’ what they’re doing:

Hello Steve and thanks again for your time!

WF: Tell us a bit how you got started in wine making and what it was that first perked your interest.

Steve: I got interested in winemaking as a freshman in college in 1985. I was a food science major at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Winemaking added the creative side of blending different varieties, fermentation techniques, with use of different barrel types to make wines of individual style. This perked my interest, not the techniques I was learning as a food scientist of product uniformity and consistency.

Of course back then I was a cellar worker, I participated in making wines of distinction and was learning new methods. I worked six years in the business learning to be a winemaker and forming my own opinions. I was ultimately working on the goal of becoming a winemaker. It seems to be a lot different, particularly in Washington State these days.

WF: What is Whitman Cellars point of view when it comes to making wine?

Steve: Whitman Cellars point of view? I think it would really be my point of view, and I can best describe it by answering the rest of the questions.

WF: You seem to source grapes from a wide variety of vineyards – how do you go about choosing which vineyards to buy from?

Steve: Grape sourcing- I listen to my growers. There’s a lot of word of mouth business in this valley. Growers can be your best sources. I have fruit in deep sandy loess, I have fruit in the rocks from new sites I think show promise, and older established well known sites. I get fruit from Red Mountain because I worked with it for so many years I like it and use it for my own label, Corvus. These different vineyard sites work together to add something unique to the wine they are destine to be. The vineyard sites and varietals are also sourced according to a basic recipe of what each wine is blended of and what quantities I am looking at producing.

WF: How much attention to you give to Terroir?

Steve: I give Terroir a lot of attention. I always have, from Stag’s Leap to Red Mountain to Walla Walla. Terroir is the biggest part of the equation for vineyard sourcing for me. I only do one vineyard specific wine now, again Corvus. ( I make my wines vineyard specific for the first 14 months of their life. I blend at this point to emphasize Walla Walla Terroir as a whole, followed by varietal character and balance.

WF: What steps do you take to keep Terroir in tact? Do you think it’s influenced too heavily by the winemaker these days?

Steve: I like to believe I keep Terroir in tact by producing wines that are characteristic of the unique growing climate and soils of the Walla Walla Appellation.

I do think it’s over-emphasized these days. The wine business has become quite competitive. Terroir, as become a whole new marketing tool. I feel most wine drinkers don’t know what terroir is, or don’t care.

WF: What’s the oldest bottle of wine you have in your cellar at home right now?

Steve: I think that would be a couple bottles of 1975 Pedro Ximenez Spanish sherry.

WF: What is your favorite wine to drink?

Steve: My favorite these days is Zinfandel from the Lodi and Alexander Valley areas.

WF: How much do you pay attention to reviews on your wines?

Steve: I pay a lot attention to reviews because they have become a huge factor for sales. It’s unfortunate that a final product like wine, who’s production is based on so many variables can be surmised by one number. There are so many wine judgings going on around the country it’s easy to get lots of metals. But they don’t really mean anything in the long run.

WF: What’s the best wine you’ve ever had?

Steve: The best wine I ever had? I would have to say my own when I ‘m not critiquing it.

WF: Old world vs. New world – how much do they influence each other – if at all – and why?

Steve: Old world vs. New world? When I think of the New world I think of large production automated modern equipment. I don’t think there is any influence there. The “hands-on” small producer is another story. The small producer who tends the vineyard by hand, and produces wine by hand are best suited to incorporating Old world techniques in the cellar.

Thanks again Steve for your time!