When asked by his patron, Lord Carnarvon, what he saw as he thrust his lantern for the first time into the tomb of Tutankhamen, artist-turned-archaeologist Howard Carter answered, “Wonderful things.” With these two simple words, he eloquently captured the essence of the dreams that drive all adventurers.
The pursuit of wonderful things has certainly served as the impetus behind restaurateur-turned-vintner John Schwartz’s career, which began in the 1980s, when his self-proclaimed love of food prompted him to attend a cooking school in France, and later, to invest in the talents of gifted chefs. Among those chefs was Bradley Ogden, whose eponymous restaurant did much to shift the culinary center of gravity from New York to Las Vegas when it opened in 2003. Schwartz’s fascination with flavors inspired his first foray into the realm of wine, Amuse Bouche, an exquisite Pomerol-style wine made in partnership with longtime friend Heidi Barrett, former winemaker at Screaming Eagle. This passion also spurred his second effort, Coup de Foudre, a boutique Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blend he produces with Danielle Price, the director of wine at Wynn Las Vegas. The third and most recent of his vinous ventures, PharaohMoans, not only reveals his adventurous spirit, but also his sense of humor.
“This is my fun one,” Schwartz beams when asked about this Syrah from Paso Robles, an important emerging wine region on California’s Central Coast. The concept for the wine came to him while on a family trip to London, where he took his son and daughter to the British Museum to see the Egyptology exhibit. “We were so fascinated by the hieroglyphics that we made a bet with ourselves that we would study hieroglyphics and write to each other in them,” he recalls. “On the way back, I asked myself why it is that in every wine cellar you see these stacks of Bordeaux cases and cases from California that look the same. With Egypt on my mind, I began to think about this unique kind of packaging that we could do for a wine.”
Schwartz hired a packaging design firm to work with him on developing a pyramid-shaped case. “It was a huge process,” he says. “I had to make sure it would be functional. I must have shipped this thing back and forth to myself 20 times before we finally found a design that worked.”
For the name, Schwartz came up with a quasi-Egyptian play on the concept of pheromones—“the chemicals that cause excitement,” he says, “when anything stimulates your body.” The hieroglyphs he chose for the label are the actual characters for the words pharaoh moans, and the label he selected is shaped like the Rosetta Stone. All that Schwartz’s plan now lacked was a winemaker and a wine.
Here, his culinary connections came into play. Chef Bryan Ogden (a partner in the project who also serves as wine director of his father’s restaurant) put Schwartz in touch with one of his favorite winemakers, Stephan Asseo, who eventually dedicated a three-acre block on his L’Aventure estate in Paso Robles to making PharaohMoans.
“We harvest the Syrah on the west side of Paso Robles 10 days or two weeks after the harvest at Châteauneuf du Pape,” notes Asseo. “We end up with a very rich wine, but in the mouth, we always have a beautiful level of acidity. The wines are big, concentrated, but always balanced. This is a key word for me when we speak about wine, because without balance you have no pleasure. And in the end, wine, for me, is pleasure.”
On this count, the PharaohMoans Syrah 2005 ($570 per six-bottle case; the 2006 vintage is currently on offer) delivers. A treasure trove of flavors gushes forth from this exceptional wine: The intense ripeness is countered by the scent of sweet tar and bacon fat, while flavors of mocha, licorice, coffee, and savory coriander temper the rich palate. From its unlikely name to its complex infusions of riotously ripe berry fruit, earthy spices, and soft smoke, PharaohMoans demonstrates that world-class wine does not have to be stuffy, but rather can (and should) be world-class fun. A wonderful thing, indeed.