Thoughts on the Wettest of Vintages

The vineyards are flooding.  Southern California is currently experiencing what the forecasters are calling “the largest weather event in the last six years.” (Let’s just forget about “Stormageddon” two years ago - too bad they used that one up already). Some of the vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley are currently under water. Many people have been asking me, what does this mean for the grapes? Is all this rain a good thing or a bad thing?

My stock answer is that in February, what is a good thing for the state’s water system is a good thing for all of California agriculture. After six years of drought, the reservoirs and aquifers are in serious need of replenishment, and the soil could use a good soaking, too. Notwithstanding erosion in the vineyards (bad), the vines themselves are all tucked up inside their blankies and asleep for the winter months (good). All this raining and pouring means very little to the old man who’s snoring.  Furthermore, it helps cleanse the vineyards of salt, which tends to build up over the dry years.

Rain (and other forms of severe weather) can certainly be bad at other times of year. Once the vines reawaken from their slumber, they are far more susceptible to damage, especially during bud break and flowering. Once the buds emerge, the crop is instantly vulnerable to frost - which can really stunt a vineyard’s growth. Rain or hail can also wreak havoc on a vine’s delicate flowers, and can destroy an entire crop depending on timing or severity. This happens far more often in France than it does here, but we are not out of the woods this year by any means.

For now we will relish every drop that falls from the sky.  Pop a cork, pour some Lumen into your glass, and listen to the rain drum against the roof. When it rains, it pours!

- Will Henry

Are Winemakers Magicians?

Years ago I wrote an article for The Surfer’s Path Magazine about my good friend, Oded Shakked, who was then winemaker at J Vineyards.  During the interview he commented about how people make such a big deal about winemaking.  “Winemakers don’t really deserve all that attention,” he said.  “After all, we are only making a beverage.”

I have heard other winemakers make similar proclamations.  One told me that successful winemaking is, simply put, not making any mistakes.  I took all of these comments with a grain of salt, though, thinking they came from famous people who were just shrugging off the attention.

On the flip side, on trips to France winemakers would wax exultant about their craft, talking about it as though the entire process were infused with winemaker pixie dust.  “Winemaking is an art that I have learned through six generations of working in our cellar,” or something along those lines.  Oh la la.

What I have discovered after five years of working with Lane Tanner is this: it’s a mixture of both magic and common sense.  It is a little pinch of not making mistakes, mixed with a smidgeon of routine, a sprinkle of trial by error, and accented with a dash of pure blind luck.  Much of what we do is exactly like what we did last year.  The glory of it all is that every year is totally different, and carries with it delicious new surprises - some of which are challenges, and some of which are revelations.  The longer I participate in this craft, the more I realize that it is the decisions along the way that define a winemaker’s style.  What blocks to choose from, what vineyards, when to pick, how long to cold soak, when to press and barrel down: these are the tiny details that make our wines different than our neighbors, even if they may be using the fruit from the next row over.

With our 2014 vintage now on the market, I can say that we have made some good decisions along the way.  Our wines have been scoring high marks with the critics, and are as affordable as ever.  Thank goodness for all that common sense, and for that little bit of winemaker pixie dust.

- Will Henry

Looking to taste our wines?  Stop by the Pico at the Los Alamos General Store at 458 Bell Street in Los Alamos, CA.   Lumen flights are always available at our new wine bar.

Will 2016 be the vintage of the decade?

2016 marks the fifth vintage that I have worked alongside my partner and friend, Lane Tanner.  One of the things we love about making wine is that every vintage is different.  While some tasks in the winery may seem mundane, the uniqueness of every harvest ensures that the work never gets old.  Even Lane, who has been making Pinot Noir for upwards of three decades in this valley, relishes each year’s harvest as though it were her first.

Every now and then a vintage comes along that winemakers describe as having “perfect numbers.”  What that means is that the fruit has a perfect balance between acidity and sugar.  We measure this in three ways: titratable acidity, pH, and degrees brix.  As fruit nears maturity in the vineyard, Lane and I sample the fruit every few days and measure these three things, from which we glean sugar levels (brix), and acidity (pH and TA).  We use that information, along with the flavor we taste in the grapes, to make one of the most important decisions we will make all year: when to call the pick.  And, muy importante: we won’t call the pick, no matter what the sugar or acid, until the fruit reaches an appropriate complexity of flavor.

Perfect numbers are usually a result of cold nights and warm (not hot) days during the ripening of the fruit.  As fruit matures, it’s sugar goes up and its acid goes down.  Cold nights keeps the acidity from decreasing too quickly, as does a lack of extreme heat during the day.  2016 seems to have produced the perfect combination of weather patterns in the Santa Maria Valley, yielding fruit that has reached flavor maturity much earlier than normal.  What that means is that we are able to pick with lower sugars- and higher acidity - than any harvest I have seen before.

