WineInk: Randy Lewis Races into 7908
Racer, winemaker hosts Aspen dinner as part of “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908
For winemakers, Aspen is a mecca.
It is not unusual to bump into wine icons like Donald Ziraldo (founder of Inniskillin), George Daou (Daou Vineyards), Peter Gago (Penfolds) or Charles Bieler (Bieler Père et Fils) at a streetside café or on the slopes. Some come to ski, others to do business, and some simply to drink wine with friends. But if Aspen had to claim just one as our hometown winemaker, we would do well to pick Randy Lewis of Napa Valley’s eponymous Lewis Cellars.
“I have been coming to town since the early 1980s, and we bought a place here about five years ago,” Randy said about his connection to the community. “I’ve been around the world, and Aspen’s just one of my very favorite places.”
On Wednesday, July 28, Randy will be in attendance for a special wine dinner at Aspen’s 7908, where he will pour his Lewis Cellars wines alongside the creative dishes of “Top Chef: Portland” participant Byron Gomez. It will be a classic pairing of Napa Valley fruit with the best in innovative international cuisine.
This is another iteration of what 7908 is dubbing their “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series.”
“We have such a great opportunity to connect with people we respect who are our friends in food and wine,” said Jonathan Pullis, wine director at 7908, about the Supper Club series. “We love to host these special events to share with our guests here in Aspen. The demand for unique experiences is so strong right now since summer is back on. Everyone wants to celebrate.”
Indeed, Pullis said reservations at the below-ground eatery have been a popular ticket this summer with many evenings sold out in advance. Due to the staffing issues that have affected the entire hospitality industry in Aspen, 7908 has deemed it prudent to close on Mondays and Tuesdays for the rest of the summer season.
“We thought it was best that we focus on providing five nights of the highest quality experience that we regularly offer,” he said of the summer schedule.
What: Aspen Summer Supper Club Series, Lewis Cellars wine dinner with Randy Lewis
When: Wednesday, July 28, 7 p.m.
How much: $325 per person
Reservations: 970-516-7908; opentable.com
Seats are few to the Lewis Cellars dinner as the wines that will be poured are only available in limited quantities. Reservations for the event are $325 per person and that includes tax and tip.
“Diners can expect the beautiful wines that Randy makes along with some treasures from the Lewis Cellars library,” Pullis said. “As far as food is concerned, chef Gomez loves these opportunities to do some ‘off the menu’ dishes, to push the envelope a little with the pairings.”
Don’t be surprised to see some global inspirations, perhaps from the Far East or South America.
Randy Lewis’ success in wine is one of the great second-act stories in contemporary American life. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, act one found him on the international stage as a world-class racing car driver. He is perhaps best known for reaching the start line at the Brickyard for five Indianapolis 500s. But it was time spent in Europe in the 1970s, where he had begun his career as a Formula Three driver, that would be the catalyst for his later life.
“I got to learn a little about wine in Europe and was fortunate to taste some great Bordeaux and Burgundy, and I loved the Rhône wines. That was where I began to get interested in wine,” he said.
Lewis retired from racing in 1991 following a 14th-place finish at Indy (after he had a memorable collision with the turn-one wall in pre-race qualifying) and, with his wife Debbie, matriculated to the Napa Valley to see if the wine business could equal the thrill of racing cars at 214.565 mph (his qualifying speed at that last Indy): “We had made some wines and helped out our friend Bob Miner (a late founder of Oracle Corporation) start Oakville Ranch Vineyards. But when Bob passed, we decided in 1994 to start our own winery.”
Early on, the Lewises made their wines at a custom crush facility and they were helped by legendary wine consultants Helen Turley and Paul Hobbs. Their lush Burgundian style Chardonnay and their rich, opulent Cabernet Sauvignon quickly became hits with both wine critics and wine lovers. The plan was always to put the fruit first and, instead of purchasing their own vineyards, Lewis Cellars makes wine from grapes sourced under long-term contracts from many of Napa’s most prestigious growers.
In 2016, Wine Spectator magazine named the 2013 Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon as the No. 1 wine of the year, a holy grail for a producer. When asked if it was the winemaking equivalent of gulping milk from the bottle at the finish line of the Indy 500 (the winner’s tradition at the fabled race), Lewis laughed and said, “I don’t know, you have to win the race to drink the milk. And I never did that.”
2019 Lewis Cellars Alec’s Blend
While Lewis has received the most adulation for their Cabernet Sauvignon, those in the know look for the blends for delicious value. This wine is a blend of Syrah (56%)
and Merlot (30%), with the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. At 7908 the Alec’s Blend (named for Randy and Debbie’s oldest grandson) is so popular as a by-the-glass-pour that is difficult to keep in stock. It’s so rich and opulent that when Pullis was asked for a tasting note, he replied: “Chocolate-covered cherry, ripe black plum and candied strawberries. Full body, complex. A blockbuster!” Sounds like he likes it.
If there is an analogy to be made between winemaking and the car racing business, Lewis says it is, ”You can’t win unless you have a great car. The fruit is the car … it is the first thing that you have to have. Sure, you can screw it up, even if you have great fruit. You can always run a great car into a wall. But hopefully you have a team to keep you from doing that.”
The Spectator honor was to be bittersweet as Debbie, Randy Lewis’ partner in wine and life who had been stricken with cancer that year, passed just weeks after receiving the award. Today, Lewis Cellars releases a special bottle of Sauvignon Blanc each year under the moniker “Debbie’s Cuvee” to honor her memory.
“She always loved to sip a little Sauvignon Blanc while we would make dinner,” Randy said with love.
The Lewis Cellars team today includes Randy’s stepson (Debbie’s son) Dennis Bell, who is the winery’s president, winemaker James McCeney and of course Randy, who still makes the rounds. “I was in Aspen in June when the Food & Wine Classic was supposed to be happening and I called on the accounts just like in the beginning,” he said, reeling off Ajax Tavern, Of Grape & Grain, Bosq and Casa Tua as some of those he poured for. And, of course, 7908.
In July 2020, Randy turned 75, but was unable to celebrate the milestone.
“I couldn’t wait to get back out there,” he said about his plans for this summer. Just before the wine dinner at 7908, he will be returning from an epic trip that began in Barcelona, continued on to San Sebastian (“the best eating city in the world,” he counsels) and culminated in Provence. “Debbie and I used rent a little house there and I figured I would invite a few friends for my birthday,” he said.
Pullis, a master sommelier who is one of the most experienced and well-liked wine professionals in the country, and Lewis have been friends since the turn of the century.
“I first met Randy and Debbie at the Little Nell when they came to the Classic,” Pullis said. “It has been a delight to share Lewis Cellars with my customers for over 20 years. There are a lot of great wines out there, but it really comes down to people and the story.” He paused, then added, “Randy is just one of those people with a passion and an infectious laugh. He’s just the kind of guy you want to hang out with and drink some great wine.”
Cheers to that!
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