Few among us spend our entire adult lives working for the same company or even in the same field. That was the America of the mid- to late-20th century. This is the America of the 21st century, when we must be more nimble professionally, and no longer wait for opportunities to come to us, but rather make our own opportunities.
David and Heather Pyle Lucas lived through the last days of the “old ways,” and emerged with fresh outlooks on their chosen profession: winemaking.
For 16 years, Heather made wine for Robert Mondavi Winery in California’s Napa Valley. But not just any wine. She was responsible for the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve program, as well as the wines of Opus One.
From that corporate culture, with literally millions of dollars at stake each vintage, Heather returned to her winemaking roots, helping a number of small start-up wineries in Napa and elsewhere in California.
“I found that my winemaking heart and soul belongs to the farming of grapes,” she reflects. “I personally spend more time in the vineyard than I do in the winery. I am a traditionalist, and my own vineyard and winegrowing reflects this with organically grown grapes.
“My mantra is to make seamless wines that are distinctive and age-worthy,” she adds. “I love discovering a vineyard through its wines and how to fine-tune the vines and hence the wines they produce.”
For David, his evolution involved radically altering his winemaking style—admitting that others were crafting superior wines, and learning from them.
“I used to make what I call ‘terrifying’ wines—high alcohol, jammy, port-like and unageable,” he says. “While I was employed by a world-class winery—responsible for the vineyards, research and grape supply—I had the opportunity to visit some of the world’s great vineyards, to stand in those vineyards, and to taste the grapes and wines they produced.”
It was an eye-opening experience.
“I discovered that the wines I was making were nothing at all like those wonderful, balanced and elegantly structured wines,” he admits. “So, I started on a long journey. Years of research and experimentation led to the completion of our new winery in 2000.”
That is The Lucas Winery, located in California’s historic Lodi appellation.
“My goal is to create wines which reflect their environment, that represent the place they come from,” David says. And that is exactly what he and Heather are doing, as their wines now are beautifully balanced rather than high in alcohol, fruit-forward rather than jammy, and crafted in an elegant style that accommodates aging for appropriate varieties.
“We believe great wines begin in the vineyard,” Heather says. “ZinStar is a 3.5-acre, historic, organically farmed, head-pruned vineyard. The vineyard is unique, as she achieves ripe flavors at low sugars, yielding low-alcohol wines of pleasure and promise.”
It’s a good thing that Heather prefers a hands-on approach in the vineyard, because head-pruned vines require it, as they can’t be harvested by machine. Hand harvesting is labor intensive, but helps ensure that only perfectly ripened grapes find their way into the fermentation tanks.
“We apply several techniques to achieve uniformity of ripeness,” Heather says, including weak shoot removal (the goal being 16 to 20 leaves per cane) and veraison thinning (dropping as much as 40-50% of the fruit). “Since we do not blend our wines, quality has to begin in the vineyard. All we have is what is in that little berry!”
David and Heather also are very picky about the type of oak barrels they use for aging their wines. Five different barrel coopers were chosen to carefully enhance the unique characteristics of the vineyard as they assemble their cuvees of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Rosé, Chardonnay and Late Harvest Zinfandel.
“Depending on the special quality of the vintage, the wine will rest in barrels for 12 to 16 months,” David says. “Crushed gravel under the barrels is used to maintain the proper temperature and humidity in order to age the vintages in ideal conditions.”
That is a centuries-old technique typically reserved for the world’s most elegant wines—the kind of wines for which The Lucas Winery is now becoming known.