by Jonathan Mitchell
When world renowned Indy race-car driver Randy Lewis decided to start a small family owned winery in Napa back in 1992, he put his emphasis on three things: 1) bringing to the wines the same passion and attention to detail he'd had for racing; 2) sourcing the best grapes he could possibly get his hands on to create a very unique wine style; and 3) keeping it small, with emphasis on family.
Randy and his wife Debbie had made names for themselves over twenty-three years as Randy traversed the globe, racing Formula Three in Europe as well as Formula 500, Can Am, and Indy, here in the states. Debbie was at his side directing the marketing, timing, and scoring programs for Randy's team sports. When they decided to start Lewis Cellars, they brought the same eye for detail and philosophy, "driven to succeed," with them!
They found the best grapes in Napa, consulting with some of the top names in the business: Helen Turley, Paul Hobbs, David Abreu, and Tom Prentice, to name a few. They found vineyards in Oakville, Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, and Mt. Veeder from which to source their grapes. The style of their wines is big, powerful, and forward with soft, round tannins. And of course they have won high praise, awards and top scores from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and Wine Advocate. The Chardonnays are big, lush, rich, and beautifully balanced. The reds are big, juicy, concentrated wines, full of black fruit and soft mouth filling tannins.
Their son Dennis joined them in 1999 and completed the family team. It is still a very small operation, with Randy, Debbie, and Dennis running all the day to day operations, marketing, sales, et cetera. They have a full-time winemaker (Pat Sullivan of Rudd and Peter Michel fame), an assistant winemaker (New Zealand's Jade Barrett), and a cellar master. But it is Randy, Debbie, and Dennis who are out in the vineyards tasting the grapes to decide when it is the right time to pick. They also work at harvest time helping to sort the grapes and are at the winery racking, topping off, stirring, and doing lab analysis on a weekly basis. They are at the vineyards year round, from pruning to bud break, bloom to set, and veraison to harvest. It is a total "hands-on" operation, and a small, tightly knit family they are.
So, how does a small winery express itself? In the vineyards, each site is selected for its unique and specific varietal character. Low vigor rootstocks plus special clone selection equals modest yields and maximum flavors: the Lewis trademark. They have strong panoply of wines, and there is no "weak link" in their fence. Their total production is less than 9000 cases per year, and that includes ten different wines they produce: three Chardonnays, Merlot, Syrah, Alec's Blend, and four Cabernets. Nine thousand cases amount to only 108,000 bottles total. And with roughly 290,000,000 Americans in this country, that is only .0037241 bottles for each of us!
Currently they produce three Chardonnays: 1,200 cases of a Sonoma Chardonnay that is a bit crisper and balanced ($40), 500 cases of a Napa Chardonnay that exhibits ripe fruit and toasty oak aromas with a palate of cinnamon-laced pear and stone fruit (also $40). And they are out of stock on their Reserve Napa Chardonnay, which is a wine with rich, forward tropical fruits, a nice balance of minerality, and a creamy finish. For reds, look out! They make only 100 cases of Merlot, smooth and elegant, with hints of sandalwood, cedar, clove and oak spices, swirled around a center of wild berries. ($56) Only 150 cases of Syrah are produced, and in my humble opinion, one of the best in the world! This wine is sexy, sleek, and powerful, redolent of blackberries, cedar, espresso, and oak spice. ($60)
There is also a wonderful blend called Alec's Blend, named after Dennis' first son. (His second, Ethan, has a Syrah named after him, and his third, Mason, has a Cabernet named after him). This wine is totally hedonistic, rich and complex, with oak spice, candle wax, and ripe black fruit. It is 60% Merlot, 30% Syrah, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 600 cases were made.($50) Cabernet Sauvignon is what most people think about when they hear Lewis Cellars mentioned, and for good reason.
Their Cabernets are undeniably some of the world's finest. There are four currently being produced. The Mason's Mt. Veeder Cabernet is the newest and comes from a property on Mt. Veeder, managed by wine legend David Abreu. It is plush and spicy with ripe forward wild berry fruit, and soft round tannins. Eight hundred cases were made.($56) The regular Cabernet showcases several small hillside vineyards from Rutherford, Oakville, and Pritchard Hill. It exhibits cocoa, currants, and sweet spice. Long on the palate, this wine boasts supple integrated tannins. One thousand five hundred cases were made. ($70) Their Cabernet Reserve kicks it up a notch! It is currently sold out, but when you can get it, is a big, rich, powerful, extracted red that has surprisingly soft, round tannins. How they do it is a mystery, but it is a signature of the Lewis style.
Finally, when conditions are right (contrary to what the Europeans think, we do have varying climactic conditions here in California), the Lewises will produce a little of something special called Cuvee L. This is the mother load for them. It is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc. It is richly powered and balanced, with a long and powerful finish. Massive blackberry, cedar, clove and oak dominate with hints of vanilla bean and espresso on the finish. The wine elicits voluptuous fruit and sinewy tannins. There are 150 cases in production. ($175) Lewis Cellars wines are only available in select fine wine stores, in great restaurants (Hollywood's Sterling Steakhouse carries 9 Lewis wines currently!) or through Lewis Winery website. Enjoy!!