A friend and wine judge (Jay Bileti) and I spent four days of intensive touring through the Southern Arizona wine country about 10 days ago and were pleasantly surprised. The quality of wine overall had significantly improved since my last serious visit to this area eight years ago. This visit produced tasting notes on many premium wines and a large selection of well-made value wines.
We tasted roughly 30 different varietals and numerous non-traditional red and white blends. There is still much searching for identity and character of terroir here, but producers are closer to consistent quality product than ever before. Warm climate Rhone, Southern Italian and Spanish varietals seem to produce the best wines here: Viognier, Petit Manseng, Malvasia Bianca and Picpoul to name a few whites and Syrah, Grenache, Tannat, Aglianico, Tempranillo and Graziano on the red side. Don’t be scared off by the unusual grape varieties. There is high-caliber wine making going on here and the most successful wines are the blends. The identity of the Arizona wine industry will likely become the home of high-quality non-traditional white and red blends. Some of the white wines (who would have guessed) in particular could be served in the premium category anywhere in the world.
Just like any California wine area, if you are a serious wine aficionado, you will want to do your homework before deciding to visit these up-and-coming AVA’s. I would be happy to make some recommendations, if you would like to drop me a note. With the warm climate, I was surprised to find the most successful wines were those made with less intervention and in a more understated, balanced profile. For those that like the big fruity wines, there is still plenty of that wine style to taste.
I will be writing about the winemaker interviews and research that has been going into my evaluation of the wine, wine industry and terroir here and I look forward to introducing you to what I believe will be a top quality wine location in the years to come. I followed the Paso Robles, Walla Walla and Santa Barbara regions on their rise and in many ways, Arizona is on the same path.
The importance of climate in vineyard management can not be over-stated. The entire European culinary and beverage marketing model establishes food/wine character BY LOCATION. This European developed idea to turn place-names into unique trademarks defining specific flavors and aromas has been the cornerstone of worldwide food and wine marketing for decades. The same thinking caused governments to establish laws and trademark protections for food and wine production. Wine laws arguably could be the most stringent. Here are a few of the most famous wine examples: American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy. This concept also applies to specialty foods: Parmesan Reggiano cheese may only come from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, IT, Roquefort cheese can only be made in Roquefort, FR, Prosciutto de Parma can only be made in Parma, IT, etc. If you have never tasted these original foods (and not imitations), you need to splurge a little and buy these imported products. The difference in flavor is astonishing.
Impact of Climate Change on Wine Production
The French terroir concept is the basis of this wine marketing by area idea and has been developing for hundreds of years in Europe. It is the primary driving factor behind the establishment of wine laws controlling vineyard and winemaking practices by location. The definition of Terroir:
Complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate. – AND / OR – The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
Climate has a direct impact on the terroir idea defined above. It affects many choices for producers, ie. grape varietals to plant, when to harvest, control of crop size, how to water, conditioning/fertilizing of soil, etc. All of these affect wine character, flavors and aromas. So, what is coming for the wine and food industries due to climate change? Hang on… crystal ball is out, here we go…
Vineyards and Resulting Wine by Location
Common thinking has been that vineyards should be planted between the 30th and 50th parallels (latitude) around the globe, both northern and southern hemispheres. Cool climate reds like pinot noir often are best grown near the 45th parallel and warm climate reds like nero d’avola and shiraz near the 35th. Cool climate whites like riesling are often grown near the 50th parallel (ripening reliably compared to past) and warm climate like petit manseng near the 35th. Vineyard elevation can affect this range, but only minimally. The impact is not just temps, but also length and intensity of sunlight during the growing season.
The most consumed varietals in the world: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are best grown in a much narrower range: 40-45th parallel. Why is this important? What if the most famous cab sauv growing region in the world (Bordeaux, France) became too hot for premium cab sauv wine production? Would these producers accept: producing poor quality wine, over-manipulate the wine to change its character, or tear out cab sauv vines and plant warmer climate varietals like aglianico and petit sirah? French wine laws would fall apart with any of these options and as a result wine consumers might change their ideas about where the best wines in the world are produced.
Climate Impact on Commonly Grown Wine Grapes
When cab sauv is grown in cooler areas, the wine acquires vegetal flavors: green bellpepper and tomato are common. When chardonnay is grown in warmer climates, it becomes too fruity and loses it signature acidity. What would happen if Burgundy, France became too warm to grow quality pinot noir, or Napa, CA became too warm for cab sauv? The transition has already begun… I have been collecting and tasting wine since the 90’s and red burgundy has become fruitier and Napa reds have become flabbier. Many Napa producers have already begun manipulating their wines to adjust for the differences. One option is to harvest earlier, but then the pips (seeds) are not allowed to ripen and complex flavors are lost. In Napa, where the area’s signature cab sauv is very fruity, this option would change the whole character of the regions’ wine production.
