I never reviewed Beekeeper Cellars’s Zinfandels when I was at Wine Enthusiast because they didn’t send me samples! But last year, they sent me a mini-vertical of their Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (2010-2013) and what a treat that was! Two 94s and two 95s. And now they’ve sent me a pair of 2014s.
95 Beekeeper 2014 Secret Stones Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This is a big Zin, but of course, it’s Rockpile, a warm-to-hot, rocky mountain AVA in the aridly inland northwest of Dry Creek Valley, where the grapes get super-ripe and concentrated under the sere summer sun. That concentration seems to have been even greater in this drought year. “Secret Stones” is the old Madrone Spring Vineyard; the owners changed the name to avoid confusion with other wineries and vineyards that have the word “Madrone.” Whatever, this wonderful Zin is easily on a par with the 2013 Madrone Spring. It is dark, aromatic and immensely complex, with a Hulkian mouthfeel. The aroma is explosive in blackcurrants, blackberries, ripe purple plums, blueberry preserves, and black licorice, sprinkled with dark chocolate shavings, freshly-crushed black pepper and a squeeze of anisette. There’s a welcome, tart bite of green at the end to remind you of the plant kingdom. Does that sound good? It is. The flavors sink into the mouth and last for a long time into a spicy, dry finish. Rockpile’s famous tannins are powerful, but smooth and silky. I would drink this wine now; on the second night after opening, the alcohol was showing through, not a good sign for aging. The details: about 30% new French oak, alcohol 14.9%, and very good acidity for balance. A fun, heady, elegant Zin that surely is at the top of its class. What would I drink it with? Braised short ribs, but any beef or bird with the smoke of barbecue will be fine.
95 Beekeeper 2014 Montecillo Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma County): $??. The Sonoma County appellation apparently is because the vineyard is just outside both Moon Mountain and Sonoma Valley AVAs. But it’s in that neighborhood, so you get the idea, and is moreover a mountain vineyard, at 1,500 feet. My first thought, on tasting the wine, was, “It’s claret-like!” So it was nice that the tech notes say the vineyard was planted in the 1980s by Kenwood for Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the weight and texture of a fine high-elevation Cab, yet with Zin’s flavors: briary, brambly wild blackberries, dried thyme, black pepper, black licorice, sweet cured tobacco, a bitter hit of espresso. The details: 15 months in French oak, alcohol 14.4%, and only 242 cases produced. They didn’t give the price, unfortunately. My friend Charlie Olken, at Connoisseur’s Guide, and his team gave it 96 points. I wouldn’t go quite that high, but it is a gorgeously rich, succulent Sonoma Zinfandel. It’s quite different in style from the Secret Stones, but is no less beautiful, and deserves the same score.
Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.
95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.
95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.
94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.
94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.
Every once in a while you have a winetasting you know you’ll long remember. Yesterday’s Zinfandel romp was one. We’ve had a lot of amazing tastings over the last year and a half, but this was one for the books.
Yesterday I suggested that Zinfandel has always been a bit of an under-achiever, in my book. We talked about this at the tasting: somebody wondered why Zin never gets perfect 100s. I speculated that it could be for two reasons: First, that it’s not really a “noble” variety and thus not capable of perfection. Secondly, that it would take a considerable amount of courage for a professional critic to give a Zinfandel 100 points. Wine Advocate, for instance, has never given more than 98 points to a Zin, nor has Wine Spectator given higher than 96 points. Maybe there’s just something inherently rustic about even the best Zinfandel. We can argue endlessly about why this is.
Anyhow, when you do a blind tasting that thrills you to the marrow, it’s terrifically exciting to remove the bottles from their papery shrouds and see what’s what. This was certainly the greatest Zinfandel tasting I’ve ever attended and I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best that’s ever been held. It wasn’t big—only thirteen wines—but it did represent a critical best-of-the-best. Should other wines have been included? Sure. You can’t have everything. Should we have had bottles from Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills? Probably. But I have to draw the line someplace, so I held it to Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino—with that one outlier from the Oregon side of Columbia Valley, Sineann.
Here are my results (not the group’s):
98 Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.6%. This was quite simply the greatest Zinfandel I’ve ever had. It immediately followed the spectacular Martinelli [see below] and was so different in style, it momentarily caught me off-guard. But then I realized the wine’s magnificence. My notes as I wrote them: “Black! Huge, deep, dark, brooding. A helluva Zin. Massively compact: raspberries, blueberries, cherry pie, dates, bloody meat, bacon, sweet oak, spices. Ultra-rich, yet balanced and silky. Really a super-Zin, distinguished and terroir-driven. An almost Oriental complexity.” During our subsequent discussion I compared it to a Bach fugue: So many levels, all playing contrapuntally off each other.
