We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Lucas & Lewellen's head winemaker Megan McGrath Gates. Megan has been making wine at the iconic Santa Barbara winery for 10 years now. She talked to us about how she worked her way up to head winemaker, the challenges of being a female winemaker in a male dominated industry and what makes wine fun. Enjoy!
California Winery Advisor- Can you start with a few lines about yourself and your winemaking education and background?
Megan McGrath Gates - My interest in the natural sciences started in my youth. My mom and dad bought me a chemistry set and microscope when I was 9. My grandpa was a chemist and I think I take after him. My parents recognized this in me so they sent my twin sister and me to The Midland School in Los Olivos, a boarding school for grades 9th -12th. There, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley, I studied chemistry, botany, geology and physics in the field and classroom.
My wise mother noticed how enthralled I was with nature and science and recommended I try Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. There I met an influential professor who taught me viticultural soils. I earned a B.S. degree in Soil Science. From there I eventually moved to Sonoma near Sebastopol to immerse myself in wine country and learn first-hand from the bottom up.
I worked with Dr. Daniel Roberts and Dr. Alfred Cass analyzing soils for vineyards. Next, I managed to work at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma coast in the lab and cellar. While there I studied for a Certificate in Winemaking from UC Davis.
After 5 years in Sonoma, I decided to move closer to home. That’s when I was selected by Lucas & Lewellen to be their Assistant Winemaker. Within a few months, I was promoted to Winemaker. 2016 is my 10th harvest working as the winemaker for L&L. The people here at L&L, especially Louis Lucas, have been an important part of my education as well. I have something new to learn every day and I am humbled by this expansive discipline of winemaking that would take many lifetimes to fully comprehend.
CWA - You have a background in soil sciences. Has that influenced your approach to winemaking?
MMG - My in-depth scientific experience with vineyard soils, including morphology, taxonomy, and chemistry, allows me to have x-ray vision so to speak. I have a repertoire of classic soil profiles I can “see” when I encounter a vineyard and its soil maps. This inherent knowledge is second nature and influences the way I understand the grapes and how to treat them. The more data and information I have about the vineyard the better.
CWA - Have drought conditions in the last few years affected your winemaking? What about the cost of water for irrigation?
MMG - A lack of water impacts our frost protection program. With depleted reserves in the underground water table, it takes us double the time to accumulate the water we need. Frost can strike at any time so this puts our nerves on edge.
For irrigating the vineyard we are able to access district water and well water which suffices. On the other hand, the hot winter impacted the life-cycle of the vines. We found that bloom was affected and fruit set was catastrophically meager last year. This was a state-wide phenomenon.
CWA - Do you have any favorite wines to make for L&L? Varietals that you’re most excited about or behavior that is especially interesting to monitor?
MMG - Pinot noir because it is delicate, nuanced, fragile and a challenge. It is also the wine I first learned to make.
CWA - How much do you consider potential sales when selecting varietals? Are you making wine for the consumer or just based on your team's palate?
MMG - The grapes we use to make the wine, which are grown in our estate vineyards, by pioneer and influential grower Louis Lucas, guides the wine profile we end up developing in the winery. I make the wine so that the beauty of the grapes is expressed and the wine is elevated by careful fermentations, disciplined monitoring, and artful blending.
CWA - Since your tenure at L&L, how have the wines changed?
MMG - Since the beginning, the wines at Lucas & Lewellen have been known for exceptional grape quality, classic winemaking methods that are true to the varietal, a ground to glass commitment to excellence from the entire team at Lucas & Lewellen, and approachable pricing with the idea that our wine is for everyone.
I had a firm foundation set for me to build upon when I came, so I went to work improving the winery facility, technology, and equipment. The Tasting Room staff tells guests that our obsession with cleanliness in the winery and my keen sense of smell has brought out a new purity and clarity of flavors and aromas in the wines we make, which is most noticeable, perhaps, in the Pinot Noir.
We are proud of all the wines that we make here at Lucas & Lewellen, but I believe the Pinot Noir program has been the most obvious in terms of advancement, and our recent Pinot Noirs have earned the scores and reviews we had hoped for to support that assumption.
CWA - Are the majority of your wine club members locals? In-state? Out of California?
MMG - More than half of our wine club members are from California – Californians love their wine! But we have committed club members in nearly every state where it is still legal to ship.
We even have quite a few Canadians who make the drive south to pick up their shipments from friends who live in the United States. What seems to set our Club apart is their longevity in and loyalty to the club. On the whole, they make a much longer than average commitment to us, and we hope they know that commitment is mutual.
CWA - Are there any new tech innovations you can share that have improved winemaking for you?
MMG - We have a spectrophotometer called a FOSS that allows me to get instant chemical analysis for a dozen parameters on juice and wine samples. It only takes three drops and one minute to process the sample and get results.
CWA - How does a wine end up in the “fun” category?
MMG - The Fun Wines Only tasting list used to be referred to as “The Sweet List”, and it wasn’t all that popular except to avowed sweet wine drinkers. As we ramped up production of Sparkling Wine and rosé, we decided to throw them on that list and change the name to “Fun Wines”.
That list quickly became our most popular tasting list, sweet wines and all! Fun Wines, to us, mean wines that are light hearted, maybe sweeter, maybe not. These wines are made for gathering with friends, like a crisp clean Riesling, any pink wine, a rich Port with chocolate, dessert wines, and, of course – bubbly! Think party wines.
CWA - What are the challenges you’ve faced making a name for yourself in a male-dominated industry?
MMG - In retrospect, I recognize that my life was highly influenced by the social culture of my childhood and young adulthood. I was raised by parents of the 60s. They were feminists and taught me self-empowerment. My father was a family-law lawyer and civil rights activist and my mom was a domestic violence social worker, helping women every day.
I attended a progressive college prep boarding school in Los Olivos. While I did encounter sexism throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and still do to this day, I was prepared to not let it define me. My father told me, you can be anything, the world is your oyster, and he meant it. He also told me not to be a lawyer because it wouldn’t make me happy, and my mom explained that plants made her happiest and I should consider studying plant science.
At times, I wonder if being a woman influenced my opportunities in life positively or negatively and my answer is that it’s been both. Luckily, I was met many male mentors at Midland, Cal Poly and in my career. At Midland I graduated with honors and played on the boy's soccer team, I earned awards in history, English, perseverance and athletics; I graduated cum laude with honors and received many awards at Cal Poly; at work, I moved up the ladder swiftly and was never passed over for a promotion. I’ve been flirted with a few times. I would have rather been spared the discomfort of that. I speak up and ask people to address me with respect, I defend myself when I’m referred to as a “girl”. I have a voice.
CWA - You’ve worked extensively in Northern California, how would you say the culture of wine is different here on the Central Coast?
MMG - Winemaking in Northern California is like being in a small village in Italy or France. The culture is engrained with a delicate sensitivity and high standards regarding the characteristic of natural products. Sonoma County’s bounty is overflowing with superb cheeses, craft breweries, organic farms, local specialty products like lavender, honey, tea and coffee and painstakingly grown superlative wine grapes. I love Northern California!
The difference between Northern California and Santa Barbara County wine country is that Santa Barbara has a very mild climate and a lot less rain. Thus, we have a longer growing season. We’ve had Cabernet Sauvignon and many Italian varieties still ripening in November. Santa Barbara has a luxurious climate that makes grape growing and winemaking a joy.