When You Reach Lewis Cellars, Just Keep Driving

You can’t stop by the Lewis Cellars tasting room to sample the winery’s current releases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

That’s because there is no tasting room. Lewis Cellars also does not welcome guests by appointment, as many tasting room-less estates in wine country do.

The family addresses this matter on its website with this note: “We appreciate your interest in visiting with us. Unfortunately, we are not open for tours, tastings, or visits at the winery.”

When Debbie and Randy Lewis established their small family winery in the Napa Valley in 1992, they weren’t seeking the limelight or public adulation. Randy had experienced plenty of that during his career as a race car driver. Rather, they were seeking to make a small business out of one of their passions: wine.

And the emphasis from day one has been on small. Even after their son Dennis joined the family business in 1999, there were no visions of grandeur. There would be no castle on a hill. There would be no guided tours through the cellars. There would not even be a tasting room.

Lewis Cellars would be a tourist non-attraction.

All the family wanted to do was make wine and get it in the hands of people who appreciated it. Much of it would be sold direct. Some of it would be sold to restaurants. And a small amount would be allocated to wine businesses such as Vinesse to share with club members.

A tasting room would really be unnecessary considering that the annual case production would top out at 9,000—and that’s not just for the Cabernet or just for the Chardonnay, but for all five varieties made… total.

Choosing first to be and then to remain small is how the Lewises guarantee quality in every bottle.

“We are literally hands-on in every aspect of vineyard management, winemaking, sales and distribution,” says Debbie Lewis. “We thrive on this challenge and the relationships we cultivate in the process. It is our continuing goal to create world-class wines.”

She does not add that it is not their goal to run a tasting room. It is unspoken, and obvious.

Randy Lewis says it was when he was on the Formula Three circuit in Europe that he fell in love with the local wines and the wine-focused lifestyles of the local people. After racing, wine became his second love.

It’s Debbie who brings practical experience in the wine world to Lewis Cellars. Before the winery was founded, she was involved in the wholesale side of the business, and also managed San Francisco’s oldest wine bar. This gave her a clear understanding of what consumers want, as well as what wholesalers and retailers need.

Son Dennis enjoyed wine at a young age around the family dinner table, and spent childhood summers in the orchards of his grandparents’ ranch in Sacramento, developing a healthy respect for the land and what it offers. He joined Lewis Cellars after a 12-year career in human resources management and consulting.

Throughout the year, the family works with growers to help assure that they have exceptional grapes with which to work during the harvest season. Of course, finding the right grower-partners to begin with is a big part of the quality equation.

“We source the finest fruit from Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford and Oak Knoll for our red varietals,” Debbie says. “Our Chardonnay comes from Oak Knoll, Carneros, and Russian River Valley.

“Each site was selected for a specific varietal character, with many of the vineyards being planted exclusively for us,” she adds. “We’ve chosen low-vigor rootstocks and a selection of clones to give us balanced vines and modest yields, producing maximum flavors.”

From pruning to bud break, bloom to set, and veraison to harvest, the Lewises can be found in the vineyards during every phase of the growing season.

“We learn more every year about each unique vineyard, and strive to make better wine as a result,” Randy notes. “There’s also a certain satisfaction in driving a really dirty Jeep.”

That Jeep may not go nearly as fast as Randy’s old race cars, but there’s still a rush associated with crafting exceptional cuvees that the wine-drinking public embraces.

Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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