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California adventure

July 14, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

Maybe he was just ahead of his time. There's a nascent movement underway in California to make those steely, minerally, Chablis-like Chardonnays and to get away from the over-oaked, overly buttery Chardonnays that have given the varietal a bad name.

Instead, Asseo has turned his white wine interests to Rhone varieties -- Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier -- and, as with his red wines, he's looking to make blends with these grapes.

Clearly, Asseo likes to experiment. Although blending Cabernet and Syrah is widespread in Australia and southern France, it's still relatively uncommon here.

"I like the complexity of a blend," he says. "Mourvedre has the same kind of softening effect on Syrah in Paso that Merlot does for Cabernet in Pomerol. It's a challenge to figure out the percentages in these wines, to balance the power of the Cab, say, and the feminine exuberance and finesse of Syrah and the elegance of Petit Verdot in my Estate Cuvee."

Shaking things up

Petit VERDOT is traditionally a blending grape, especially in Bordeaux, where it seldom contributes more than 8% to 10% of a given wine's encepage, or blend (although it's often as much as 15% at Chateau Kirwan in Margaux). Asseo has joined a small but growing number of California vintners now using a greater percentage of Petit Verdot. What he called "my joker" made up 30% of his 2001 Estate Cuvee. Then, he had trouble in his Petit Verdot vineyards.

However, that trouble was mild, compared with what happened at 11:16 a.m. Dec. 22, when an earthquake struck Paso Robles. More than 200 L'Aventure barrels toppled as a result of the temblor, and 20 of them -- 500 cases of wine -- were destroyed.

"It took a month to fix all the cracks in the winery and to repair the barrels and clean everything up," Asseo says. "My mobile home also fell over and had to be repaired."

Mobile home?

"I told my wife and kids when we moved here that they had to give me two or three years to get the winery going, and then I'd build them a beautiful house, the house of our dreams." He pauses, sheepishly. "It's been six years. We're still living in the mobile home. Every dollar I make goes into improving the vineyards and the production facilities. In three or four years, I'll be able to make all my wine from my own grapes, and then I won't have to buy any more grapes from anyone.

"Then," he says, "I'll build the dream house."

Unless, of course, his winemaking muse has other ideas.

David Shaw can be reached at To read previous "Matters of Taste" columns, please go to

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