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by Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

A Chat with Louis Lucas - September 30, 2013


Last week was SantaFe Wine&Chile Fiesta here in SantaFe. 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 PasoRobles. He mentioned he was coming to SantaFe and I thought I'd get together w/ him to find out a bit more on him. We got together at TerraCotta WineBistro 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 Wnry. The other is Royce Lewellen. He was a district judge for Santa Barbara Cnty and the courthouse in Santa Maria is named for him. This was the venue for Michale 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 RanchSisquoc. I believe that DanGehrs was the winemaker back in those days. I was rather underwhelmed by the wines (at that time I was looking for power & extract in the SBC wines) and had pretty much blown them off since then. However, 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 NM. Louis brought his Nebbiolo and Ramato (skin contact PinotGris) 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 vnyd when I'd drive into LosAlamos (the other/less-famous one) to stay w/ BobSenn. They're hard-by Hwy 101 and right across Alisos Canyon Rd from the Hancock College experimental vnyd. It's a neat/very well-tended vnyd 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 vnyd over in the SanJoaquinVlly growing table grapes. Presumably they made out like gangbusters during Prohibition when lots of grapes were shipped back East to homewinemakers. 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 TepesquetVnyd in 1970 in the SantaMariaVlly, just South of what was to become the most famous SMV vnyd of all time..BienNacido 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 SantaBarbara Cabernets developed from that era for being green/herbal/thin/weedy. And this was before any of the Cabs from BrooksFirestone had appeared. It was just too cold in the SMV for Cabernet and he hadn't learned to farm the grapes yet. He's now quite proud of the Cabernet-based wines he now produces from his vnyd down near the town of SantaYnez.

Back in the mid-'70's, I did a visit w/ GinoZepponi 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/ DarrellCorti, gave me a btl of Chard to give Darrell to try. It was his first Chard sourced from LouisLucas' TepesquetVnyd down in the SantaMariaVlly of SantaBarbaraCnty. Rather lean & austere, leaning towards a Chablis in style. It was probably my first wine from SantaBarbaraCnty grapes. I rather liked the wine and it launched my love affair w/ SantaBarbara wines.

Darrell thoroughly trashed the wine when we tasted it at table. Since Gino was (still then) working in the aerospace industry in Sac, he and Darrell were good friends. At the time, though, I had no clue as to who LouisLucas 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 vnyd was eventually split up and sold to JessJackson (Cambria) and RobertMondavi (for the ByronVnyd operation, afore Mondavi went under). After buying his LosAlamos vnyds, Louis returned to the SMV to plant the Goodchild, the High 9, and OldAdobe vnyds for his cold-climate varieties (no Cabernet this time around!!). Also, back in the '70's, Louis planted a vnyd up in the Shandon area of PasoRobles and partnered w/ JackNiven to form EdnaVllyVnyds, one of the very first vnyds in the EdnaVlly.

Down in LosAlamos, he planted a vnyd adjacent to JoeCarrari, and eventually bought Joe's vnyd. Joe was a long-time grower at his RanchoAlamo vnyd. He's (not so-) famous for his DagoRed 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 JoeCarrari's vnyd is that Louis now has a bunch of Italian varieties to work with....Nebbiolo/Sangiovese/Dolcetto/Malvasia/PinotGrigio/PinotNero/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 Grahm 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 Nebb 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 Univ of Torino. What clones they are Louis doesn't know, though.

Louis also has a vnyd down near the town of SantaYnez, that slopes down on the benchland towards the SantaYnez 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. After stints at Flowers and Cahill up North, she joined L&L as asst winemaker under DanGehrs, and became head winemaker in 2007. Methinks 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 WebSite is: www.LLWine.com

Anyway, L&L is a wnry 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.


[Additional Wine Reviews from Tom Hill]


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