The 2007 PharaohMoans Dinner at Bardessono
Tasting the world's best wines is always a privilege no matter the occasion. But sampling a wine in the presence of the visionaries who dreamed it into existence affords heightened insight into the wine's raison d'etre, the spirit that gives it life. This enables one not only to taste the quality of the wine, but also to experience the wine as its producers do – as the fruit of years of toil and anticipation.
We had such an opportunity on July 21 at Yountville's newest culinary hot-spot, Bardessono, where a collection of Montesquieu's top brokers dined with John Schwartz and Stephan Asseo to taste their 2007 PharaohMoans Syrah from Paso Robles. It was clear from the outset that PharoahMoans proprietor John Schwartz and winemaker Stephan Asseo make a formidable team. John's energy was infectious as he described the wine's origins. His vision for the wine came after a visit to the British Museum's Egyptology wing on a family vacation to England. The PharaohMoans is a tribute to ancient Egypt, where the Pharaohs ran a thriving winemaking industry in Nile delta vineyards as early as 3000 B.C. The wine is uniquely packaged in an old style Champagne bottle with a label resembling the Rosetta Stone, and when purchased winery-direct or through Montesquieu, it ships in a one-of-a-kind six-pack wooden box shaped like a pyramid. Typical of John's tireless attention to detail, not a single element of the wine's presentation has been left to chance.
Stephan Asseo exhibits equal care and precision in the vineyard and cellar. His winemaking philosophy is a perfect fit for both Paso Robles and PharaohMoans. A vintner in Bordeaux for many years, Stephan spoke at length about how France's restrictive AOC laws inhibited his ability to express himself freely through his wines. A journey to find the ideal terroir took him to South Africa, Lebanon, the Languedoc, and ultimately Paso Robles, where Stephan started his L'Aventure winery with the 1998 vintage. He brought with him to Paso a vision for producing Syrah/Cab blends, inspired by the wonderful things he saw vintners do with Cabernet and Syrah during his travels to Lebanon and the Languedoc. Stephan has apparently found his muse – over the past decade, he has built a reputation as one of the very best Cab/Syrah producers in the New World.
It's not hard to understand why, especially when you hear Stephan discuss his winemaking approach. He told us that he takes great pride in blending "blind" the fruit from the four plots on his estate vineyard so as to ensure that the wine's potential production size never interferes with the final blend. Stephan argues that winemakers who know how much fruit they have from each vineyard or varietal will be influenced, even if unintentionally, to craft blends that take full advantage on the quantity of juice available rather than whatever blend makes the best wine. As a purist who runs as much on raw passion as on honed skill, Stephan made it clear that he takes every measure available to craft wine of the highest possible quality. Although Stephan spoke engagingly about his winemaking philosophy, he admitted to being most at home tending his vines and toiling under the sun in his beloved Paso Robles terroir – which, at the end of the day, is precisely what we expect from a top rate vintner.
After that kind of lead-in, one might expect the wine of the evening to have disappointed once poured. It didn't. Jet black in color and sporting a perfumed bouquet of brooding black fruit and spices, the 2007 PharaohMoans offers no apologies for its intense style. The Syrah (92%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (8%) are carefully sourced from a 3-acre parcel of Stephan Asseo's L'Aventure property. Unquestionably Californian in its ripe attack, this powerful Syrah – the only wine in the world permitted to use the WestSide appellation on its label – is also an example of carefully calibrated terroir expression. The WestSide's limestone soils give Stephan the raw materials he needs to produce a finessed wine with Rhone-like naunces of earth, bacon fat and white pepper.
Unsurprisingly, then, the wine fit in comfortably at our table as a worthy match for a rich but refined main course. Enjoying the 2007 PharaohMoans next to Beef Sirloin accompanied by stuffed vegetables and summer truffle only accentuated the wine's complexity – underscoring the value of what John's vision and Stephan's prowess have brought to the wine world.