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!
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.
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.
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 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.
The Santa Barbara area holds a special place in my heart as my husband and I were married at the Santa Ynez Inn in 2014. The area is beautiful with rugged scenery, delightful and down to earth people, and LOTS of nearby wine!
In May, I was invited by Allison Levine of Please the Palate to attend a lunch with 3 Santa Barbara area winemakers. It was a great, intimate lunch with only about 10 guests or so in attendance, including writers, bloggers, and social media influencers.
The food at Kali was GREAT. It is a neighborhood gem of a spot in the Larchmont area and I will definitely be coming back! Unfortunately, I do not have details on all of the dishes, as they were served family-style and I was very focused on interacting with the winemakers.
Santa Barbara has a lovely wine country and is a mere 2 hours from Los Angeles. That’s what I love about LA. Within 2 hours you can be to the beach, to the mountains, or in wine country!
Representing Lumen Wines we met Kali. She and her husband own Pico Restaurant in Los Alamos, which is where the Lumen tasting room is located. Lumen winemaker Lane Tanner is “making wines from the best cool-climate vineyards in Santa Barbara County, following a regimen consistent with California’s early days of hands-on, honest winemaking.” My kind of juice.
Lumen Pinot Gris Sierra Madre Vineyard 2016
The sandy soiled vineyards where this fruit is sourced is planted to both Pinot Noir And Pinot Gris. On the nose, I get citrus (lime peel), green fruit (apple, pear), and stone fruit (peach, apricot). On the palate is a nice salinity/minerality as well as a slight tropical note.
Lumen Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley 2014
This guy has a super earthy nose (forest floor) with a graphite slant. A very perfumed wine with violets and roses.
Central Coast Group Project
From the Central Coast Group Project (CCGP) we met Scott Sampler, winemaker and proprietor. I could now tell you (in my words) what I learned from Scott that day, but the website does such a damn good job, I’m not going to even try! Here goes: CCGP is a boutique producer of fine wines located in Santa Barbara County. Committed to excellence, we source only the highest quality fruit from local, world-class vineyards that farm organically and/or sustainably to our particular specifications. In the cellar, we take a natural approach, using modern means to enhance ancient techniques that gently build flavor, structure, texture and balance from the grapes themselves. Specializing in small lot, vigilantly handcrafted syrah and grenache based red wines, we endeavor to express the cooler climes, unique soils and exceptional vineyard sites of our Central Coast with super-cali typicity, purity & inimitable style.
CCGP does not have a tasting room open to the public, but tastings can be scheduled by appointment at their location in Buellton.
CCGP “Faces” 100% Grenache, Ballard Canyon 2013
Verbatim from my handwritten tasting notes that day: this is some dope ass shit. Only 50 case production. Cue the nerdy wine details: 120 days spent on skins. All of the winemaking happens post-fermentation. All native yeasts are used, a long maceration, pomace stirring, and elevage is spent in neutral Burgundy barrels for 2 years. The wine is hit with sulfur immediately before bottling, and 1 year spent in bottle before release. I got lots of red berries and a good amount of funk/earthiness.
CCGP Barrington Hall Wine Dinner Special Cuvee 50% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, Santa Barbara County 2013
A combination of red and black fruit plus some minerality, with a hint of graphite/pencil shavings.
CCGP “Fauve” 100% Syrah, Thompson Vineyard, Santa Barbara County 2013
Beautiful ripe, round red fruit with a slight animal/game note.
Dierberg Star Lane
According to the SB County Wines website, comprised of two brands Dierberg Vineyard and Star Lane Vineyard; their wines showcase the different micro-climates and terroir of Santa Barbara County. The Dierberg label focuses on the more delicate and elegant Burgundy varieties; whereas Star Lane focuses on the more robust and powerful Bordeaux varieties. Owners, Jim and Mary Dierberg, began this project in 1996 by purchasing the three properties throughout Santa Barbara County in order to accomplish their goal of producing ultra-premium wines.
At this luncheon we got to meet Tyler Thomas, Winemaker. He shared with us the Dierberg Star Lane story, including how Jim and Mary Dierberg started in wine, some 40 years ago in Missouri. Jim’s family has made wine in Missouri for over 40 years and a wanted to create a legacy property where he could grow the vitis vinifera grapes he so loved. The family bought the properties in the mid-90’s and the rest is history. Today, Dierberg Star Lane is one of the Central Coast wine producers who are known for a top-quality product. The winery is closed to the public, but they do take appointments for industry professionals.
Dierberg Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley 2014
This wine paired incredibly well with our burrata salad. The wine has notes of pear, green apple, MLF (crème fraiche and clarified butter). Tyler described it as a new style California wine. California Chardonnay 2.0
Star Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Star Lane Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (85% Cab Sauv + Cab Franc and Merlot) 2013
This wine is made with native yeasts and leans towards a Bordeaux style, versus a Napa style. Tyler described it as a sincere, transparent Cabernet with not a lot of oak. I felt a nice fruit forwardness, yet some restraint. This wine can age and I am sure will get better with age.
Thanks to Allison Levine for the invite to this lovely, and informative luncheon!