96 Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $95, 16.6%. It should be noted that this is not the winery’s Jackass Hill Zin, which is grown on a far steeper slope. I wrote: “A ripe, flashy, approachable style, but enormously complex. Strawberries, raspberries, vanilla bean, cocoa dust, toast, mocha, orange zest and masses of spice. Simply delicious and easy. Silky sweet tannins, the perfect glass of Zin, oaky-sweet.” Another taster found white chocolate. The alcohol was enormous, but the wine wasn’t hot at all. Just a lovely effort from Martinelli. It stood in contrast to the Fanucchi-Wood: The Beatles, say, instead of Bach.
96 Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 15.5%. A spectacular Zin. What a roll Hartford is on! From century vines, including some Carignane and 55% new French oak, which it easily handles. My notes: “Very bright, uplifted nose. Super-briary and brambly, classic Russian River Valley Zin.” (Yes, I nailed that!) “Wild raspberries, chamomile, cedar, menthol-eucalyptus. Tons of sweet raspberries, spices (clove, pepper, cinnamon). First-rate Zin, delicious and satisfying.”
95 Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $33, 15.8%. Another old vineyard, planted in the Laguna de Santa Rosa section, and a field-blend of various other varieties. It was interesting to compare it to the Williams Selyem [see below], which also was from Papera fruit. My notes: “Dark. A lush, ripe, fruity style. Flashy and delicious. Raspberries, mocha, red cherries, smoke, brown sugar, cinnamon. Very delicious, complex, a real beauty. Lots of zesty acidity, with a long finish.”
94 Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley); $39, 15.2%. I included this because I wanted a ringer in the group, but also because Wine Enthusiast gave it 95 points while Wine Advocate said, “To be totally honest I find this difficult to even think about swallowing in a[n] appreciable measure” and declined to give it a rating. My notes: “Lively, clean. Nice burst of acidity, smooth, silky tannins. Rich, spicy raspberry, cherry, persimmon fruit. Scads of spices: white pepper, clove, cinnamon. Orange zest, vanilla, cocoa, smoke. Drinkable now.” So I guess I agree with Wine Enthusiast on this one!
94 Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge): $?, 15.5%. Edmeades is fortunate to have access to this and other high, remote mountain old-vine vineyards in this gorgeous part of Mendocino County. The grapes grow on 60% slopes at 1,500 feet, which no doubt accounts for the intensity. I wrote: “Black! Very rich, almost candy-sweet in cherries and dates. Smooth, silky tannins, nice smokiness, a fleshy note of pork belly. Fat, gras, glyceriney (high alcohol). Hedonistic, heady, a great example of a big, rich, ripe Zin.”
93 Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $55, 14.8%. This was the first wine in the lineup and I loved it instantly; we all did. But sometimes that first wine tastes better than it really is, so I went back to it several times. I wrote: “Good saturation. Gorgeous perfume: raspberry, cocoa dust, violets, black pepper. Burst of acidity. Smooth, sophisticated. Huge blast of raspberry and spice. A touch of raisining. Some heat, not much. Nice herbaceousness. Classic Zin.” Clearly the Papera Vineyard gives ripe, balanced and elegant fruit.
93 Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): $47, 15.0%. I “discovered” Carlisle years ago at the old Hospice de Rhône event in Paso Robles, when Mike Officer was pouring his Two Acre. I thought then it was one of the best blends I’d ever had, and gave him, I believe, his first major review. His estate vineyard, like Papera, is in the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and is a field blend containing who knows how many other varieties. I wrote: “Lovely aroma, all wood smoke, raspberry preserves, clove-cinnamon spice, sous-bois. Good fruit, sweet, silky tannins, with a minerality.” Initially, I found the wine overly tart, which was a turnoff that caused me to lower my score. However, over time, I found myself liking it more and more. My 93 point score may be generous, though. I’d like to try this wine another time.
93 Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $56, 15.0%. Spectator gave this 96 points. I didn’t like it quite so much, but it is a very nice Zinfandel. I wrote: “Dark! Very young, tight aroma…closed, dumb. Hints of forest, wild herbs, blackberries, smoke. Closed, tannic, muted in the mouth. But feels fine, high quality. Give it 4-5 years.”
92 Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge); $31, 15.5%. Another of those fabulous mountain vineyards Edmeades sources from. My notes: “A lighter color. Easy-breezy Zin, super-drinkable, likeable now. Silky and balanced, with tons of sweet red fruit, toast, marzipan, macaroon. Zesty acidity. Well-made, with some raisining.”