Changes and Timelines
Climate change has been slowly accelerating, but still is not likely to have a serious impact on wine in my lifetime. Although, consider this thought: a wine vineyard requires 5-10 years to fully mature and begin producing premium fruit for wine production. This requires thinking in terms of decades, not years. The last 25 years of climate change has seen a noticeable difference in the character of wine in many regions. Not enough to change the wine industry substantially, but at this rate, what will another 25 years bring? Will vineyard managers have the vision to react in advance, when there is still time to save the current wine styles of today? Will the industry opt to tear-out current vineyards and replant warmer climate grape varietals, or decide to abandon warming vineyard sites for planting in cooler climate areas farther north? It is likely to be too expensive to abandon existing vineyard sites… so my crystal ball shows the younger generations of wine drinkers adapting to Petit Sirah and Petit Manseng…
This has been a very interesting topic. If others in the trade have different ideas regarding the impact of climate change on the industry, please drop me a note. I am always curious about new strategies… and no, please do not suggest adding citric acid to the final product, thank you…
For those that are not familiar with Austria and its history with wine, this article will familiarize you with the 1985 scandal when millions of bottles for domestic and export sales were found to have had diethylene glycol (similar to automobile antifreeze) added. This stuff can be very unhealthy. But, on the upside, it does make the wine fuller bodied and sweeter. Nice trade-off there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the result of that mess was the destruction of 36 million bottles of Austrian wine and the complete collapse of their wine industry. It would take almost 20 years and the addition of numerous laws and legal safe-guards for their wine industry to fully recover. There has finally been a huge resurgence in the popularity of Austrian wines in the last decade.
Latest Austrian Scandal
In several wine producing countries, it is illegal to add any type of glycerine to wine. Unfortunately, in the U.S., it is permitted. There is a huge difference between synthetic glycerine and vegetable glycerine. The synthetic type CAN be quite toxic. The vegetable version is very safe, but desirable as a wine additive? (discussion to follow below) 25,000 bottles were discovered and destroyed in Austria that were found to have synthetic glycerine added this year. The added substance in question was a trivalent alcohol that gives wine a higher viscosity and is harmless, but is forbidden by Austrian law. This synthetic glycerine was petroleum-based. Convictions and fines were the result. Sentences are not yet legally binding though. With Austria’s past, any chance of toxicity is serious bad form.
Some of the additives listed below are illegal in certain countries, but most are permitted in the U.S. Although, we don’t get to know which are used in the wine we drink, BECAUSE WINE HAS BEEN EXEMPTED FROM USFDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS. What does this mean to you personally? Well, nothing here is outright dangerous, but don’t underestimate the impact on allergies, tolerances and such. For example, my wife has a known allergy to soy, others find they have limited tolerance to added sulfites, etc. In general, all of these can affect color, flavors, aromas and the viscosity of wine. Your reaction to this discussion might be: “but, these additives are only used in cheap wine”. You would be very wrong. This list is commonly used in all price categories.
Here is a short list of common wine additives:
Citric, Fumaric, Malic, Lactic and Tartaric acids – to acidify wine
Calcium Carbonate – to de-acidify wine
Oak and Oak Chips – to add tannin, flavors & aromas
Acetaldehyde – to stabilize color
Copper Sulfate – to eliminate sulfites and mercaptans (bad tastes/odors)
Sulfur Dioxide, Potassium Sorbate – to sterlize and preserve wine
Mega Purple – to add color and body
Tannin Powder – to add mouth-feel and make wine more ageable
Gum Arabic – to reduce astringency (tannin) in wine
Dimethyl Dicarbonate – to stabilize, sterilize and remove alcohol
Sugar, Saccharose, or Grape Juice Concentrate – to add sweetness also called “chaptalization”
Vegetable Glycerine – to add body and sweetness
Gelatin, Albumin (egg white), Bentonite, Casein – to remove haziness caused by free proteins
Water – to dilute over-concentrated wine
Engineered, Cultured Yeasts – to control the fermentation process (vs. wild yeasts)
Diammonium Phosphate – removes naturally occurring sulphur in wine
Protease – improves wine heat tolerance
Soy Flour – Feeds yeast to accelerate fermentation
Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine
All of this talk of additives has to lead your mind toward interventionist vs. non-interventionist winemaking philosophies. Have you considered the issue for your own wine consumption? Personally, I believe I can taste the difference in over-manipulated wines. Napa Valley producers in the low to medium price range have been utilizing these methods more of late. This is the key reason why my personal wine cellar has been moving towards a higher percentage of French and Italian wines, especially in the low-medium price ranges. France and Italy have very stringent wine laws regarding additives and in general, have winemaking cultures of less intervention. So, if you would like to address this issue, how can you know which U.S. wines to buy? It may be time for you to read the back label of that next bottle of wine… Wine in the U.S. can be “labeled” as organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable… and can also be certified as such by a third party. Many U.S. wineries are implementing at least some of these practices. Here is what these terms mean:
Natural – Typically are made in a low-intervention style, fermented with native yeasts and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites. These wines are not filtered, or fined. This means they could contain particulates, or appear cloudy. Which is not necessarily a problem. These wines should have gone through the bare minimum of chemical, or winemaker intervention and are not often aged in oak. Wines produced with this approach may have limited stability and cannot be mass-produced, but are a different drinking experience, if you should choose to try them.
