One is hard-pressed to imagine a less likely professional precursor to the occupation of vintner than that of racecar driver. The very qualities that favor the success of a winemaker—a predisposition to think long term rather than short term, an attachment to place, an iron patience—would seem to contradict the stereotypical image we have of the professional driver as a thrill-seeker addicted to speed and focused entirely on shaving seconds off the clock. And yet discipline, a well-developed sense of precision, and a willingness to take risks are prerequisites that champions on the track and in the vineyard share, as Randy Lewis, of Lewis Cellars, can affirm. Indeed, as his winery’s tagline states, Lewis is “driven . . . to create world-class wines.”
Born in Atlanta and educated in California, Lewis spent 23 years on the racing circuit in Europe and the United States. He began as a rookie Formula Three driver in Europe, where he won numerous races, before returning to the United States to compete in Formula 5000, Can Am, and Indy Cars events from 1983 to 1991. Even before he met Bob Miner, one of the founders of Oracle and owner of Oakville Ranch, Lewis had become interested in wines in the course of his extensive travels. It was, however, at Oakville Ranch that he began his apprenticeship in earnest, absorbing all he could from veteran winemaker Joe Cafaro about the art and science of winemaking. In 1992, Lewis and his wife, Debbie, struck out on their own. Together with their son Dennis, who joined the team, they produce a total of approximately 8,500 cases of wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay.
The fruit for Lewis Cellars’ red wines comes from a variety of areas, including Oakville, Pritchard Hill, and Rutherford. While many know the winery for its Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (the 1997 was an exquisitely layered and spicy vintage with incredible cellaring potential, as is the 2001 Cuvee L, blended from select lots from Pritchard Hill and Rutherford), Lewis Cellars’ Chardonnays showcase a lighter yet equally rich and complex side of the family’s winemaking. The Napa Valley Reserve Chardonnay 2003 stands out as an exceptional example of that relatively mild growing season’s impact on the ripening of white grapes. The nose is gloriously full and ripe, redolent of sweet citrus, crisp pear, apple, and soft, delicate smoke. The depth of its flavors is revealed on the palate, which the wine bathes in wave after wave of cool, bright fruit awash in a honeyed texture. This world-class white definitely crosses the finish line first.