June 22, 2024
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Lewis Pasco: Not Your Typical Winemaker

In Israel, the day of the garagistes has arrived. Garagistes (or garage-winemakers) are small-scale wine producers who source the best grapes and the best barrels to produce small runs of high-end wine. While Israel has long had a handful of garagistes, it is only in the past few years that Israel has developed a large enough surplus of quality grapes, along with enough wine-producing facilities, to truly support a small community of garagistes.

Lewis Pasco, the winemaker behind the newly released “Pasco Project #1” red wine, is one of those growing number of garagistes. However, in a crowd of often passionate and idiosyncratic winemakers, Pasco remains a standout. “Most winemakers,” say Pasco, “are more laid back, but . . . my personality is a little fiery and a little exuberant.”

Pasco’s exuberance is something that can be read large in his life story which starts, of all places, in Tenafly, NJ.

“From the age of 10 until the age of 17½, I lived in Tenafly,” says Pasco, who reminisces fondly on being an “all-league football player” at Tenafly High School. From Tenafly, Pasco made his way across the river to study comparative literature at Columbia University.

“I started working while in school at Mama’s Joys, a deli near Columbia, to pay my way through school. Then the summer between my junior and senior year, I got a job as a prep cook in an Upper West Side kitchen, and I liked the work so much that I decided ‘what do I need school for? This is my calling—to be a chef.’”

Pasco worked in kitchens in New York for another year and a half before deciding to move to San Francisco.

“I fell in love with the whole San Francisco Bay area. So I put everything I owned on a train, and took Amtrak to California. Within three years I went from being a prep cook and a line cook to being a chef in a pretty famous restaurant in Marin County called 464 Magnolia. At 25, I actually had my picture on the cover of the magazine of the Sunday [San Francisco] Chronicle Examiner as a chef,” recalls Pasco. “I was becoming pretty famous in the Bay area, but I began to get bored by it [being a chef] because it’s not very intellectually challenging.”

Pasco then enrolled in the University of California-Berkeley, where he received a bachelor’s degree in botany. “I was thinking of either becoming a doctor or a pharmacist,” says Pasco, “but it dawned on me that I could put together my talent in food with the degree I earned in botany by studying winemaking at UC-Davis.”

After receiving a master’s degree in viticulture and enology, Pasco became what he describes as an “iterant winemaker for a number of years. Most winery owners appreciate people who are less hyper than I am, and I just didn’t find a match for my personality and skills.”

In 1997, after his mother passed away, Pasco decided that it was time for a life change and looked for work abroad. While he had had initially planned to seek work in France, a want ad for a winemaker at Israel’s Dalton Winery caught his eye. Pasco suggests that it may have been his mother’s deathbed declaration, “I wish you could find a Jewish girl,” that made him decide to apply for the job in Israel.

While Dalton had already filled its position when he applied, the company still referred him to Jonathan Tishbi, of Tishbi Winery, who was also looking for a new winemaker. By this time it was July, and most Israeli wineries were already harvesting grapes. “We agreed to a one year contract. I landed in Israel and hit the ground running.

“I tasted the Chardonnay [which had already been harvested] and realized that this could be a pretty good barrel of [aged] wine, and said [to Tishbi], ‘Why don’t you buy some new barrels?’ One thing led to another and we won a gold medal for that Chardonnay,” recalls Pasco. “That was the beginning of things being very different for me in terms of getting along with one owner.”

Pasco would stay at Tishbi for three years, during which time he helped transform Tishbi into one of Israel’s leading wineries.

“When I arrived, Tishbi was right in the middle of a project of rebuilding the whole winery so I got to design my first winery,” says Pasco. “I said to Jonathan [Tishbi] it takes two things [to make great wine]: good grapes and barrels. The next thing you know he’s building a barrel room to hold a thousand barrels.”

Speaking about his time at Tishbi, Pasco also notes that “I was one of the early people to work with grapes from over the Green Line.”

In 2000, Pasco left Tishbi to become the founding winemaker for the Recanati Winery. “I was pretty active in designing the place from the ground up. I was also very active in selecting vineyards” for the winery, says Pasco. From the beginning, Recanati’s wines were a critical success: “Our second vintage won the Best Wine of Israel Prize at VinExpo Bordeaux.”

At Recanati, Pasco developed a reputation for producing elegant, Mediterranean-styled wines. Commenting on his winemaking style, Pasco notes that “I’ve always been a little more biased toward balance than towards power.” However, in spite of producing consistently high-quality wines at Recanati, by end of 2007 both Pasco and the winery’s management had come the conclusion that Recanati was no longer a good fit for him. In March, 2008, Pasco left the winery.

Not long after moving to Israel Pasco met Irit, that Jewish girl his mother had wanted for him, and married her in 2001. When he left Recanati, Pasco decided to return to California, in part so that his two children, then ages 5 and 6, could become natively bilingual.

When he returned to California, Pasco quickly found a job at a winery, where he recalls he “had similar bad luck as I had had previously in California; after one year they went bankrupt.”

In 2011, after a three-year hiatus as a winemaker, Pasco received a unique offer to return to Israel as a consulting winemaker and a garagiste.

“I had thought about starting up my own place, but knowing start-ups were very difficult I was very leery about it,” says Pasco. However, while he was at Recanati, he had developed friendships with a number of garagistes and boutique winemakers, including Hillel and Nina Manne, the owners of Beit El Winery. In the winter of 2011, the Mannes presented Pasco with a unique offer: “We can’t afford you as a [consulting] winemaker. . .but if you will come and live with us in our home in Beit El, and take over our vintage in 2012, we’ll make wine for you, free of charge.” It was an offer that Pasco decided he could not pass up.

The Mannes gave Pasco four tons of grapes for his wine, to which he added an additional seven tons of grapes which he sourced from area vineyards. This resulted in the production of 8,000 bottles of a Bordeaux-style blend that Pasco named the Pasco Project #1. Pasco recalls that “as it evolved, it dawned on me that I’m not working for somebody else now, I’m working for me. . .[and] it’s my project.”

Pasco has since relocated his family to Re’ut and, in addition to producing the Pasco Project wines at the Beit El Winery, acts as a consulting winemaker to the Mannes and to other small winemakers. It looks likes Pasco has finally found his niche.

The 2012 Pasco Project #1 is a bright garnet colored, full-bodied cuvée of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot and 4% Petite Sirah, which was aged for nine months in French oak. The nose is still tight, with elements of cherries and smoky oak. Look for flavors of cherries, cassis, blackberries, and blueberries on the fore-palate, notes of eucalyptus and allspice mid-palate, a nice bit of smoke on a finish, and a pleasant oaky overlay. While drinking well now, this wine could use another six to nine months in the cellar. Best 2015-2017, and perhaps longer. Score A-/B+. $24.95

Only 2,010 bottles of the wine were imported into the U.S., and, as of writing, we were unable to locate a New Jersey merchant selling the wine. However, the wine is available in Manhattan at Sherry-Lehmann, 505 Park Ave, (212) 838-7500.

By Gamliel Kronemer

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