Organic – These wines fall into two categories: organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes. Certified organic wines (USDA) have stricter regulations. Vineyards must not use synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients in these wines (including yeast) must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added, although naturally occurring is permitted. These wines will display the USDA organic seal.
Biodynamic – Unlike organic winemaking, biodynamic does not change between countries. When originally devised, the method had each day organized by fruit days (grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days (vineyards to be untouched). Biodynamic practices are not required to follow this calendar, however. If you’ve seen biodynamic and organic wines grouped together at your wine shop, there is a reason. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices. They avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. Therefore, the majority of these wines are also organic in practice. Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA certified organic wines. So, a wine that is organic is not necessarily biodynamic, although a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
Sustainable – These wineries make an effort to utilize winemaking processes that protect the environment, support social responsibility, maintain economic feasibility, and are of high quality. This idea has less of a direct impact on the wine, but is an “eco-friendly” designation.
At the risk of upsetting every wine critic/judge out there, I set out to create a wine scoring system that matched my view of fine wine. I will include this scoring template at the end of the article, for those that might be like-minded. Email me if you would like a self-calculating spreadsheet copy.
After pro Sommelier training (where scoring was discouraged), I was exposed to the WSET scoring method and wine judging courses. Both used a variation of the UC Davis 20 Point Scoring System. I was shocked how these systems were unable to separate amateur from premium wines effectively. In these classes, we scored fruit wines (cherry, blueberry, strawberry, etc.) and vitis labrusca wines (Concord, Chambourcin, Catawba, etc.). These wines were near undrinkable for me and were being given the same scores as mediocre Cali Cabernet. The methodology and scoring systems taught in these classes were intended to be appropriate for both amateur and fine wines. Although, away from class these same people would explain the intent of these systems was to score wines based on a comparison of LIKE wines. This is not how I understood the training and it is likely the public views this scoring similarly. This experience motivated me to build a scoring system that is weighted properly and could be used to provide comparatively accurate scores for amateur, professional AND fine wines, without a bias.
The Evaluation Criteria
First, it was necessary to determine what separates fine wine, from other wines. In that evaluation, I arrived at the following characteristics that are under-represented in the UC Davis System: Balance, Complexity, Finish and Aging Potential. All of these measures are intended to be scored in the UC Davis “Quality” category, but to make the scores more comparatively accurate, I decided these characteristics needed their own point categories. I then looked at what seemed to be weighted incorrectly in the UC Davis System and arrived at: Clarity, Color and Acidity. Four of twenty points for clarity and color is 20% of the score. This is weighted too heavily towards mediocre wines. Acidity was only 5% of the score – not weighted heavily enough. I realized, if I reduced the points for clarity and color, increased points for acidity and added balance, complexity, finish and aging potential categories… I might be able to devise a scoring system that could properly measure a Concord wine (for example) and build an appropriate score against say… an aged Bordeaux Gran Cru.
A Wine Scoring Template
Now I was ready to put my scoring template together. I realized that many media outlets still use the old Robert Parker 100 pt system and decided to add it to my template. I wanted to help both systems arrive at a roughly equivalent score. I realized this could only be done, if I started the 100 pt score at 50, instead of 0. You will see what I mean below. The closer the wine came to the premium category, the better my 100 pt method seemed to arrive at an accurate score. It was the opposite with my 20 pt method, albeit much closer to reality than the UC Davis 20 pt method.
After the long explanation, here is my effort to build a scoring system that can evaluate both a poor blueberry wine and a Gran Cru Bordeaux – with the same template – done accurately and with a logical systematic approach.
In the past, my Somm training won out and I tried not to add scores to my tasting notes. In retrospect, I think this was mostly due to being uncomfortable with the systems available. I intend to use my scoring template moving forward and hopefully develop consistency and comparative accuracy across my tasting notes.
I would be very interested in other opinions regarding both the thinking that drove this creative process AND the relative accuracy using this scoring system. I am also open to modifying aspects, if the changes fit within the logic model used to build it. Please feel free to leave your comments on this page. Thanks!
