Interview with Louis Lucas, Viticulturist and co-owner of Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards
Mr. Hill's notes on an interview with Louis Lucas
Last week was Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta here in Santa Fe. Louis Lucas came to this event for his first time. I had met Louis a month ago when he showed up, out of the blue, for our NEB4 get-together up in Paso Robles.
He mentioned he was coming to Santa Fe and I thought I'd get together w/ him to find out a bit more on him. We got together at Terra Cotta Wine Bistro over glasses of iced tea and my glass of Queen of Hearts Pinot (quite a nice balanced pretty Pinot at a great price of $12-$14).
Louis is one of the founding partners of Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. The other is Royce Lewellen. He was a Superior court judge for Santa Barbara County and the courthouse in Santa Maria is named for him. (This was the venue for Michael Jackson's trial some yrs ago.)
They came together to form L&L in 1996. I had tried some of the L&L wines back around 2000 at one of the SBC Vintner's Association tastings at Ranch Sisquoc. I believe that Dan Gehrs was the winemaker back in those days. I had a L&L Pinot at one of the local tastings several months ago and was favorably impressed. Plus I'd been seeing a greater presence of the wines on the shelves here in New Mexico. Louis brought his Nebbiolo and Ramato (skin contact Pinot Gris) to NEB4 and I was quite impressed by them. So L&L is back on my radar again & I plan to order a batch to share w/ my tasting group.
I had long known of Louis because I'd drive right by his vineyard when I'd drive into Los Alamos (the other/less-famous one) to stay w/ Bob Senn. They're hard-by Hwy 101 and right across Alisos Canyon Rd from the Hancock College experimental vineyard. It's a neat / very well-tended vineyard that has each row identified by grape variety. Of course, I noticed long ago that Louis had Nebbiolo planted in there.
Louis' background come from his family's vineyard over in the San Joaquin Valley growing table grapes. Presumably they made out like gang busters during Prohibition when lots of grapes were shipped back east to home winemakers. I queried Louis about the relevancy of growing table grapes to growing wine grapes. "Isn't the entire focus on high yields and production levels...quality be damned??" He assured me that, au contraire, in the table grape business the emphasis has to be on the farming and the quality of the grapes. If the quality isn't there, you don't make any money. And not just cosmetic quality...they gotta taste good as well.
Louis segued into the wine grape business when he planted the Tepesquet vineyard in 1970 in the Santa Maria Valley, just south of what was to become the most famous SMV vineyard of all time..Bien Nacido of the Miller's.
Back in the middle-'70's, I used to buy the Tepesquet wines here in NM, dozens of cases at a time, at stupid/silly prices. Don't know who or where the wine was made, though. The labels were plug-ugly/garish..but the wines were pretty decent and good values...exceptin' for the Cabernet.
Louis kinda chuckled at that comment (in addition to taking umbrage at my take that the labels were ugly) at then shouldered full blame for the abominable image the Santa Barbara Cabernets developed from that era for being green/herbal/thin/weedy. And this was before any of the Cabs from Brooks Firestone had appeared. It was just too cold in the SMV for Cabernet. He's now quite proud of the Cabernet-based wines he now produces from his vineyard down near the town of Santa Ynez.
Back in the mid-'70's, I did a visit w/ Gino Zepponi of ZD winery, in the Vineberg area in Carneros. At the end of that visit, Gino, knowing I was heading over to Sac to have dinner w/ Darrell Corti, gave me a bottle of Chard to give Darrell to try. It was his first Chard sourced from Louis Lucas' Tepesquet vineyard down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. Rather lean & austere, leaning towards Chablis in style. It was probably my first wine from Santa Barbara County grapes. I rather liked the wine and it launched my love affair w/ Santa Barbara wines.
At the time, though, I had no clue as to who Louis Lucas was. Now, almost 40 yrs later, I realize the importance of Tepesquet and the pioneering work Louis did to put SBC on the (wine) map. He doesn't get the recognition I feel he deserves for that early effort.
The Tepesquet vineyard was eventually split up and sold to Jess Jackson (Cambria) and Robert Mondavi (for the Byron vineyard operation, afore Mondavi went under). After buying his Los Alamos vineyard, Louis returned to the SMV to plant the Goodchild, the High 9, and Old Adobe vineyard for his cold-climate varieties (no Cabernet this time around!!).
Also, back in the '70's, Louis planted a vineyard up in the Shandon area of Paso Robles and partnered w/ Jack Niven to form Edna Valley vineyards, one of the very first vineyards in the Edna Valley.
Down in Los Alamos, he planted a vineyard adjacent to Joe Carrari, and eventually bought Joe's vineyard. Joe was a long-time grower at his Rancho Alamo vineyard. He's (not so) famous for his Dago Red that he sold for a few yrs in the late-'70's for $1.99/btl....the Two $ Chuck precursor by many yrs. Louis relates that Joe is still alive & kickin' and as ornery as ever.
One of the legacies from Joe Carrari's vineyard is that Louis now has a bunch of Italian varieties to work with....Nebbiolo / Sangiovese / Dolcetto / Malvasia / PinotGrigio/ Pinot Nero / Freisa. He makes / bottles these under the Toccata label.
The Freisa is one that particularly interests me. It is a relatively rare variety grown in the Piemonte and can make some very interesting reds. Randall Graham once had it planted in Soledad, but as since pulled it because it's too difficult to grow. So this is one I'm most eager to try.
Louis recounted the great difficulty he's had growing the Nebbiolo. The first 4-5 buds on a Nebb cane are sterile, so you wind up having this big glob of bunches all out at the end of the canes. He's been working a training system for his Nebb that avoids this problem.
The original Nebbiolo that Joe had put in came from FPS/Davis, so would have been the Nebbiolo Fino or Nebbiolo Rose. His subsequent planting came direct from the University of Torino. What clones they are Louis doesn't know, though.
Louis also has a vineyard down near the town of Santa Ynez that slopes down on the bench land towards the Santa Ynez river. He grows his warmer-climate grapes down there, including Cabernet varieties. He seems quite proud of his various Cabs and blends he makes (I've not yet tried them). Probably to salvage the tarring & feathering he inflicted on SBC Cabernet during his Tepesquet days!!
Louis has done extensive traveling in Europe to study how they grow / make their wines in many of the famous regions there, including the Piemonte...taking soil samples, examining their growing techniques, etc.
The L&L winemaker is Megan McGrath Gates. After stints at Flowers and Cahill up north, she joined L&L as asst winemaker under Dan Gehrs, and became head winemaker in 2007. Me thinks L&L wines are in good hands these days.L&L has two tasting rooms in Solvang, one for the L&L wines, one for the Toccata wines. Their Web Site is: www.LLWine.com
Anyway, L&L is a winery that's back on my radar. I'm looking forward to tasting them more extensively with my tasting group.
My sense is that the wines are more polished and restrained and balanced than many SBC wines. And I now know that there's some mighty good farming behind the wines.