So what does that mean for the final product?  The 2016 wines will have impeccable balance, lower alcohol, and a striking acidity.  They will also age phenomenally well.  Paint by numbers might not be what most people call “real art.”  But perfect numbers for Pinot will most certainly be.

Looking to taste our wines?  Stop by the Pico at the Los Alamos General Store at 458 Bell Street in Los Alamos, CA.   Lumen flights are always available at our new wine bar.

-Will Henry

Thoughts on El Niño and General Lack of Z's

“I don’t pay the mortgage that I do for rainy weather,” my Irish friend said to me a few days ago.  “The drought sits just fine with me.”

And it’s true: the last few winters in Santa Barbara have been the nicest summers I have ever experienced.  And with the only worry I currently have being whether or not I can water my lawn, I guess it’s not so bad.  People frequently ask me if it is negatively impacting the vineyards, and my answer is generally “no.”  Vines in general don’t consume a lot of water relative to other crops.  They are drought tolerant, and survive quite well on minimal drip irrigation.  Furthermore the vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley draw water from a very healthy network of aquifers, none of which are depleted like many of those in the rest of the state.

Yet this year, I am starting to change my mind.  The problem with our succession of warm winters is not so much the lack of rain, but the lack of cold weather.  Vines like chilly winters.  They go into dormancy in the late fall and like to get a good, solid winter’s sleep.  If the temperatures are too high mid-winter, they have a restless sleep, and wake up feeling like we would after less than eight hours.  It’s like falling asleep with the lights on.

During the last few springs, bud break has been increasingly early in the season.  Vines have been lured out of dormancy far too early due to spiking temps during January and February.  This causes the vines to wake up groggy and have a bad day (year).  And when it happens for a few days (years) in a row, they get tired and cranky, just like I would.  (And since I currently have an infant sharing my bed-space, I can totally relate.)  The other potential harm comes in the form of spring frost, to which the young buds are particularly susceptible.

Bud break has come very early again this year, and what it portends for the fruit, we will have to wait and see.  Last year it came very early as well, and some people were harvesting Chardonnay in August.  That, my friends, is unheard of.  We started picking Pinot Noir the first week in August, a record for us.  A little dose of cold weather and rain would be a welcome guest at this point.

If this weather pattern persists, we in California will have to start seeking ever-cooler vineyard sites.  Thankfully we at Lumen are in one of the coolest zones already -  and I don’t just mean our attitudes.

BREAKING NEWS: Lumen tastings are now available at The Los Alamos General Store and Pico restaurant, located at 458 Bell Street in the sleepy town of Los Alamos, CA.  Drop in and pay us a visit!


- Will Henry

The Spanish and French have argued for centuries over which side of the border Grenache originates from.  In Spain it is known as Garnacha, and is the most widely planted varietal in the country.  In France it is Grenache, and is a major blending component of wines from the Southern Rhone, most famously in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  In Italy it is known as Cannonau, and is planted mostly in Sardinia.  For whatever reason, we in the new world have sided with France on this one, and call it by its French name, Grenache (Gren-osh).  (Although history tends to suggest it did, in fact, originate in Spain).  So be it.  Grenache is the fifth most commonly planted wine grape world-wide, and for good reason: it produces phenomenal wines with a wide variation of styles and flavor profiles, no matter how you pronounce it.

In California, the varietal has a rich history.  Many of the state’s original plantings in the Central Valley were Grenache (but alas, not planted in the right zone and not all that tasty), and today it still occupies over 7,000 acres of vineyard in the Golden State.  Where the varietal really seems to shine is the Central Coast.  Here the fog-influenced climate - with cool mornings giving way to hot, wind-blown afternoons - provides a perfect zone for producing world-class Grenache wines.  And that, my dear friends, is why LUMEN makes it.

We prefer our Grenache as a 100% varietal expression.  While in many places it is blended with Syrah or Mourvedre to give it more body and darker color, our experience has taught us that it shines best by itself.  Maybe like John Lennon without the Beatles, or Michael Jackson without the Jackson 5, we find that the solo artist makes the purest music.  Our first year making Grenache we tried test-blending it with Pinot Noir, and the strange thing was that the Pinot dominated it.  So we left it alone.  The LUMEN Grenache can now sing its own aria.

The 2014 Lumen Grenache comes from two vineyards in our region: Martian Vineyard in Los Alamos, and Camp 4 in Los Olivos.  We make it exactly like we do our Pinot Noir, and the end result is a wine much like Pinot in body, but with a vastly different flavor profile.  Our Grenache is fruit-driven, with raspberry and chocolate flavors on the palate, accented by cinnamon and white pepper.  We think we are joining the forefront of a new movement that will put Grenache on the map as Santa Barbara’s next best offering to the world of wine.

