With a reverence for tradition and a passion for the winemaking process, David Lucas and Heather Pyle Lucas make exceptional wines. Their credo is simple: let the wine reflect the vineyard.
In the 1970s, David Lucas and his fellow colleagues were making wines at home, aging their vintages in plastic containers.
Four decades later, Lucas is growing world-class winegrapes in his ZinStar vineyard, working side-by-side with his wife and winemaker Pyle Lucas.
Lucas is in charge of the vineyard itself and everything that comes along with it. Once the grapes are harvested, Pyle Lucas takes the reins for wine production and guides the crop to its full potential as a ZinStar wine. Together they make a perfect team.
Their 3-acre ZinStar vineyard is full of gnarled, 80-year-old Zinfandel vines, each with its own personality and grape cluster potential — Lucas even affectionately refers to his vines by name. The vineyard produces a high-class, very delicate in structure, richly layered ZinStar Zinfandel.
The vineyard produces 12 to 18 tons of grapes, depending on the year. It’s a CCOF Certified Organic vineyard, and the Lucases use a variety of organic viticultural practices, including natural pest control methods and using cover crops for a healthy soil. The winery is also 100% solar powered.
When Lucas returned to the Lodi area in the late 1970s, after several years abroad, he purchased his own winery and started making wine. At the same time, he worked for the iconic Robert Mondavi at Woodbridge Winery, where he was in charge of Mondavi’s grape supply.
Lucas credits his experience working with the Mondavis for growing his understanding of the great wines and winemakers of the world. He traveled with the Mondavi family to Europe several times, learning what the Europeans — who have produced great wines for hundreds of years — do in their vineyards and how those actions influence the quality of their wine.
“I was tasting the world’s really great wines, and realizing that I am not even close, but then asking the questions and hearing the answers to the things that they were doing in Europe — and in the great vineyards in California — that influence the development and the creation of really great wines,” Lucas said.
Lucas started using the knowledge he brought back with him from Europe, such as removing weak shoots from the vines.
Even the Lucas Winery barrel room — or the Gran Chai — reflects the European influence on the winery’s process. The barrels are not stacked like at many wineries, but rest side-by-side in the temperature controlled room. It’s is a different philosophy of allowing the wine to rest and clarify itself.
The wine, when it first comes out of the fermenters, can still be a bit cloudy and have bits of yeast and grape skins in them.
“Traditionally, those are just allowed to settle down to the bottom of the barrel, because a hundred years ago, six hundred years ago, they didn’t have pumps and filters or centrifuges or forklifts. So this is just a very traditional way to allow those sediments to precipitate down through the wine.”
The winery also uses 100-percent French oak, because it doesn’t dominate the delicate characteristic and personality of the ZinStar vineyard, Lucas said.
Pyle Lucas has learned a lot from the philosophy of multi-generational winemakers in iconic French wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
“What you come home understanding is that less is more, that you don’t have to manipulate this product, that it was making itself in the back of some cave five thousand years ago — it’s going to continue to make itself,” she said. “But our job is to help the wines reflect the vineyard, and to not manipulate them.”
Lucas loves the annual interplay of nature and the grower.
“Grapes are truly unique — not only in the soil and the climate and the region that they are growing in, but also the really big influence that Mother Nature and the grower has,” he said.
He is excited to see the growth and development of California grape growing in the coming years.
“We’re just at the potential, at the beginning of this, in California,” Lucas said. “We are really just now starting to understand the influence of what we do in the vineyard and the site, and the varietal selection for those sites, and how that influences wine quality.”
The Art of Pruning
February 22, 2019
Under a crisp blue February sky, David Lucas and his crew brave the morning chill to tackle the first pruning activity of each year.
The vines are pruned in an effort to bring them into balance as the growing season begins. During trimming, as the naked, trimmed shoots accumulate on the ground, the vigor of each vine is assessed.
If a vine is not as strong as some of its neighbors, the workers trim off more of the shoots, so the vine doesn’t have to produce as many grapes.
If it’s a stronger vine, a shoot may be left to produce more grapes.
For the grape grower, it’s a real opportunity to balance the vines each year.
April 26, 2019
Once small clusters of green grapes have started growing, and green, still-developing leaves begin creating shade, the crews have a second opportunity to balance the vine: the weak shoot removal.
Some shoots, which workers initially may have left to grow but have now judged unneeded, are removed. The crew snips off the shoots by hand, working swiftly through each ZinStar vine.
The goal of the pruning is to open up the vine canopy to get more sunlight to the fruit, because that is what creates the grapes’ flavor, color and clusters.
“In particular with Zinfandel — which is probably the most challenging grape to grow in the world, because the clusters are so tight — you want to get air in there and sunlight in there to keep them dry, so they don’t develop what is called summer bunch rots in the vine,” Lucas said.
Cluster Thinning Brings Balance
June 28, 2019
Early summer is the time for cluster thinning — part of vintners’ efforts to achieve a uniformity of ripeness among the grapes. This is the one activity in the vineyard that may not be needed every year.
It’s a great way to manage the vigor of the vine and ensure the resulting crop produces the highest — quality grapes.
Cluster thinning is a specialized skill, and Lucas’ crew knows how to do it really well. They can make a distinction between an old vine and a young vine. Even if it’s a young, vigorous vine, they know when and how to thin out the crop to give it some relief. In addition, less irrigation is needed for thinned vines.
“Thinning is almost like irrigation; it takes that stress off of the vines, so it’s a really important technique,” Lucas said. “This is where the winemaking really begins — in the vineyard. So if we can get it right here and get the acid and the pH correct, then we make Heather’s job all that much easier. She likes to say a great wine starts in the vineyard, and then she just has to babysit the wine.”
Left alone, the vines can produce too many grapes — causing them to “get tired” and stop developing sugar in July.
“When the grapes aren’t ripening on a steady upward trend, you end up with physiological numbers and juice that come into the winery that just aren’t desirable,” Lucas said.
Véraison Thinning Shapes Flavor
Late July/early August, 2019
Véraison is the name for the onset of ripening, when grapes are turning from green to black — but grapes don’t all ripen uniformly.
At the end of July and beginning of August, the crew goes through the vineyard and cuts out any clusters that are 50 percent green or more.
If the unripe grapes aren’t removed, pickers at harvest won’t be able to tell the level of ripeness based on color. By then, all the clusters would be black.
“But if you were to taste these,” Lucas said, holding a cluster of unevenly ripened grapes, “these would taste like a rhubarb pie somebody forgot to put the sugar in, and the others are going to have that nice brambly, boysenberry, blueberry spice that we expect from great Zinfandel wines.”
If one were to go out into the vineyard the day after the véraison thinning, suddenly all of the grapes would look ripe, Lucas said.
“It looks ripe because you removed those green grapes, which would never be at the same flavor profile or color as the rest of the grapes that ripened earlier,” he said.
Achieving a uniformity of ripeness is of utmost importance to achieve balanced, world-class wine flavors and texture, Lucas said.
“This vineyard activity, this single activity, is more important than anything we do in the winery,” he said.
View the video A Year in the Life of a Winery: Part One.