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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 7)

Phelps was the first in Napa's modern era to bottle a Syrah. "When he started poking around, he said, 'I really love the wines of the Rhône,'" Bill says. "'Isn't it unusual that nobody has grabbed hold of this?'" Phelps found one vineyard growing Syrah and bought all the fruit. More than three decades later, his winery has phased out varietal Rieslings, Merlots, Semillons and—beginning with the 2005 vintage—even Napa Chardonnays. But the Syrah is going strong.

Being a forward thinker is helpful. "But the real success," says Williams, "was taking those innovations and putting legs on them." Of the hundreds of Bordeaux blends and other proprietary wines made in California each year, Insignia arguably remains the best. Witness the 2002, named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2005. As smooth and powerful as a Ferrari, it leaves the sense—as every great wine should—that it is far more than the sum of its component parts. The creation of the Insignia brand may have been an accident, but wines as distinguished as that aren't made accidentally.

Lewis Cellars: Taking the Wheel
Randy Lewis had a career racing cars. He wanted a second one producing wine, which he'd discovered on the European Formula III circuit in the 1970s. "I would just camp out in those little wine villages between races," he says.

That he landed in Napa is no surprise. Somehow, you can't imagine a man this competitive, who made the starting grid for five Indianapolis 500s, launching a winery in Mendocino or Monterrey or even Sonoma. "There's nowhere for Cabernet like Napa," Lewis says. "The wines are thicker, richer, if you do it right."

Napa attracts people like Lewis, who've made the upper echelon in one field or another. And Lewis himself is proof that the idea of making world-class wine when you've barely ever mixed a cocktail isn't just a fantasy. "When you've raced cars for 23 years, your attitude is one of winning," Lewis says. "It wasn't like we arrived saying, 'We're going to blow everyone's socks off.' But we wanted to be good."

He didn't do it with money. You'd have to be a Mario Andretti, now a Napa neighbor with a winery of his own, to come away from racing in the '70s and '80s with the savings to be set for life. "We didn't have a huge bank account, so this wasn't about having fun," says Debbie Lewis, Randy's wife. "We needed to be serious."

"There's two ways you do it," Randy adds. "The more exciting way is, you come in and really do it. I'd only raced cars my whole life, so the learning curve was almost straight up. We thought, 'How will we catch up?' But we caught it at a time when things were changing so much, doing different stuff in the vineyards and the winery. We hadn't really missed anything."

Lewis dipped a toe in the water by helping the late Bob Miner start Oakville Ranch in 1989. In 1991, with Joe Cafaro as the winemaker, he released his own Chardonnay and Cabernet under Miner's label. Two years later, following his retirement from racing at age 46, he started Lewis Cellars with Cafaro as enologist. Then he hired Helen Turley for a year, and Paul Hobbs followed for three. By the end of 1999, he realized that he was making most of the important decisions. Since then, with help from several trainees, he has made the wine.

Now he turns out 9,000 cases a year of well-oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. In the best vintages, that includes about 150 cases designed to compete with the best Cabernets around. The 2001 Cuvee L looks as dark as prune juice, and it's almost as viscous. In a valley that values bigger as better, this is one of the best. Lewis pours a glass in the tasting room of his small winery and beams with pride. "I never won the Indy 500," Lewis says. "Now our whole life is in these barrels. This is the Indy 500."

Colgin: State of the Art
Ann Colgin is showing off the view from the picture window of her new winery, which is up a winding road overlooking Lake Hennessy, Napa Valley's back door. Then she turns to face a view inside that is nearly as stunning. A WPA mural from1939 dominates a sitting room, which is filled with antiques and art from around the world.


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