Down a side road, at the end of another side road, off the pavement and down a gravel road, the hills of Paso Robles rise up like the sharply arched back of a bucking horse. Tucked back in these folds of rolling hills, a few years ago, a determined French winemaker finally set down his luggage and declared himself home.
Stéphan Asseo by all accounts should be an Old World winemaker. Trained in the Macon of Burgundy and serving as winemaker for 17 vintages of Bordeaux wines in the St. Emilion, ten years ago anyone willing to wager would most certainly have put the odds on him having a long career in Bordeaux. Instead, in 1998 he uprooted himself and his family from France, and after considering Spain, Australia, South America, South Africa and even Lebanon, settled in the green hills to the west side of Paso Robles with a vision to make wines suited to the unique terroir he discovered on the steep rolling slopes of limestone soils of the Templeton Gap.
There, on previously unplanted land, he has laid in vines of Cabernet, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, and Rousanne, and built a winery which bears the name L’Aventure. For its initial vintages the winery purchased some grapes from Halter Ranch Vineyards and Casa Grande Vineyards, but Asseo’s vision has always been for his wines to be entirely estate grown, and is rapidly closing in on that goal.
Asseo is deeply steeped in the traditions and nuances of terrior from his substantial career in Europe, and he has continued to make that a focus of his efforts here in the New World. The selection of land was done carefully, looking (with a backhoe) for deep deposits of the fine grained limestone mixed with clay that underlies much of the west side of Paso Robles, and with the idea of finding a place that took perfect advantage of the Templeton Gap — a break in the coastal hills that lets in fog capable of generating nearly 40 degree variation in daytime and nighttime temperatures. Asseo carefully decided the mix of vines in the field based on individual microclimates in the vineyard, and the irrigation systems and trellising systems based on the soil and light exposure.
The choice of the United States instead of all the other possible winegrowing regions was made for a number of reasons, but one of the primary ones was the freedom that it provided Asseo to make new types of wines that defied easy description and categorization. Bored and frustrated in Bordeaux, Asseo began exploring the wine regions of the world. Everywhere that Asseo went looking for a potential new home he found that the wines he enjoyed the most were blends of one sort or another. Asseo knew a thing or two about blending, coming as he did from years in Bordeaux, but he also knew that the sort of wines he wanted to make wouldn’t fly in most appellations around the world.
Asseo is a master blender, and nearly all of his wines benefit from some blending, even if just blending the proportion of wines aged in different sort of barrels. For those wines which also involve blending of different varietals, Asseo ferments them all separately and then makes dozens of different blends to taste blind — at first by himself and then with other winemakers and friends before arriving at the blends for his various wines, some of which stay in the L’Aventure label, and some of which are bottled under his second label: Stephan Ridge.
Many of the blends are untypical for California, whether it be the somewhat unusual blending of Cabernet and Syrah, or the radical blend of Cab, Syrah, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, and Petite Verdot. Asseo is increasingly finding himself using more Petite Verdot than most vintners in the state, along with Mourvedre and Grenache. Asseo’s estate vines are just on their seventh leaf, but they are already showing a depth and power that speak of amazing potential.
Asseo brings the same precision and micro-management to his vineyard practices that he does to his blending. Part of his vision for his winery required land that he could work himself, and walk himself, every day of the year. Asseo strictly controls yields to below 2 tons per acre, as wall as vine density (more than 2000 vines per acre) in his 127 acres of land, of which about 60 acres are planted. All grapes are hand harvested, a tricky, but perhaps necessary, feat on these steep hillsides, and they are often hand destemmed and sorted multiple times before being crushed and fermented. All the wines are aged in 100% French oak.
I had a chance to stop by the winery the other day and tasted through the current lineup of wines, and came away from the experience thrilled with what’s going on in these bottles. Asseo has already gotten a lot of attention and some decent scores for his wines from most of the major critics out there, but mark my words, these wines will be the most sought-after in the appellation in just a few years. If I could, I’d buy stock. They are at once powerful, clearly California in character, but also balanced and smooth despite some of their alcohol levels reaching towards 16%.
