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On an Argentine Torrontes and how critics come up with those numbers

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I drank a very nice wine from Argentina last night, Michel Torino 2013 Don David Finca La Primavera #3 ($23), made from the Torrontes grape. It was quite delicious, offering layers of lime, quince and tangerine, with wonderfully brisk acidity, and while there was a honeyed richness, the finish was absolutely dry.

After 25 years of tasting mostly California wines, I now have the time to branch out. When I tasted that Don David (not blind!), my first thought was to compare it to what I know best: California. Had you given it to me without telling me what it was, I might have guessed Pinot Gris—or Sauvignon Blanc—possibly Chenin Blanc–but not quite. It had oakiness, but in a balanced, low-key way. Gorgeous acidity, too, mouthwatering and clean. There was minerality, but also something vegetal, not in a bad way, but in a wonderful way. I know this sounds weird, but it reminded me of lightly salted cream of broccoli soup. What’s not to like about that?

I liked it so much I looked to see if it had been reviewed in Wine Enthusiast, and there it was. The review was by my former colleague, Mike Schachner, who covers South America and Spain. He gave it 89 points and wrote: “This single-vineyard Salta Torrontés is virtually as good as it gets for the variety. Pure lychee, lime and mineral aromas precede a crisp, focused palate. Flavors of steely citrus are chiseled, while the finish is long and juicy. Drink prior to fall 2014.”

(Note: Salta is a region in Argentina. I have no idea if the name if related to salt, but there was definitely a saline character to the Don David that added to its savory character.)

I always admired Michael’s palate, and I thought, Wow, he really nailed it. I, personally, might have mentioned the honey, since the impression of sweetness is, it seems to me, a vital one to convey to readers. But that’s just me. And I also totally supported Michael’s judgment that the wine is best enjoyed soon. Its delicate structure, and rich fruit will fall apart sooner rather than later.

I mention all this because I’m fascinated by the concept of consumers having so many multiple sources of wine reviews. In addition to all the major wine magazines and newsletters, we have, at last count, 1.3 gazillion bloggers who review wine, not to mention the people who write all those shelf talkers at supermarkets and wine stores. If I put myself into the shoes of the wine consumer trying to figure out what to buy, I feel total sympathy if they feel dazed and confused.

I wondered about Michael’s 89 points. For those of us who work (or used to work) the 100-point system, the biggest decision in our everyday job is whether to give a wine 89 points or 90 points. That is the dividing line between life and death. I don’t work in sales, but I’ve been told for many years that 90 points is the cut-off for many buyers. If you’re trying to sell a 90-point wine from a major publication, it’s not that hard. If it’s below 90 points, well, good luck.

Had I formally reviewed the Don David, blind (as I’m sure Michael did), I think I would have given it an initial rating of 89 points too. Let me try to explain my rationale. The message of an 89-point rating is “This is a really good wine. If you drink it under the right circumstances, it can be a fantastic wine. However, objectively, and tasted by itself under laboratory circumstances, it fails—by a hair—to rise to the standards of what I consider a wine worthy of scoring in the nineties.”

I don’t know the details of how Michael considers, or reconsiders, his scores, or how long he takes for each review. But once I had given that Don David an initial 89 points, I suspect I would have raised it to 90 points, maybe an hour or so later, because I liked it so much. I would have put it in the fridge and then, unable to stop thinking about it, I would have tried it again, and given it the extra magic point simply because it had fired up my imagination.

Is that fair—I mean, to give a wine a second chance or reconsideration? Maybe not. But it happens with all critics, whether they admit it or not. I point all this out simply to illuminate the somewhat capricious nature of critical reviews. A score is serious business, and should be considered so by readers. But it should also be taken into context for what it is: fungible. Today’s 88 can be tomorrow’s 92, tomorrow’s 100 can be yesterday’s 92. It all depends. But it’s also important to understand that critics have been known to “adjust” their scores to keep them consistent with past ones, and if you don’t believe that, there’s a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.


Post-Haas School thoughts

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We did my annual tasting and seminar last week at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club, “we” being myself and Randy Ullum, K-J’s head winemaker.

I’ve long been a fan of Randy. I included him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” which I organized by the decade when the winemaker began his or her career. Randy was part of the 1980s section that also included (for good measure), Bob Levy, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the brains behind Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez.

