Driven to Succeed

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

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 13th place.

At this stage in his life, though, Lewis would prefer to be known as a quality winemaker. “I certainly hope so,” the 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. Wine Spectator has reviewed more than 170 Lewis wines as of the Dec. 15, 2013, issue (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); 150 have earned ratings of 90 or more points on the 100-point scale. That’s a record of excellence that few California wineries can rival.

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.

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.”

The label’s signature characteristics are opulent, ripe and concentrated fruit, with layers of seductive oak. Pedal to the metal is one way of describing the flavors the Lewises pack into their wines. In the best years for Cabernet, Lewis makes Cuvee L, which takes the richness and complexity up another notch or two from the Napa Valley and Reserve Cabs. Yet Syrah has been vying with Cabernet as the winery’s best. Then there is the pure and delicious Alec’s Blend (named after a grandchild), which may represent the best of both worlds. 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.

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.”

For the complete story of how Randy and Debbie Lewis got involved in winemaking and built their winery, read the full article, “Driven to Succeed,” in our online archives.