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Lessons relearned from the recent ZAP tasting in San Francisco


At the ZAP “Flights! Forums of Flavors” last Friday, I was again reminded of how much “set and setting” impact one’s experience of wine.

It was a pretty straightforward tasting: Wines poured for us at the table, a panel of winemakers upfront. One of the flights was from Monte Rosso Vineyard: the wines were from Charter Oak, Amapola Creek (what a pleasure to see Richard Arrowood again!), Rock Wall, Louis M. Martini and Robert Biale.

Now, Monte Rosso despite its fabulous reputation has always been a problematic vineyard for me. It is famous (infamous? notorious?) for the high alcohol of its wines (which is why that particular flight was the final of the three-flight tasting. It’s a good idea to hold the biggest wines for last). Curiously–and I’m not sure why–Monte Rosso reds also are high in acidity. (Maybe someone can explain that.) I’ve certainly given some high scores over the years to Monte Rosso wines–my highest ever was Sbragia’s 2006 Cabernet, which I gave 95 points. The official alcohol on that wine was 14.9%. It was a dark, big, rich, smoky wine, with years and years of life, which is why I gave it a Cellar Selection designation in my Wine Enthusiast review.

The highest score I ever gave to a Monte Rosso Zinfandel was Rosenblum’s 2004, which I gave 93 points. (My readers probably know that when Kent Rosenblum sold his winery to Diageo, he created Rock Wall.) I’ve also given high scores to several of Louis M. Martini’s Monte Rosso Zins and Cabs, as well as Arrowood’s (which Richard Arrowood owned before starting Amapola).

On the other hand, at times the alcohol of Monte Rosso has overwhelmed me. The best score I could muster for Muscardini’s 2010 Zin, which had 15.5% of alcohol, was 85 points–a “good” score but not a great one. It was just too hot and prickly. The worst score I ever gave a Monte Rosso Zin was Brazin’s 2007, an otherwise great vintage. Its alcohol officially was 15%, and, as I wrote, it was “Too ripe, with pruny, raisiny flavors that are Porty and hot in high-alcohol, glyceriney heaviness.”

That’s Monte Rosso for you. Balancing the vineyard’s tendency to be excessively high in brix (especially in Zinfandel), with associated overripeness, is part of the winemaker’s challenge. He or she can water the wine down, not an ideal solution, but sometimes necessary and effective. He or she also can be severely selective in sorting out overripe (or underripe) berries (Zinfandel in particular can have unevenly ripened grapes on the same bunch), but that is labor intensive and expensive and not everyone is very diligent at it.


The best Monte Rosso wines, it seems to me, are produced by the best winemakers. That may sound obvious, but winemakers, like all of us, vary in their abilities. For the “Flights!” tasting, ZAP chose some of the best winemakers in California. (Joel Peterson, of Ravenswood, moderated all three flights, but I don’t know if he personally selected the wines. At any rate, he did a great job.) This is a shorthand way of saying that I found all the wines terrific. (I missed the first flight. The second one was Zinfandels from the Bedrock Vineyard, which is partly owned by Joel).

As much as I explored the intricacies of the wines I also explored the intricacies of my thoughts. You can’t separate the taster’s basic state of consciousness from his experience of the wine, which is what I referred to in the “set and setting” reference in my opening sentence. “Set and setting,” people of a certain generation (mine) will recall, was how Dr. Timothy Leary described the twin factors that influenced a person’s experience of taking LSD. The “set” was the sum total of the person’s inner life (expectations, fears, understanding, hopes, traumas, etc.). The “setting” was the external environment. Obviously, if a person dropped acid in the midst of absolute chaos (crazed clown killers, policemen, screaming babies, earthquake, you get the idea), the person would in all likelihood not have a pleasant trip.

My preferred “set and setting” for reviewing wine is this: I like to be warm and relaxed. I like to be healthy: it’s not good to review wine if you have the flu. Externally, I like to be in the comfort and safety of my home, practicing my usual routines. Under these circumstances, my “set and setting” are tuned to maximum performance. This also encourages consistency of routine, which is important in judging wines.

Obviously, both my “set” and my “setting” were drastically different at the “Flights!” tasting. My setting was not home, but a ballroom in the Four Seasons Hotel, packed with people. I wouldn’t say I was unrelaxed, but I certainly didn’t experience the utter relaxation and familiarity of being at home (with Gus at my feet if not in my lap). Then too, being in a public sphere, and having a certain visibility in this industry, is a personal feeling my fellow critics can appreciate. Thus, both my set and setting were discombobulated–not so much that I couldn’t deal with the wines, but enough so that I was clearly thrown off routine.

The simple fact (it occurred to me during the Monte Rosso flight) was that I was finding the wines better than I thought I would have, had I tasted them at home. That’s what I meant by saying that I was exploring the intricacies of my thoughts. I remember at one point during that flight thinking, “Can they all be this good?”, because I suspected that at home I would have found some of them too high in alcohol. This of course raises the question of what does “too high in alcohol” mean? As several of the winemakers observed, in response to Joel Peterson asking them if they thought “alcohol destroys terroir,” the answer is, It depends. If the wine is balanced in all its parts, then alcohol, even well into the 15s or even 16s, is perfectly acceptable (unless you’re just an anti-alcohol fascist). Richard Arrowood put it best: “If you didn’t know the alcohol levels [of the Monte Rosso Zins], you’d never guess.” And, as Shauna Rosenblum pointed out, in the case of Monte Rosso “alcohol is essential to terroir.”

The idea of reviewing a wine is to get as close as you can to knowing “what the wine really is.” But there’s a Heisenbergian uncertainty about it, not necessarily because the wine isn’t “what it really is,” but because of the vagaries of human perception, which are so susceptible to derangement by the influences of “set and setting.” This is why as controlled an environment for tasting as can possibly be arranged is the only suitable way of doing it, and also why the critic has to understand his limitations, as well as trust in his abilities.

  1. Steve,

    Simple question – but do you think that by not having the actual bottle in front of you, your observations of the wines might have differed than being at home with the actual bottle in front of you?

    I know that this shouldn’t matter, but I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on this.


  2. Steve,

    I’m so happy that you could attend Flights and that you enjoyed the event and the wines. I’m also deeply appreciative of our conversation after the event. I look forward to continuing that conversation one day soon.

    All the best!

  3. Larry, I’d rather have the bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy! But seriously…tasting blind is the great equalizer. Seeing the label diminishes the chance of a purely objective experience. On the other hand, there are pleasures of wine that are not purely objective, as we all know.

  4. Steve,

    Yep, I know what you mean. It is the great equalizer indeed, and doing so away from ‘your comfort zone’ space is even that much more challenging!

    I’ve just always wondered about such things – and your comments about liking them a lot more than you thought you would brought the subject up front to me.


  5. Thanks for the insightful post regarding the Monte Rosso vineyard. Have tasted quite a few Zins and a few Cabs from there always interesting for better or worse.

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