91 Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma County): $65, 15.9%. The tiny vineyard is in Santa Rosa and qualifies, I believe, for a Russian River Valley appellation, although it doesn’t say so on the label. It was planted in 1915. I wrote: “Good ruby color. Delightful aroma, clean and classic Zin. Briary, brambly, with wild cranberry, persimmon fruit. Deep, broad flavors, polished, silky, very appealing. Not a profound wine, but with vast appeal.”
90 Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley); $50, 15.4%. The vineyard was planted in 1920 on the Silverado Trail, in what is now the Oak Knoll District, and is another multi-variety field blend. This was definitely a wine that improved in the glass. I wrote: “Bigger, riper, raisiny [compared to the Williams Selyem that preceded it]. For me, though, a bit too big, alcoholic, almost a Port except it’s bone dry. Rather soft, too.” But as it showed more complexity and an almost intellectual component over time, I ticked my score up a few points.
87 Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley); $34, 15.3%. This was a big disappointment, especially because the Limerick Lane Zin was so much better. I wrote: “Reduced (sulfur). Not blowing off. Somewhat tough and astringent. Full-bodied, with blackberries, but outclassed in this flight. Somewhat heavy.” It did improve with time in the glass, but sadly, 87 points was the best I could do. Others found it more appealing.
I’ll be tasting a bunch of Zinfandels today as you read this. It’ll be the first time we’ve tackled Zin in my regular tastings at Jackson Family Wines; until now, we’ve done Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and red Rhône blends.
I guess I’m like most people in that I consider some varieties more “important” than others. I know that’s irrational, but there it is. I know that Zinfandel is one of those varieties that can be stunning, but for some reason it doesn’t leap to the front of my mind when I think of California’s best wines, the way Pinot and Cab do. Perhaps it’s because there’s no great European analog to Zinfandel.
Maybe I’m wrong, and in a way, I hope I am. Historically, you don’t get any greater than Zin. But maybe it was Zin’s very association with Nonno and homemade wine that tarred its reputation. When people began to get serious about it during the boutique winery era, it looked for a moment like Zin might become very important. But it didn’t happen: Cabernet so overwhelmed the red wine category that people started ripping out their old Zin vines, a catastrophe that was temporized only by the unforeseen popularity of White Zinfandel.
Many of the Zins we’ll be tasting today are from those remaining old vines, particularly from Sonoma County and most particularly from the eastern parts of the Russian River Valley, around the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Here’s the lineup:
- Edmeades 2013 Perli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
- Novy 2013 Limerick Lane Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Novy 2013 Papera Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Hartford 2012 Old Vine Fanucchi-Wood Road Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Hartford 2013 Old Vine Highwire Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Edmeades 2012 Gianoli Vineyard Zinfandel (Mendocino Ridge)
- Carlisle 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley
- Limerick Lane 2013 Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
- Turley 2013 Zampatti Vineyard (Sonoma County)
- Robert Biale 2013 Grande Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley)
- Sineann 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel (Columbia Valley)
- Williams Selyem 2013 Papera Vineyard (Russian River Valley)
- Martinelli 2014 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley)
Pretty cool, no? Edmeades, Hartford and Novy are, of course, Jackson Family wines. It’s important for a winery to taste its wines against the best of the competition, and the other Zins are wines that traditionally get high scores from the critics, including me. The Sineann is from Washington State: I wanted to include it because it’s been getting some good scores, and also I like to include in these blind tastings “ringers.” I’ll tell the other tasters that one of the wines is an outlier and we’ll all try to guess which it is.
You have to be very committed to Zinfandel in order to do it at the level of these wineries. Zin remains a tough sell. If it’s expensive—and these are—people wonder why they should buy Zinfandel instead of, say, Cabernet, Merlot, Petite Sirah, a Chilean Carmenere or Argentine Malbec, or some other full-bodied red wine. The “Zin and barbecue” formulation is true enough, but it’s become a journalistic cliché, encouraged by editors selling advertisements. And producers don’t want the public to think you can only drink Zinfandel when ribs are grilling on the barbie. Zinfandel acreage in California is actually up in the 2000s, although not by much: in Sonoma and Napa, it’s virtually unchanged, which shows that growers don’t place much faith in its future.
But as I say, the wineries we’ll be tasting today believe in Zinfandel, and each of them has their loyal fans. I’ll report on our tasting tomorrow, and on whether or not we were able to nail the Sineann as the outlier.
Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.
Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.
In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.
- A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
- Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
- Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
- Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
- Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
- There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
- Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
- Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.
A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.
Have a great weekend!
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.