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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.


Friday fishwrap: ZAP, social media and the S.F. Chronicle

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I’m off to ZAP this morning. It’s the first time I’ve gone to the nation’s biggest Zinfandel festival (it is, isn’t it?) in some years. I stopped attending when it was down at Fort Mason, a pretty place but difficult to get to. They had 20,000 people packed into those old piers, and the toilets all broke down, so people were doing what people do

: o

right in the Bay. The men, anyway. It was hopeless to try and get any serious tasting or even talking done, so I gave up on ZAP.

This year, however, one of the ZAP organizers reached out to me to explain about “the dramatic changes” that have been made. Chief among them is that the event (now called The Zinfandel Experience) been moved out of Fort Mason and into multiple locations, spread out over several days. The number of attendees at any given location will thus be considerably reduced. The event I’m going to this morning is at the Four Seasons Hotel, and is called “Flights! Forums of Flavors.” We’ll be tasting wines from historic vineyards, and I’ll report more on this on Monday morning.

Incidentally, I tasted about 350 Zinfandels in 2013, and my two highest-scoring ones were a pair of 2011s from Williams Selyem, the Papera and Bacigalupi. Funny, we were just talking the other day about how Bacigalupi was the source of some of the Chardonnay that went into that famous 1973 Chateau Montelena. Other top Zins I reviewed last year include Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Somers Ranch, Seghesio 2010 Cortina, Gary Farrell 2011 Maffei and Ravenswood 2010 Old Hill. All from Sonoma County, by the way. There is a Sonoma Zinfandel character across the county’s many appellations: a sort of essence-of-Zin zinniness that’s briary, brambly, peppery, tingly in acidity and stuffed with wild, sun-baked red fruits and berries. I always find something rustic about Sonoma Zin, too, whereas Napa Zins are more elegantly tailored–Armani to Sonoma’s L.L. Bean.

* * *

But before the Zinfandel thing, I’ll stop by the San Francisco Chronicle’s historic old building, at Fifth and Mish (as we say). The publisher has invited me to be part of some kind of subscriber advisory group. This is because I am a longtime subscriber, but also because I write a lot of letters to the editor, and I also gripe to the publisher when I think the paper has done something stupid. So the paper sees me as a loyal fan, which I am, and they evidently think it’s a good idea to reach out to their subscribers, which it is.

I’m big on reading newspapers, a practice that seems to be dying out in America, and that’s a pity. A free, flourishing press always has been a central tent pole in our democracy. Lord knows a big, spread-out place like the Bay Area needs things to knit it together, and what better way to foster a sense of community than the local newspaper?

* * *

While we’re on the subject of my schedule, next Wednesday I’m a speaker at Adam Japko’s “Multifamily Social Media Summit” up in Santa Rosa. Adam, for those who know him, is one of the most brilliant minds in the country when it comes to social media. He does more than talk about it, though; he’s an entrepreneur who puts together social media-themed events. This one is for a group of apartment complex managers who want to learn how to use social media in their jobs. When Adam first asked me to speak, I expressed some astonishment that apartment complex managers would be interested in a wine critic. Adam explained that they would be, that I should just be myself and talk about what I do, how I do it, and how I use social media. So that’s what I plan to do. The other speaker is my friend, Adam Lee, the co-proprietor of the Siduri and Novy brands. He’ll bring some of his wines, so we’ll have good stuff to drink.

Have a great weekend!


Parker’s new business deal, and a reflection on Zinfandel

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Everybody’s going to be jumping on poor Robert Parker because of this deal he struck over the “Robert Parker Selection” Bordeaux.

Actually, it doesn’t seem to have been Parker who struck the deal but his new bosses in Singapore, who appear set on maximizing the money they can make off the Parker brand.

