Debbie Lewis was a perfect fit for wine. She grew up on a farm in California's Central Valley and worked in wine retail at one point. Later she married race-car driver Randy Lewis and managed his career for more than a decade. When his time racing ended, the couple went into winemaking, building Lewis Cellars into a champion of Napa Valley Cabernet. Last month, their 2013 vintage was named Wine Spectator's 2016 Wine of the Year.
The recognition of their achievement came at a bittersweet moment, as Debbie was in the final stages of a yearlong battle with various forms of cancer, which ended Jan. 4. She was 72.
"Debbie was the rock, the steady hand of our family and of Lewis Cellars," said Randy. "There would be no Lewis Cellars without Debbie. She quietly worked to make Lewis Cellars the best it could be, inspiring us all to do the same."
The eldest of four daughters born to Bob and Mildred Millhauser, Debbie grew up in San Mateo, south of San Francisco, later moving to Hillsborough. Her family owned J.L. Aldrich Ranch in Walnut Grove, south of Sacramento, where they grew Bartlett pears and row crops for more than a century. Debbie spent childhood summers at the ranch and later managed the operation.
She married young, then divorced and raised three sons. She was "a very loving and dedicated single parent," recalled her oldest son, Dennis Bell, who joined her at Lewis Cellars and rose to be president. She loved cooking, fitness and hiking and taught kindergarten before tapping her longtime interest in wine. She worked in retail sales and then co-managed the oldest wine bar in San Francisco, the London Wine Bar.
She met Randy at a wine-tasting group in the late 1970s. The two became fast friends, sharing their love for wine. After they married, they together ran a successful racing enterprise, Motor Race Marketing, with Randy behind the wheel and Debbie handling the business logistics.
Lewis' driving career ended in 1991 when he smashed into a wall during a qualifying run for the Indianapolis 500. He walked away from the crash unharmed, but it proved to be a turning point. "It was so scary, so unreal," recalled Debbie in a 2004 interview with Wine Spectator. She didn't witness the collision but heard a screech and the bang of a car hitting a concrete wall and knew instantly what had happened. "He was the only one driving [during that trial run], so I knew it was his car," she recalled. The red warning-light flashed, then came the sounds of sirens and ambulances.
Up until that moment, Debbie said, "Randy really wasn't sure what he wanted to do after racing." That changed quickly. He decided to pursue an interest in winemaking. The Lewises decided to become vintners in Napa Valley, working first for friend and fellow vintner Bob Miner at Oakville Ranch while Debbie studied the business. When Miner died in 1994, the Lewises lost the vineyard source for the first few wines they had made.
It forced the couple to seek a new path, but they found new fruit sources and began producing a bounty of exceptional wines over more than two decades. The Lewises shared a passion for rich, powerful New World wines, an opulent style that suits Napa Valley grapes, as well as Chardonnays from Sonoma County.
They also shared a passion for each other and forged an ideal partnership working together. Their winery is now recognized as among the region's quality elite. "This [Wine of the Year] award lets the world know what her friends already knew," said Randy. "That she was an amazing lady."