Driven to Succeed

Randy and Debbie Lewis' big reds race to the top in Napa Valley

Excerpted from the Dec. 31, 2004, issue

Randy Lewis thrives on challenges, as does his wife, Debbie. For 21 years, Randy routinely strapped himself inside roaring, high-octane race cars, living life on the fastest of speedways.

Through many of those years, Debbie watched apprehensively from the sidelines, knowing that the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat can be a split-second reaction by the driver—to avoid a collision, to steer clear of a blown tire or, hopefully, to take the checkered flag.

In a racing career that spanned from 1970 to 1991, Lewis had many moments of glory behind the wheel. His greatest successes came while competing on the Formula Three circuit in Europe in the ’70s, when he also began to appreciate fine wine. He competed in the Indianapolis 500 as well, finishing as high as 14th place.

At this stage in his life, though, Lewis would prefer to be known as a quality winemaker. “I certainly hope so,” the 59-year-old Napa Valley vintner says with a laugh. “If not, I’m in real trouble.”

Since founding Lewis Cellars in 1994, the Lewises have driven it to the front of the pack. Of the 63 Lewis wines reviewed up through 2004 by <em>Wine Spectator</em> (running the gamut from Cabernet and Chardonnay to Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and blends, including varietal Reserve bottlings and the Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style red Cuvee L), 51 have earned ratings of 90 or more points on the 100-point scale (and 61 of the 63 have scored 88 points or higher). It’s a record of excellence that few California wineries can rival. The couple has steadily mastered the arts of winemaking and marketing, turning Lewis Cellars into one of the superstar labels of Napa Valley.

What makes their excellent track record all the more remarkable is that the Lewises, for the most part, have put it together through sheer determination to excel, a carryover from their racing days. That high-speed life filled a deep reservoir of resolve that has served the couple through thick and thin. As Randy roared down the track, Debbie built her own nerves of steel on the sidelines. “I’ve driven the cars and I’ve gone to the schools, so I know what’s involved,” she explains. Indeed, they are soul mates driven to succeed.

As the winery has grown, the Lewises’ roles have evolved. Randy oversees the vineyards and winemaking, while Debbie monitors the business side. They taste most of the wines together, though Debbie has a few favorite vineyards that she watches more closely than others.

The Lewises entered the wine business with enough money to buy grapes, but not vineyards; they still purchase all of their fruit. Over the years, they fine-tuned their annual production (8,000 cases at press time), and now have it hitting on all cylinders. “I work hard at it,” says Randy, who has a ruggedly handsome face and short-cropped gray hair. “Every detail matters.”

Though they’ve given up racing, the Lewises retain vivid memories of life on the road. One day in particular stands out—the day Randy decided to retire from racing and turn his attention to wine full-time.

It was 1991, in Indianapolis. Lewis had just smashed into a wall at 220 miles per hour during a qualifying run for the Indy 500. He walked away from the crash unharmed, but it proved to be a turning point. “It was so scary, so unreal,” recalls Debbie, who managed the race crew. She didn’t witness the collision but heard a screech and the bang of a car hitting a concrete wall and knew instantly what had happened. “He was the only one driving [during that trial run], so I knew it was his car,” she says. The red warning-light flashed, then came the sounds of sirens and ambulances. Up until that moment, Debbie says casually, “Randy really wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after racing.” That changed quickly. He decided to pursue an interest in winemaking that had first surfaced in 1989.

“I didn’t mind making a mistake [hitting the wall],” he says, as if it were an everyday occurrence, “but I hated losing the car.” Then he chuckles, as he often does, with a sort of “oh, well” nonchalance.

“Truthfully, I was a pretty good driver,” Lewis says. “I just never had good equipment. With wine, I have good vineyards. With racing I never had the hot car. I wasn’t with a hot team and didn’t have hot motors. Basically, we always had car problems. In this business [winemaking], I have the best equipment.”

