Tasting With: Megan McGrath Gates - Winemaker Lucas & Lewellen
October 7th, 2019
One of the best parts of the wine business is sitting down with a winemaker, tasting their wines and just talking about…whatever. These times are intimate, it’s not a sales pitch, and it’s just two or three people discussing the wines in front of them, and life around them. Megan stopped by my Santa Barbara home for an informal tasting in early 2019.
She’s been the winemaker at L&L since 2007. Prior to that she worked at various wineries including Flowers in Napa. I first met her years ago when I wrote an article on her for a now defunct publication called Costal Woman.
Megan is intelligent, thoughtful and courteous and she does one thing most people don’t do – she listens. On the L&L website there’s a quote from her: “There is a cadence I borrow from nature that sets the pace for me in the winery.” That sounds exactly like PR speak, but with Megan, it’s actually true – I can attest.
We discuss “lateral complexity,” as she calls it – the more you smell in a wine, the deeper you go into that wine, down the rabbit hole as aromas and flavors slowly reveal themselves opening up other dimensions. And it’s true for many of us who have spent time with a glass, not merely consuming it, but looking for the subtle shifts as the wine changes and evolves over time.
And we discuss hiking, not merely as a source for exercise as it is for me in the mornings above my home, but as a platform for discovery. She mentions how in the midst of hiking someplace in the Santa Ynez Valley, what catches her eye is a tiny blossom on a moss-covered rock. Whereas most people would notice the rock, it’s the delicate, ethereal flower she’s drawn to. “It’s not the summit that is the destination,” she says. And in life it’s not the end, the big payoff, it’s the small discoveries along the way.
As we sit across from each other one of the wines we taste and which I find successful is her Chenin Blanc, an oft-tedious version here in the US lacking the minerality and acidity of its homes in South Africa and the Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc is a “core wine,” as Megan puts it. Meaning it’s not an easy sell to the public, but it’s a wine she wants to make as part of the building block of her portfolio. “It’s a point of pride to be hard to sell,” she tells me. That may be, but she makes two dozen varieties.
“People tell me you shouldn’t be making 24 varietals,” she says in mock tone. Well, yeah, but then if you believe in what you’re doing, then maybe you should. The Chenin was originally planted by owner Louis Lucas. “The aromatics are so rich and different, it’s a warm aroma,” she tells me. Chenin used to have a bad rap - I would argue still does – but there are some stellar examples here in the U.S. “Chenin is more of a chameleon, it still has intrigue, especially with food,” Megan says.
We taste one of her Pinot Noir’s - an earthy rustic note to this wine with notes of cranberry, black cherry, resin, rhubarb, and huckleberry.
Then there’s Hidden Asset, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Syrah. On the nose it’s ripe and fruit-driven, supported by blueberry, black berry, black cherry notes with reasonable acidity and moderate tannins.
Early on Megan was pursuing a degree in soil science, not winemaking. “Chardonnay is the wine that convinced me to leave soil science,” she tells me, and she’s been making Chardonnay for 17 years now. But what caused her to leave field work for winemaking? It was a small vat of Chardonnay that was fermenting as she walked by. “It just grabbed me like a siren’s song.” She makes several styles of Chard, including one with a touch of Viognier added in. And she notes, rightfully, that the buttery quality of many Chards is not inherent to the grape. “The pathway for forming diacetyl (that butter quality, also called 2,3-butanedione for the hard core folks out there) is citric acid, not malo as everyone thinks,” she says, noting that it’s a specific winemaking choice during a second fermentation. There’s also her 2014 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, which beautifully expresses how good sweet can be. The sweetness is mitigated by a mild acidity, and there are notes of resin, butterscotch, lemon, lime kefir, and guava.
A visit to the Lucas & Lewellen tasting room in Solvang is well worth your time. True, you can’t sit and talk with Megan, but you can get to know her a little bit through her wines.