What a decade that was. I’ll write more about it soon, but for now, I just want to say how the boutique winery movement of the 1960s and 1970s might have fizzled out, were it not for the energy the Eighties gave it. Like a shot in the arm, you might say, with the brilliance of Napa Valley now being—if not joined, then at least other regions were permitted to co-star in the play.

What I admired then about Randy, and still do, was his ability to craft small-lot wines alongside something like Vintner’s Reserve. And not just any small lots, but really great wine. Randy’s also a humorous, affable guy, and it was obvious the future MBAs at Haas liked him. The laughed a lot more at his jokes than they did at mine!

The cool thing about hanging out with the Millennials /Gen Yers who comprise the Haas Wine Club is that they offer a window into tomorrow’s smart wine consumers. They’re also tomorrow’s well-to-do wine drinkers; an MBA from Haas School ain’t chopped liver! So it’s interesting to know what they’re thinking.

Most wine tastings and seminars are given for an older crowd: for example, the folks who pay big bucks to go to something like the World of Pinot Noir. They are more or less settled into their ways. They’ll go to a Burgundy seminar because they like and collect Burgundy. Their minds are made up, you could say; older drinkers are not as open as younger ones to new wines, or from places they may be unfamiliar with. This is why there’s no event in California called World of Pinotage or World of Trebbiano or World of Croatia.

But Millennials are wide open when it comes to preferences. That’s why they’re such a huge target for wine marketers, who believe that, if they can catch a fan at a young age, they’ve got a customer for life.

Randy tasted the group, which numbered about 60, through five various tiers of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, from Vintner’s Reserve up to small production, vineyard-designated bottlings. The students were eager to learn, asking lots of good questions. I know, from having done this class for the last 7 or 8 years, that among them, you’ll find varying degrees of wine knowledge. Some are absolute neophytes, while others have done a lot of tasting and reading. When you’re doing a seminar like that, you have to try and make everyone happy. In the case of the Haas School Wine Club, it’s never hard. They’re a very un-snobby bunch, but at the same time they’re there to learn. I would rather speak to people like that, who have few if any preconceptions about what’s good or bad, important or unimportant, and just want to soak up every bit of knowledge they can.

I never rehearse for such classes. What’s the point? I like to keep things impromptu, on the theory that what’s real is better than a canned speech. And besides, those kids’ questions keep it real. I don’t have any problem thinking on my feet, which is probably partly because I’m from The Bronx (if you’re not on your feet in The Bronx, you’re on your back), but also because I have a lot of thoughts in my head all the time about wine—or about the particular wine topics I’m interested in—so it’s easy for me to expound on them. Just don’t let me go on too long!

I covered the first part of the two-hour class; these Haas students always are interested in things pertaining to being a wine critic. Then Randy took over, and he was smart enough to realize that the class would be interested in some of the business-related aspects of the K-J company. So he intertwined talk about that, even while he presented a thorough tasting and explanation of the various terroirs from which the Chardonnays came.

My favorite among the five Chards (with all due respect to the others) was the 2012 Camelot Highlands, from Santa Maria Valley. I’ve given that wine 90-plus scores over nine vintages, a pretty good track record for a Chardonnay. My readers know I’m a Chardonnay guy anyway, but that Camelot, which is from the so-called Tepusquet Bench of the valley, a hop and skip away from Bien Nacido (Cambria is inbetween), is one I could drink all the time.

As for my new gig, well, so many of you want to know how it’s going that I’ll report here from time to time. In short, it’s great. I’m settling into the new routine, which continues to evolve in the scope of my responsibilities. One of the best parts is that K-J encourages me to bring Gus along with me (for the most part—obviously there are limitations), whereas at my last job, Gus could sometimes be an issue. As I’ve said before, a challenge of my former profession was to get people to see me as me, not their image of me. I never liked that part of the job—being defined by my job. I respected people for seeing me that way, but I always tried to show them the real me. I think all well-known wine critics feel the same way. The job description comes with humility. Or at least, it had better.


The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.