From the time he was a teenager growing up in Atlanta, Lewis has been a thrill-seeker and a risk-taker. “I was always getting into trouble on the street, racing cars,” he says. After high school he enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., to prepare for a career in medicine. But it didn’t take him long to know that he wasn’t cut out for that, and he transferred to the University of Florida. There he ended up both on the dean’s list and in the dean’s office. “Once I realized I wasn’t going to be a doctor, well, I partied pretty hard,” he says, and after a particularly rowdy semester the dean asked him to leave.

Lewis then spent some time bumming around Europe before returning to school, this time at San Jose State University, in California. It was there that he took an interest in California wines. Lewis eventually completed some graduate studies in business. But by 1970, he was headed back to Europe, this time as an aspiring race-car driver. That clicked, and for the next 21 years, Lewis earned his paychecks driving fast cars. His time in Europe—often living out of the back of a van—introduced him to French wines. Occasionally he could afford Bordeaux. But he liked Rhône wines better, and gravitated to the grapes and wines of that region.

In the early 1980s, while attending a wine tasting south of San Francisco, he met Debbie, a single mother of three. A fifth-generation Californian, Debbie grew up in a farming family on the Sacramento River delta and likes the agricultural ties winemaking has to the land. Randy and Debbie married in 1985.

A few years earlier, Lewis had become friends with Bob Miner, one of the founders of Oracle Corporation, which grew into one of Silicon Valley’s hottest software companies even before the high-tech boom of the late ’90s. Miner and Lewis shared the love of wine, chess, food and tennis.

In the 1980s, Miner bought 75 acres in Oakville and began planting it, in segments, mostly to Bordeaux varieties, along with Chardonnay. The friendship soon turned into a partnership sealed with a handshake—Miner owned the vineyard and Lewis made the wines; the winery was named Oakville Ranch Vineyards.

In the beginning, it wasn’t easy. “It was a bad time to get into the business,” Lewis recalls. 1989 was a particularly tricky year. Rain at harvest—coupled with a large crop—led to many earthy, diluted red wines (although the Oakville Ranch Cabernet ended up a modest success). By 1991, the United States was involved in the Gulf War, and the economy had soured. At this point, Lewis was a full-time winemaker and, except for an occasional competition, had stepped away from racing.

Amazingly, Lewis is essentially a self-taught winemaker (although by 2004, he was giving the credit for making Lewis Cellars wines to Robbie Meyer, who had worked with him for several years). Lewis is a better student now than he was in college, and is also a quick study. “I’ve taken one- and two-day [winemaking] seminars. I’ve read a lot. I read all of Emile Peynaud’s books and learned a lot from him,” says Lewis. Peynaud, who died in 2004, was one of the world’s leading enologists and consultants.

Miner was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 1994. When he became ill, Miner suggested that the Lewises start their own winery, and he would keep Oakville Ranch. “We had already created the ‘Lewis Select’ part of the Oakville Ranch line of wines, so [the separation was] a win-win for both of us,” says Lewis. The new entities became Miner Family Vineyards and Lewis Cellars. For the Lewises, the move to go out on their own was the right one. “If you’re really going to put your heart and soul into something, you want your name on it, and Bob understood that,” says Debbie. Tragically, Miner never lived to see the fruits of his labor; he died later that year.

For the first few vintages, the Lewises purchased grapes from Oakville Ranch, and they used some wine they had made there to launch the Lewis Cellars label, which first appeared with the 1994 vintage. They soon sought new grape sources, a challenging endeavor even for the best in the business. There are always vintners on the lookout for good vineyards, and bidding wars can quickly drive up the cost of grapes. Lewis has on occasion been reluctant to reveal the names of certain vineyards from which he buys grapes, especially for the Napa Valley Cabernet, for fear another vintner will swoop in with a higher bid. Cabernet makes up nearly half of the winery’s production.