2000 L’Aventure Chardonnay, Paso Robles, CA
Bright yellow in the glass, with a hint of cloudiness that speaks of no filtering, this wine has a complex nose of honey, beeswax, herbs, and warm bread. In the mouth it is bright with acidity, a gorgeous mouthfeel, and flavors of lemon zest, grapefruit, and wet blackboards. If I was tasting this blind I would have sworn up and down that it was a White Burgundy and I would have bet any amount of money that this was not a California wine. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $25.
Available now only through the winery. (You may have to call). Sadly 2001 was the last vintage for this wine as it did not sell well in California. 01 is sold out, but some of the 2000 was returned from a distributor in Europe and so it is now available. The loss of this wine is a crying shame if you ask me, as it could have convinced legions of ABC drinkers to jump off the wagon.
2002 L’Aventure Zinfandel, Paso Robles, CA
A medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has bright fruit on the nose of redcurrant, cassis, and blackberries. In the mouth it is very balanced with a smooth mouthfeel and primary flavors of raspberries, redcurrant, and blackberries with a hint of anise underlying these reddish fruit flavors. As the wine finishes it has a slight greenness to the tannins that I didn’t care for, but it is an excellent and unique Zinfandel. The fruit came from the Zenaida Vineyard. This is the last vintage for this wine, as Asseo has decided to stop making a Zinfandel. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $25. Where to buy?.
2002 L’Aventure Syrah, Paso Robles, CA
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a thick, rich nose of blueberry pie, blackberries, and cassis. In the mouth it is smooth and mineral in quality with flavors of pencil lead and black tea mixing beautifully with blueberry and blackberry through a long finish that ends with a touch of earth and which is supported by soft but solid tannins. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $40. Where to buy?.
2003 L’Aventure Estate Grown Syrah, Paso Robles, CA
Dark, inky garnet in color, this wine has a luscious nose of candied blackcurrants, blackberry, and pencil lead. In the mouth it is sumptuously full, silky in texture with a deep complex set of flavors which range from black fruits, to spice, to a sort of gritty minerality that I have experienced most in the wines of Cornas in the Northern Rhone. The wine has smooth, supple tannins and an impressively long finish. Score: 9.5. Cost: $60. Where to buy?.
2003 L’Aventure Optimus Red Blend, Paso Robles, CA
A dark garnet color in the glass, this wine has a mysterious and mouthwatering nose of blackberries, blueberries, vanilla, and root beer flavors. In the mouth it is silky and thick with primary flavors of blackberry and tobacco, with elements of coffee, chocolate, and other unidentified dark flavors threaded through the wine. The tannins are subtle and nearly imperceptible. This is still one of Ruth’s all time favorite wines. 64% Syrah, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $45. Where to buy?.
2003 L’Aventure Rimrock Vineyards Syrah, Arroyo Grande, CA
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an unusual nose of violets, blueberries, cassis, and what I can only describe as exotic wood smoke. In the mouth it is beautifully detailed with flavors of cherries, mulberries, blackberry, and sandalwood with fine tannins, and a very long finish. A wine of very interesting, individual personality. Score: 9.5. Cost: $45. This wine is only available for purchase by L’Aventure Wine Club members.
2003 L’Aventure Estate Cuvee, Paso Robles, CA
Dark, inky, opaque garnet in color, this wine has a tightly wound nose of of light floral aromas, pencil lead, and dark, black fruits that are buried in a core of earthy minerality. In the mouth the wine is just as tight, like the tensed muscles of a bull, with thick blackberry and blueberry flavors and a gravelly steeliness despite a very lush mouthfeel. The wine’s tannins are incredibly well integrated but powerful, and they are already supporting an incredibly long finish. This is a wine that needs time, but when it opens up it will be a showstopper. 66% Cabernet, 18% Petite Verdot, 16% Syrah
Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $65. Where to buy?.