Robert himself no longer seems like the towering figure he was just two years ago. He’s become a mere player within his organization, a kind of chess piece being moved around by his masters (“Go back to California.” “Let the French use your name,” etc.), and I wonder how he feels about all this, being (as I believe him to be) a man of integrity. It’s easy to paint him as a mercenary who sold out, and many will. It’s also easy to suggest that, as the Parker/Wine Advocate brand loses steam in the West, it’s turning to the inscrutable East for a new breath of air and cash.

Well, what’s wrong with that? Wineries are turning East, too, because that’s where the customers are. I figure Robert knows that his time is almost up (simply as a function of his age and health, not his intellectual capacity), and wishes to make as much as he can before the well runs dry. Would anyone in his position do differently?

* * *

A note on Zinfandel. I was thinking how nice it is that we have cool-climate Zins, like the ones from south of River Road in the Russian River Valley (exemplified by the likes of Joseph Swan) and warm climate ones from places like Paso Robles and Napa Valley.

Wine experts usually point to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Tempranillo as being acutely sensitive to the slightest changes in terroir, but so is Zinfandel. In fact, I think Zin shows its origins more clearly than does Cabernet (which may be a function of everyone making their Cabernet identically these days). In the interests of critical objectivity, I have to say that both cool- and warm-climate Zinfandels can be good, because they can, and each consumer will have his or her preference. For myself, I’d happily drink a southern Russian River Valley Zin any day. They’re wines of powerful dryness, and will age well. I’ve had Joe Swan Zins well over twenty years old and they were great: delicate, sweet, feminine, airy, charming. Those are words you’d never apply to a young Zin!

To Maui today for the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. I’m co-chairing the Pritchard Hill event, so on the flight I’ll be brushing up on my notes. I have 10,600 words in interviews and fact-gathering I took for my Wine Enthusiast article last Fall, which I’ll be reading as we fly westward over the Pacific. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report on from Hawaii.

 


Zinfandel: a balancing act

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I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Zinfandel over the years. Well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s call it a love-dislike relationship.

The grape is notorious for uneven ripening, so that superripe flavors can co-exist right next to green, minty ones, giving some Zins a bizarre awkwardness. This danger makes growers wait until the last minute they can to pick Zin, to let it ripen. But that pushes them up against the rainy season. Ironically, the long wait, in California’s fickle climate, is just as likely to result in a heat wave, which nudges the sugars even higher and shrivels the grapes, giving the resulting wines a raisiny taste, and a bitterness in the finish. (All scores in this post are from my Wine Enthusiast reviews.)

In any event, most California Zinfandel is going to have high alcohol (unless the vintner spins it out or waters it down). I don’t personally have a prejudice against high alcohol wines, like a lot of critics do. If the alcohol works, it works. I’m not going to make analogies with heavy people who look good despite carrying extra pounds. Well, I guess I just did. But the high alcohol of, say, a Turley 2010 Hayne Vineyard Zin (15.8%, 93 points) succeeds; the heat becomes an integral part of the wine’s overall personality, as it does in a proper Port, providing warmth and glyceriney softness but without that blistering blast of Serrano chile that some other high-octane Zins give. I frequently encounter this problem with Mazzocco Zins, whose alcohol levels are in the same, 15-plus neighborhood. Why the Turley gets away with it while Mazzocco doesn’t is a mystery to me, but Turley generally does.

Then there are some Zins that are considerably lower in alcohol and thus have what I call a claret-like texture. I described Gary Farrell’s 2010 Bradford Mountain Zin, from Dry Creek Valley (14.3%, 92 points) as having a “velvety style of Merlot,” not because there was anything remotely Merlot-like about its briary wild berry flavors, but because it possessed a delicacy in the mouth despite the considerable volume–a feminine character, if you will. A Zinfandel similar in style, but from much farther away, is Frog’s Leap’s 2010, with a Napa Valley address (13.7%, 91 points). It is one of the only below-14% Zins I’ve tasted lately, and one of the few I could describe by the phrase “tart acidity.” Very good and savory.

