Childhood Dreams Become Reality for Megan McGrath Gates of Lucas & Lewellen

I love meeting winemakers and hearing their stories of how they fell onto the path of becoming a winemaker. Every person has a different journey as to what drew them into the wine industry. When I sat down with Megan McGrath Gates, winemaker at Lucas & Lewellen in the Santa Ynez Valley, she shared her story with me, which started with a childhood dream. But, even with a dream, she never imagined she would end up making wine. And yet she has. Megan’s childhood dreams have become her reality as I wrote about recently in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing here.

When Megan McGrath Gates was a little girl, she would listen to the stories of her grandparents. A ninth-generation Californian, Gates was raised in Riverside. But, her ancestors were ranchers and she is a direct descendant of the historic Olivas family in Ventura, California.

Despite her ancestors, Gates was a typical suburban kid. Her dad is a lawyer and her mom is a teacher. She is one of six children and has a twin sister. With all of the romantic stories about her family, she dreamed about being a rancher and living a bucolic life.

Gates attended the Midland School, a boarding school in Los Olivos, for high school. A prep school with a progressive agenda, it had a 2,800-acre property that appealed to Gates. After her experience at the school, as well as family camping trips and the stories of her ancestors, Gates knew the life she wanted to lead. She knew she could not be a farmer because she did not own land. She asked her mom how she could attain her dream and her mom told her to go to UC Davis. There, Gates studied soil science with a concentration in vineyard soils.

After graduation, Gates worked for a soil consortium in Napa and Sonoma. Working for a soil consortium may not sound very sexy, but for Gates, she was following her dream. She loved working with soils, which also enabled her to interact with many formidable wineries, including Ramey, Rudd, Flowers, Opus one and Dutton-Goldfield. Flowers then asked her to come work with them. She spent three years working at Flowers under Ross Cobb and Darrin Low while getting her certificate of winemaking from UC Davis. Gates has been using her sense of smell ever since.

In 2007, everything came full circle when Gates moved to the Santa Ynez Valley to work for Lucas & Lewellen. Returning to the same area where she went to high school, Gates said, “Santa Ynez Valley feels like home. Los Padres National Forest, the coastal range, the Santa Ynez mountains and Lake Cachuma all make up the most gorgeous land and rock formations in one small area. The natural beauty of the area is unsurpassed and there is great weather. Yes, there is a lack of rain but otherwise it is a perfect place.”

Lucas & Lewellen was founded by Judge Royce Lewellen and grape grower Louis Lucas in 1996. They own three vineyards, Valley View Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley, Goodchild & Old Adobe Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and Los Alamos Valley Vineyard in Los Alamos Valley, for a total of 400 acres, 380 of which are planted. Estate owned and estate grown, they sell half of the grapes and use the other half to produce wines under the labels Lucas & Lewellen and Toccata.

A diverse selection of grape varieties is grown at Lucas & Lewellen. There is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Gewurztraminer and White Riesling. In addition, Lucas & Lewellen has a number of Italian varieties planted, including Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Freisa, Pinot Grigio, Malvasia Bianca, Muscat Canelli and Orange Muscat.

Gates smells every barrel before racking and does all of the blends. But, with a love for soil, Gates approaches winemaking from the ground-up. “We make many decisions during the growing, fermenting and aging states, but ultimately the grape has to express itself and that starts in the soil,” she explained. This was demonstrated as I tasted three of the Lucas & Lewellen wines with Megan.

Toccata 2017 Ramato Pinot Grigio, Santa Barbara County—Named for “copper colored” in Italian, the “Ramato” is an orange wine, not a rosé. The Pinot Grigio spends a few hours on its skin before being pressed. It is a delicate copper color and on the nose the wine is fresh and fruity with notes of strawberries and crisp acidity. The wine retails for $21.

Lucas & Lewellen 2016 High 9 Goodchild Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley – Coming from the highest nine-acre block in the vineyard, the wine has notes of raspberry, baking spices and vanilla and an elegant finish. It is an amazing value at $35.

Lucas & Lewellen 2014 Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley – Clone 6 Cabernet comes from a three-acre block in the Valley View Vineyard. With notes of plum, cassis, currants and spice, the wine pairs well with meat dishes and retails for $70.

Megan McGrath Gates is doing what we dreamed about. She fantasized of living on a farm as a child and grew up to work and manager a vineyard and winery. Fantasies do come true.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.