Grab a hold of our new Grenache offering while it is still in stock, and don’t worry about how to pronounce it!  And while you’re at it, grab a few others to boot.  Our Newsletter members get a killer deal - 20% off!  Just use this code at checkout:


- Will Henry

[vc_row show_full_width="1" padding_setting="1" desktop_padding="no-padding"][vc_column][vc_column_text]Lumen's 2013 Pinots receive sweet accolades! Click here to read the article in The Pinot File.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Controversy over Wine Scores

For many decades now, wine critics have been reviewing wines, and wine consumers have been following their guidance.  This fact is hardly surprising given the sheer number of wines on our supermarket shelves, and the high prices we encounter when walking down the aisles.  None of us likes to make a $30 mistake, and there seem to be an ever-growing number of opportunities to do so.  Hence wine consumers often rely on the so-called experts to recommend good bottles to take home and quaff.

For decades there was an indisputable king of wine reviewing, Robert Parker, who dominated the winescape for decades with his 100-point rating system - a system which has now been adopted by most other wine publications.  A high-scoring wine usually earns 90 points or above.  The criticisms of this method of scoring are numerous, however, especially from within the industry.

“If you were designing a bridge,” asks Peter Neptune, Master Sommelier, “would you trust the engineering to a college-level science student, or would you insist on having an actual engineer?”  Neptune makes a valid point: the most influential wine critics do not hold any degrees in their field.  Of course, buying an inferior bottle of wine isn’t as serious as a bridge collapsing, but we get the point.  Who are these people that we are trusting to fill our wine glasses each night?

Placing complete faith in one person’s palate has consequences.  All of us have different opinions when it comes to wine.  Some of us prefer balance over strength.  Some of us love big, jammy reds; some of us like crisp, fresh whites; and some of us prefer finesse and harmony over all else.  Robert Parker’s palate tends towards the former.  Some say he has a smoker’s palate; he likes big, heavy, intense red wines that feel like they are socking you in the teeth.  Many of us, however, would rather not stain our pearly whites purple every night (myself included).

The first time that Lane and I had to submit our wines for evaluation came just a few months ago, and I must admit I was nervous.  Our wines are not fit for Bob’s palate.  They are fresh, lively wines, and not big fruit bombs.  Luckily, its seems that the tides are finally turning - critics seem to be valuing a style of winemaking that many of us thought was history.  This was something I always admired about my partner, Lane Tanner: her winemaking has always been honest and dedicated to making wines of impeccable balance, no matter what Bob may think.

Needless to say, we didn’t send our wines to Mr. Parker - but instead The Wine Enthusiast - and I am pleased to report that our scores were good: for the 2013 vintage, our Chardonnay earned 92 points, our Pinot Noir 91 points, and our Grenache 92 points.  While we don’t necessarily need assurance that we are making good wine, a little pat on the back doesn’t hurt at all.  Now our fans can all trust that the Lumen bridge is safe to cross.

- Will Henry

Thoughts on the Most Exalted of Drinks

In the wide world of alcoholic beverages, wine gets a lot of attention.  While craft beers, ciders, and spirits take more of the spotlight, wine nonetheless seems to hold onto an infallible center position.  To many consumers it is the holy grail of what can be swirled, sniffed and tasted.  No matter how peaty a single-malt whiskey, or hoppy the finest barrel-aged ale, wine seems to remain in a class by itself.  Which begs the question: is all this hype about a beverage justified?

This past harvest, to satisfy my curiosity, I brewed a small batch of hard cider in my garage, made from fresh Gizdich Ranch apples and a dose of freshly pressed organic ginger.  Alongside it I fermented a half-barrel of Grenache rosé wine, sourced from Martian Vineyards in Los Alamos.  I wanted to see if apples, with help, could rival a fairly simple (single vineyard and single varietal) representation of wine.  The verdict became glaringly obvious after a few months, as both beverages sat in their respective barrels.  The wine was disappearing much faster than the cider.

The rapidly-sinking level of the rosé was not due to a higher evaporation rate; it was simply because I was thieving the wine with far more frequency.  It’s not that the cider was bad - it was actually quite good.  But the rosé was far more appealing to my palate, and a better companion to my cheese plates and home-cooked meals.  I had an obvious preference for the wine, which held far more depth and complexity than its apple-based cousin.

I came to the same conclusion that many generations of drinkers had before me: that wine grapes provide, without question, the most complex fermented beverage on the planet.  There is a reason why wine is the most exalted of liquids: there exists no greater expression of what sun, soil and weather can produce.  Wine may just be a beverage, but it is in a class by itself.  Proof can be found by swirling a healthy dose of Lumen in your glass!

- Will Henry

Wine Enthusiast Magazine, February 2015

Read the full article

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