Today, Lewis says the grapes for his prestige wines, the Cabernet Reserve and the Cuvee L, usually come from at least two sites; both the 2001 and 2002 versions were anchored by the 35-acre Versant Vineyard on Pritchard Hill and another vineyard in Rutherford. In some years, though, grapes from Oakville have been used in the Cabernets, and in some vintages Sonoma grapes have been used for Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir bottlings. Occasionally, Chardonnay comes from both Napa and Sonoma.

For Cabernet, the Lewises prefer the terrain they’re most familiar with: the eastern side of Napa. This is perhaps Napa’s trendiest region for Cabernet, with Versant located above Lake Hennessey, near Bryant Family, Colgin and David Arthur. It is an area increasingly known for its thick, plush Cabernets.

Randy and Debbie have learned valuable lessons from two of California’s best-known winemaking consultants: Helen Turley, of Marcassin, Peter Michael, Colgin and Bryant Family fame, helped the Lewises in 1996; Paul Hobbs, who has his own highly successful winery in Sonoma, worked with them in 1997 and 1998.

Turley and Hobbs convinced the Lewises of the importance of creating high-performing vineyards through severe crop selection and of timing harvest for the ripest grapes possible. “I was forced to get real involved with the vineyards,” says Lewis. “That’s really the last thing I learned about winemaking. I may drop too much fruit [in some years], but at least we get it ripe.” Adds Debbie, “Helen taught us the importance of patience.”

That strategy paid-off handsomely in two recent, difficult years, 1998 and 2000, when many top California vineyards struggled to ripen and many wines were marked by green tannins. The Lewis wines from both vintages were huge successes, with the label’s signature characteristics of opulent, ripe and concentrated fruit flavors, with layers of seductive oak.

The Chardonnays are made in a Burgundian style. The grapes are whole-cluster pressed, undergo a full malolactic fermentation in new French oak and are aged for 11 months. The reds too are picked very ripe, and are given extended maceration to extract as much flavor as possible. The wines are aged in a mix of mostly new French and American oak; they are typically not fined or filtered.

It’s a style that has evolved slowly over the years. “I never thought I wanted to make Bordeaux[-style wines],” says Lewis. “I really liked the Rhône wines, those bigger, larger, in-your-face kinds of wines that I enjoyed drinking [when in France],” he explains. While Rhône reds are popular in the Lewises’ home cellar, Randy has preferred to make his reds mostly out of Cabernet, in the rich, opulent California style.

Debbie has also moved from a love of French wines, mostly Bordeaux, to a fondness for richer, bigger California-style reds. One of her early favorites was Shafer Hillside Select. Ultimately, the Lewises make the kind of wines they like to drink. “We were consumers first, so hopefully we have the palate. We’re objective, too,” says Lewis.

Pedal to the metal is one way of describing the flavors the Lewises pack into their wines. In the best years for Cabernet, such as 1997 and 2001 (and even 2000), Lewis makes Cuvee L, which takes the richness and complexity up another notch or two from the Napa Valley and Reserve Cabs. The 1997 (97 points) remains my favorite of the Cabernets, but the 2001 (93 points) is enormously complex and potent. It needs a little more time to show its best.

Yet Lewis’ love of the Rhône is still evident; Syrah has recently been vying with Cabernet as the winery’s best. The 2002 Napa Valley (97 points) is stunning, with an amazing array of rich, polished, expansive flavors. Then there is the pure and delicious Alec’s Blend (named after a grandchild), which may represent the best of both worlds. The 2002 (96 points) is a masterful blend of 60 percent Syrah, 30 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet, the mix rendering a wine of uncommon richness, elegance and finesse.

As he reflects on his dual careers, it’s clear Lewis is content being Randy the winemaker rather than Randy the speed demon. “I’d rather be known for my winemaking. You can’t live in the past, and in a way this is my Indy 500. That’s why I want to do so well [with wine], because I never won the Indy.”