It’s a convivial atmosphere in the Lucas & Lewellen tasting room in Santa Barbara wine country one weekday afternoon. The tasting room is busy, staff pulls bottles from the shelves, and I am in the back of the tasting room with Louis Lucas as we taste our way through their portfolio and I write up my wine tasting notes.
“You continue to grow great grapes”, a woman exclaimed to Louis as we were in the middle of our interview. This says it all. With Louis, it’s all about the grapes. I recently sat down with the soft-spoken Louis Lucas of Lucas & Lewellen. When I told Louis I had completed the WSET Diploma, he exclaimed “studying wine is a disease! You can’t stop once you start”. Truer words were never spoken, my friend.
Let’s rewind a bit. Who are Lucas & Lewellen? Louis Lucas is a third-generation grape grower in Santa Barbara wine country who has supplied premium grapes to Napa and Sonoma wineries for decades. Royce Lewellen, the other half, is a retired Superior Court judge. Fun fact. When Royce was a judge, he married Louis and his wife, Jill! They had met through the Santa Maria Food & Wine Society.
Lucas & Lewellen was born in 1996 at a time when many came south as Napa and Sonoma were getting too expensive. Fast forward, and they now own over 400 acres on three vineyard sites in Santa Barbara county. Semi-cool Los Alamos Vineyard, with Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Italian varietals. Over 20 varieties in total. The cool Goodchild, High 9, and Old Adobe Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley along the Foxen Wine Trail. Here, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted. Lastly, the warm Valley View Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley features Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, plus Malbec and Petit Verdot. Oh, and he’s also got 46 acres planted at his home/ranch. He refers to this as his “Bordeaux vineyard” with everything planted except Merlot.
In 2007, winemaker Megan McGrath Cates came on board. She believes in “balanced wines with all components married together so that layers of complexity unfold.” The wine is made at their facility in Buellton.
Louis’s four grandparents were born in Croatia on vineyards. Louis himself grew up on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley with grapes as the main crop. They produced raisins, then canning grapes, and then wine grapes. They never made commercial wine, but his grandfather made wine at home with the family. Fun fact: he learned to hate Grenache from him!
Louis said he grew up with a reverence for grapes. They grew Thompson seedless grapes. As a child, he remembers inspecting and looking at grapes in a way that most didn’t. The grapes had to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. They had to stand out to the housewives at the grocery store looking to select a fresh bunch for their fruit bowl. This is where Louis’ grape calling began.
As a young adult, Louis attended law school for one year and was in the Army Reserves for a few years after that. During that time (the mid-60s), the grape business was besieged with farm labor problems. Napa was the “early” king of wine at that point. Louis came home and as the family looked to get into the grape business, they explored Napa Valley and the Central Coast.
They purchased 800 acres in Santa Maria called Tepusquet Vineyards. They made wine under that label for a few years and he even got a contract selling grapes to Beringer. After that, Louis developed 500 acres in Paso and then a property in Edna Valley. In 1980 he put in a family vineyard in Los Alamos.
Along the way, he has sold grapes to many famous brands. He was the first to sell Chardonnay to Kendall Jackson. In fact, LOTS of his grapes went to Napa in the early years. In addition, Louis sold some of his first grapes to Callaway in Temecula.
Now, he grows 24 different grapes across three vineyards, in three different climates. This allows him quite a bit of freedom and flexibility to do different things. Half of the grapes he grows are for Lucas & Lewellen, while he sells the other half.
In the 70s, Louis studied the world of wine and identified what he believed were the 27 best vineyards. There was no rhyme or reason to the number 27...that's just how many he identified. He then spent five weeks in Europe two summers in a row to visit and learn from all 27 of these vineyards. This process gave him a love of the classics, and Italian wines are now some of his favorite. Toccata celebrates Italian varietals. In fact, they have a Nebbiolo rosé that has shocked everyone with how good it is!
Lucas & Lewellen Métode Traditionelle Brut Sparkling 2016 $36
This wine is 55% estate Pinot Noir and 45% estate Chardonnay co-fermented and aged on the lees. The wine is disgorged after 18 months and released after two years of aging in the bottle. Flavors include ripe stone fruit, warm brioche, and apples.....lots of apples! 440 cases produced.
Lucas & Lewellen Hidden Asset Red Wine Santa Barbara County 2016 $38
This wine is a red blend of Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Franc. These are considered the “hidden assets” in the vineyards. This wine is bursting with ripe, jammy red fruit (raspberry jam, plums, and pomegranate). It sees 16 months in new French oak barrels. A distinct meatiness (perhaps brought out by the Syrah?). So, if you want a juicy, easy to drink red wine that is fabulous with food….this is it. 14.1% ABV. 1007 cases produced.
Lucas & Lewellen Cabernet Sauvignon Valley View 2016 $27
A Cabernet Sauvignon based blend gives a deep, dark red color with lingering tertiary notes of chocolate and tobacco. 14.5% ABV. 2518 cases produced.
Toccata Classico Santa Barbara County 2015 $29
Toccata Classico is Lucas & Lewellen’s interpretation of the classic blends of Tuscany, made in the Super Tuscan style. The blend is Sangiovese plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Freisa, and Petit Verdot. A combination of red and black fruit plus spice makes a perfect food-friendly pairing. 14.1% ABV. 346 cases produced.