Syrah clusters hanging in there as harvest approaches at Lucas Vineyards

By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography

Lucas winemaker Jeff Houck is unaware of this, but he was born with trace amounts of sodium pentothal in his blood. You know it better as "truth serum." He's incapable of even trying to mislead you about the wines made by Lucas Vineyards on the southwestern part of Cayuga Lake. He's an FBI agent's dream — were he ever to commit a high-profile felony, that is. Easiest conviction ever.

I didn't know this, of course, until I asked why Lucas Vineyards planted syrah in the early part of this decade. Jeff answered thusly: "No one else was doing it, and we wanted to have something original." 

See, most winemakers would say something like, "A topographical survey indicated that the Finger Lakes might have as much in common with Cote-Rotie as we do with Mosel, so we figured…" Or even, "The cool climate opportunity with this varietal is…" But nope, Jeff had no problem saying that Lucas just wanted something unique.

I loved that answer.


I didn't necessarily agree with the choice. Sure, syrah's ancestral home of Cote-Rotie is saddled with a bit of a misnomer (Cote-Rotie translates to "roasted coast," but the appellation is the coolest in the Rhone Valley). And that misnomer might lead one to wonder if the grape actually profits from cooler climates more than warmer. But I thought the odds were stacked strongly against it. Very few Finger Lakes producers make a straight syrah (I can think of Red Newt and Atwater off-hand, and that's about it), and the free market of winemaking is pretty effective. Its relative lack of presence betrayed something significant. 

The wine, I discovered, betrays nothing inherently flawed. The 2007 version is the second produced by Lucas, and Jeff Houck concedes he might never again see such hot and dry conditions. This syrah comes off suspiciously similar to a warm year, cool-climate Merlot — with an extra round of black pepper and spice mixed in. "It's the spice that makes syrah unique," Jeff said as we tasted on a glorious harvest day. "But I understand why people would find it similar to other vinifera wines."

C'mon, I was thinking, Where's the hyperbole? The grand pronouncements of Syrah's new cool climate sweet spot? 

But Jeff Houck doesn't peddle in hyperbole. Lucas' website lists 28 different wines for sale and they total 26,000 cases annually. It's a workhorse operation and Jeff explains, "It's not always easy to give each varietal as much time as you want. Our goal is to produce a wide range of wines that will satisfy a wide range of customers." Judging by the packed tasting room, the approach is working.

Outside in the vineyard, Jeff was even harsher in his assessment of Finger Lakes syrah. "I would certainly not recommend that other operations plant it," he said, then added playfully, "We want to be the only ones making it!" But he wasn't kidding about the challenges of growing syrah. "The clusters are just gorgeous, and they'll motor along throughout the growing season, but all of a sudden they'll hit this wall, and they're pretty much done. We're not exactly sure why that is yet. But there seems to be a point that they simply stop ripening."


As a result, syrah requires a careful eye and more resources in the Finger Lakes. "I don't have all the numbers in front of me, but the reason I wouldn't recommend planting it is because it's a serious challenge economically. I doubt we're making much money with Syrah. But don't misunderstand me. I love our syrah and we're proud of it."

The 2007 sells for $24.99 per bottle and given how approachable it is, I'd guess it will sell out. 

Jeff's true vinifera passion clearly lies in riesling and cabernet franc, and before we left he raided the library. I was shocked that the '03 Lucas Cabernet Franc was stilling cranking cigar box and plum. The '05 is a standout from a sure-to-be-classic vintage. On the riesling side, I thought the '03 Lucas Dry Riesling was turning over to a bit too much rubber tire, but the '01 Lucas Semi-Dry was like a marathon runner who had given up at mile 10 — only to find out at mile 15 that he had another gear. Very impressive.

There is something distinctly cloying about false profundity. There is something equally profound about humility, and Jeff Houck has it in abundance. You might not love every wine, but that won't offend him — and you'll root for this winemaker who is cheerfully and straightforwardly approaching his 14th harvest.