by Karl H. Kazaks
The Lucas Winery, located in Lodi, CA sells 90 percent of its wines direct, either through its wine club, at the cellar door, or through direct shipping. Every year the winery makes a Zinfandel and Chardonnay under the Lucas label and a Rosé, a Zinfandel, and a Chardonnay under the slightly lower-priced C’T’Z’N (pronounced “citizen”) label. The Zinfandel comes from estate vineyards; the Chardonnay is purchased from nearby Lodi vineyards.
David Lucas and his wife Heather Pyle-Lucas — who both worked for many years at Robert Mondavi — are co-winemakers.
The heart of the winery’s operation is the 3.5 acre, 80-year old, organically farmed ZinStar vineyard (CCOF certified). The site produces Zinfandel which makes ripe wines at low sugar levels — well-balanced wines that usually come in no higher than 14 percent alcohol.
“Heather’s known for making really well-integrated wines,” Lucas said. Unlike some Zins, theirs are not big, jammy, heavy-hitters. They also try to avoid peppery notes. “The idea is to taste the vineyard, not oak.” That’s one reason the wineries (which uses 100 percent new oak) chooses French rather than American oak barrels.
“Oftentimes people compare our Zins to a really richly structured Pinot,” Lucas said. Because their vineyards attain rich flavors at relatively low sugar levels, Lucas and Pyle-Lucas don’t have to push to get the characteristics they want — “right between red fruit and black fruit flavors,” Lucas said. The goal is to produce a Zin that’s soft and approachable and shows “a wonderful briary flavor.”
Both the ZinStar and another five acres of Lucas’ Zinfandels are on ungrafted rootstock. Ungrafted vines are possible in the Mokelumne AVA, thanks to the sandy soils of the region.
Add to the sandy soil type the fact that Lucas uses drip irrigation (he varies the number of emitters through the vineyards, using twice as many in the sandy portions as in the loamy sections) and you get a good strategy for controlling vine vigor and summer bunch rot.
“Zinfandel is the most difficult grape to grow in the world,” said Lucas. Their grapes have thin skins and their bunches are so tightly packed that the pressure of grapes on grapes can cause a wound to develop on the fruit, allowing for the onset of bunch rot.
Lucas has walked through Zinfandel vineyards afflicted with bunch rot that looked “like the vineyard was bleeding to death.” Beneath the vines were pools of grape juice on the soil “like silver dollars.” He prevents bunch rot by pulling leaves and not over-irrigating.
To Lucas, it’s important to have the appropriate amount of light in a vineyard — you don’t want to have grape clusters totally shaded by canopy. One tool he uses to check whether his canopy management is where he wants it is to “look for flecks of light in the shadows” on the vineyard floor.
Lucas uses veraison thinning as more than just part of the routine of vineyard management — it’s also an opportunity to get customers to the winery. For a fee, customers are provided with lunch, a glass of wine, and the opportunity to help thin the vineyards.
Spider mites are the biggest pest Lucas deals with in his vineyards. To control them in the organic vineyard, Lucas buys predator mites (which come residing on bean plants). In bad years, he has had to buy the predator mites three times.
Recently, Lucas tried another organic alternative — Biomite®. “It seems to work,” he said, noting that so far he has only used it under low pest pressure.
Lucas bought the ZinStar vineyard in 1975. At first, he sold his crop to brokers who packed and shipped the fruit to home winemakers across the nation, including on the East Coast.
“Talk about risky,” he said. “Sometimes you had to wait to get paid until [the broker] got paid.”
Things changed when Lucas first started producing his wine commercially, in 1978.
“Thirty-five years ago, when I first put Lodi on labels, people said, ‘Don’t put Lodi on there.’”
But of course that pioneering move paid off, as Lucas has helped lead the way to establishing Lodi as a spot for high-quality wine, particularly Zinfandels.
In addition to superb Zins, The Lucas Winery also makes fine, refined Chardonnays. “Because Lodi fruit is so delicate,” he said, he likes to keep that wine’s exposure to air at a minimum. So he stirs every three days and bottles after four or five months. He keeps the Chardonnays in bottle for two years and Zinfandels in bottle four years prior to release.
While working for Mondavi, Lucas became the vice-president of grape supply and grower relations. Heather started as a cellar rat and worked her way up to become winemaker for the winery’s Cabernet and Merlot wines, including their Reserve wines. She then moved to overseeing the winery’s La Famiglia line — wines made from California-sourced Italian varietals.
Both of them developed an appreciation for the importance of place in determining the quality of a vineyard.
Before the wine industry developed the technology to, as Lucas put it, “make wine in the winery, vineyards had to stand out on their own.
“Certain vineyards and sites developed reputation for quality because they have really unique personalities,” Lucas continued.
Luckily, Lucas and Pyle-Lucas agree that ZinStar and the other vineyard sources they use have the personality to make wines that reach for the sublime.
Lucas has also learned that experience in the vineyard is necessary to help understand the best time to harvest. It will also help growers grasp the fine difference between maturity and ripeness.
A grape’s maturity can be determined in the lab by measuring Brix, pH, and acidity — but to Lucas, ripeness is a more ineffable trait.
“The big challenge for so many winemakers is to understand: When is their vineyard at optimal ripeness?” he said. “As fruit gets riper and sweeter it tastes a lot better — but it could be overripe.”
In his work as a consultant, Lucas recommends vineyard owners to pick a vineyard at different times in any one harvest to understand when the vineyard reaches optimal ripeness.
Some years, he said, ripeness moves faster than maturity, while in others the sequence is reversed. The ideal (not always realized) is to have the two coincide.
Though there is no textbook way to measure Lucas’s concept of ripeness, he looks for it in vineyards by analyzing the aromas and taste of crushed grapes.
With experience, he said, you will come to learn when ripeness is in the vineyard.
You can learn more about The Lucas Winery at www.lucaswinery.com.
by Karl H. Kazaks