Between these two brackets of high alcohol and modest alcohol lies the spectrum of Zinfandel. You might say that somewhere right in the middle is the sweet spot, and, in fact, the majority of the Zins I give 90-plus scores to have alcohol levels in the range of 14.5%-14.8% (if the label is to be believed). A few classic examples are the Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard, from Howell Mountain (14.6%, 93 points), Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard, from Russian River Valley (14.7%, 93 points) and Seghesio’s 2010 Cortina, from Dry Creek Valley (14.8%, 93 points). All of these are very fine examples of spicy, robust, fruity, yet balanced and elegant Zinfandel.

As for the best appellations for Zinfandel, there’s no question about it: Sonoma County and its various sub-AVAs and Napa Valley and its sub-AVAs. Paso Robles produces a lot of Zin, but except for selected producers, like Turley, Ridge, Eberle and, occasionally, Peachy Canyon, they haven’t yet zoned in on the balance thing. It’s so easy to get Zin ripe in a hot climate, but getting it balanced is something else.


What I’m drinking this winter

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We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.

Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.

I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.

Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.

Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.

Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.


Some Zinfandels I liked in 2012

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I reviewed fewer than 300 Zinfandels last year, which is about average for me. There isn’t all that much premium Zin bottled in California’s coastal regions, which is my beat. I no longer cover the vast Sierra Foothills—Virginie Boone does that—and I miss tasting those hearty, heady Zins.

Zinfandel accounted for 8.9% of all grapes crushed in California in 2011, giving it third place (after Cab and Chardonnay). While California acreage of Zinfandel is very wide—the #2 most planted red wine grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon—a lot of it is in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and Merced, and most of that fruit or bulk wine goes into jugs or boxes of inexpensive blends.

I suspect a lot more good Zinfandel could be produced along the coast, from the Russian River-Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley, down through the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Luis Obispo right into Santa Barbara. But growers and vintners have to look at the business side of things, and Zinfandel just doesn’t sell. It fetched a statewide average of only $443 per ton in 2011, actually one of the lowest for any variety, including Teroldego, Tannat, Calabrese, Gamay and Lemberger. Only a few truly execrable varieties—Ruby Cabernet, Rubired and Refosco among them—were cheaper than Zinfandel. (The average cost per ton of Cabernet, by contrast, was $1,029.)

Still, wineries who have long been committed to Zinfandel remain steadfast; no one, to my knowledge, who has produced Zin for any length of time has voluntarily given it up. The North Coast counties of Napa and Sonoma perform best. In my mind, Napa Valley Zinfandel is more finely crafted, more balanced and nuanced than Sonoma County Zinfandel, but I suppose you could call that a fault rather than a virtue. If you’re looking for classically brawny Zins, spicy, briary and heady, it’s Sonoma you look to.

Zinfandel for me is one of those wines that can’t quite decide whether it’s noble or common. In a great one, the aroma, the entry or attack, the complexity, the balance, the finish all are there, yet something at the last minute detracts. It’s like seeing someone very glamorous and well-dressed at the Opera with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their heel. The best Zinfandel I ever tasted was the Hartford Court 2007 Highwire Vineyard, Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points four years ago. It was very high in alcohol (15.5%). I wrote “It should be in a museum” because of its classic Sonoma-ness. Yet even that wine, great as it was, was a little country, a handsome rube with hay in its hair.

Here are some of my top Zins of 2012, with their appellations:

Bella 2009 Barrel 32 (94 points, $48, Sonoma County)

Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard (93, $37, Howell Mountain)

Turley 2010 Tofanelli Vineyard (93, $34, Napa Valley)

Oakville Winery 2010 Estate (93, $25, Oakville)

Summers 2009 Four-Acre (93, $34, Calistoga)

Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard (93, $50, Russian River Valley)

De Loach 2009 OFS (93, $30, Russian River Valley)

John Tyler 2007 Bacigalupi Vineyard (92, $38, Russian River Valley)

Sausal 2009 Century Vines (92, $40, Alexander Valley)

Chateau Potelle 2009 VGS (92, $65, Mount Veeder)


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