Wednesday wraparound: the perils of prejudice, and the limits of social media

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1961 was, as all Bordeaux lovers know, one of those “vintages of the century” when nearly all the chateaux produced rich, ageworthy wines. However, one chateau, La Lagune, a Third Growth of the Médoc that has had a stellar reputation, apparently didn’t fare so well among critics. Eddie Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, wrote that the winery “probably over-sugared the [1961] wine, as it has struck me as excessively sweet.” Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, chose not to review it in depth at all, and merely listed it, along with several dozen others, as not tasted recently. Oz Clarke, in his New Encyclopedia of French Wines, wrote that “the experts say that 1961 wasn’t a success at La Lagune,” although he himself, tasting it decades later, liked it enough to buy 8-1/2 cases.

Then there was Harry Waugh who, in his 1970 diary, Pick of the Bunch, referred to his visit to Chateau Bouscaut, in the Graves, where the proprietor opened a 1962 La Lagune. “With my recollection of the, shall I say, ‘curious’ 1961 vintage of that Chateau, I was reluctant to try it,” Harry wrote, delicately; he must have reviewed it in one of his diaries I do not own, but it cannot have been a good review. Most likely, if we are to believe Penning-Rowsell, if the wine indeed had been over-chaptalised, Harry, who liked his Bordeaux classically dry, would not have cared for it.

Harry did, however, drink that ’62 La Lagune and found it “both charming and delicious…”. He concluded: I “had to eat my words…The prejudices one can form are really frightening!”

It is those “prejudices” I wish to write about today. Harry had formed a prejudice against La Lagune that rose up in his mind as soon as he saw the bottle of 1962. Fortunately, Harry was a fair enough taster that he was able to overcome that prejudice and appreciate the beauty of the ’62. But can we say that of all professional tasters? Indeed, “frightening” is not too strong a word to describe the attitudes of some of them, whose condemnation of certain wines, based on their presuppositions, is all the more pernicious due to their influence.

* * *

Good friend Adam Japko, from Digital Sherpa, sent me this link to an article on CEOs using social media “to drive business results.” Adam is, of course, very high on social media and a passionate explicator of it. The article profiles 5 CEOs who use social media a lot; it goes on to explain in each case how that use “helps drive business results.”

I suspect Adam sent me the link because he (like some others who know me) thinks I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to social media and ROI. Notice I said “ROI” rather than “driving business results,” because I think the two are vastly different. We all understand what ROI means because it’s about money and can be measured. Unfortunately the article doesn’t define the meaning of “driving business results,” so we really have no way of knowing if, say, Doug Conant’s 24,000 Twitter followers are having any impact on Avon’s bottom line: are his tweets selling more cosmetics, jewelry, watches? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s hard for me, at any rate, to make that leap. The article suggests, logically, that Conant’s commitment to social media “is passed on to executives and all [Avon] employees” by dint of his leadership position, but again, just how that translates into increased sales isn’t entirely clear. If we actually knew what “driving business results” meant, we might, however, be able to come to a definitive conclusion!

As I’ve said before, I too encourage all professionals to use social media, as often as feels comfortable. It can’t hurt; it can only help. I myself use it all the time. And my new employer, Jackson Family Wines, is a firm believer in social media; in fact, part of my job is to write for their blogs. I suppose they feel that, given the success I’ve made of steveheimoff.com, I know a thing or two! (And so do they. Remember “A Really Goode Job“? That made social media history.)

If, as Fortune Magazine reports, “70% of Fortune 500 CEOs aren’t using social media,” that’s pretty shocking to me: they should be. But you have to ask yourself why they’re not; after all, these are not stupid men and women. It may be that these CEOs have determined that all the commotion about social media is overblown. On the other hand, they may actually be missing the bus—so overwhelmed by their own sense of genius that they think social media is a ridiculous hobby for only the “little people” who have too much time on their hands. Or—a third possibility—maybe they feel they can just hire employees to do the social media thing, and they don’t have to do it themselves.

It would be nice to have a time machine and see how all this shakes out by, say, 2025. In all my life, I’ve never seen a societal trend whose future, with all its consequences, is as hard to predict, as that of social media. Sometimes when I fantasize about it, all I can think of is humans getting hard-wired with computer chips in our brains, connected all the time to the Matrix.

MatrixMan


Tasting mountain wines in San Francisco

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Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.

That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.

The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.

High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”

Here are the six wines and some comments about them:

Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.

Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.

Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from  variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.

Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.

Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.

Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.

But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.

Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.

“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.

What linked all six mountain wines?

-Intensity

-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals

-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)

-Ageability

-Complexity


Lessons relearned from the recent ZAP tasting in San Francisco

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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.

Zin

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.


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