This is an important topic and a good article from the “A Matter of Taste” site on the topic. If you are a wine enthusiast, it might be something to consider for future purchases. If you are interested, use the link to access the website here:
This issue highlights the local AVA, DOCG, AOC (etc.) regulations/laws. Some of the typical U.S. additives are not permitted in much of Europe: chaptalization, acidifying and fining agents, etc. The chemical additives category may be an even more important topic of discussion. I have found generally, I NEVER get headaches from French/Italian fine wines. Hit or miss with U.S. product.
What is your experience? Do you think it could be additives? If so, the only option to change this, is speak with your dollars. When visiting tasting rooms and talking to retailers, ask about additives. If you can’t obtain the info, consider that in your buying decision. I am a huge proponent of listing ingredients on wine labels. If you just can’t part from your faves, consider one of the several wine filtering utensils available in the aftermarket… but consider these too. Could they be using chemical agents to filter the wine? Happy wine hunting!
Here are the data points changing the face of the wine industry with limited response by producers (the numbers across multiple sources had some variation, so the figures below are approximate):
90% of all wine made in the U.S. is sold by the 320 wineries that exceed 50,000 cases of production. Of that 90%, more than half is dominated by the top FIVE: Gallo, Wine Group, Constellation, Trinchero and Delicato. The other 9,000+ wineries are bringing only 10% of all wine production to market in the U.S.**
With the recent on-going consolidation in wine distribution, the top FOUR by volume nationally (Southern, Republic, Breakthru & Young’s) deliver approximately 60% of all wine distributed in the U.S., but represent only 30% of the wineries.**
In the case of wineries producing fewer than 10,000 cases, distributors were responsible for only 33% of sales in 2016. A 6% decrease over the previous year and the trend is continuing.**
Is your head swimming with numbers yet? Suffice to say, BIG has become financially BETTER today and could very well push SMALL to the side of the road. Why? The answer is in the numbers above. How do those other 70% of under-represented wineries bring their wine to market? Winery Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) sales is only 2% of all wine sold in the U.S. currently.
Small wineries better become experts at marketing, capturing clientele and earning their continuing loyalty… and fast! If they do not already have a developed DtC customer base, it is near too late. Those who wish to survive, should be investing now! The large distributors dominating the market already have large portfolios of wine labels and shelf-space and wine lists only have so much room.
There were two great hopes: the loosening of rules in cross-state shipping of wine allowing the emergence of online wine retailers and the advent of wine big-box retailers (think Total Wine). At one time, it was looking like these two channels buying winery-direct could represent small wineries and fill the gap. Although just like the DtC space, they are missing the expertise to deliver the volume of sales needed. Can online retailers get better at building inviting online platforms and tools to identify and explore the consumer palate? Can big-box retailers provide a better buying experience that allows thousands of labels to be properly represented? Unfortunately recently, wine commerce laws have become stricter (see recent changes in FL) and it is making it more challenging for both of these channels to grow fast enough to fill the gap.
Why Should Consumers Care?
Well, if you have favorite wines produced by wineries with under a 10K case output… supporting them with your DtC purchases will become important to their continued survival and your continuing supply. It is that simple. The survival of small wineries is in your hands…
**Reference sources for this article were: Various Wines & Vines articles, Grand View Research – Wine Market Trends Report, Forbes Food & Agriculture articles, L.E.K. Insights – Trends Affecting the Wine Industry, Dr. Liz Thach MW – Blog and Statista – Alcoholic Beverage Statistics. The internet provides so much rich content, if you search!
Silicon Valley Bank has been producing state of the beverage industry reports for years. I try to make sure I read the formal report every year, but they also write a blog for the wine industry that I check-in on occasionally. The data can deliver insights that bring an interesting perspective to market trends.
Data is Predicting Changes
The U.S. wine industry has been on a steam roller building big gains in revenue and beverage market share drawing in new consumers from younger generations of social drinkers. The recent data is showing significant slowing of that growth, even in areas that have been hot in the past, such as: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Super Premium Wines, Direct-to-Consumer Sales and On-Premises (restaurant) Consumption. Unfortunately, the growth in the number of small growers and producers is not slowing to match pace. Many of these producers are being drawn to the lifestyle, not the business opportunity and the industry is reaching a tipping point for several reasons.
Restaurant Wine Sales is Slowing
Distribution is their own worst enemy here. In an effort to control local beverage markets, they are actually causing irreparable harm to their dealer’s ability to respond to market trends. Destructive strategies, such as:
Withholding well-known brands of beer and spirits, if specific high-profit wines being promoted are not purchased.
Extending credit limits, or terms to obtain leverage on buying decisions.
A successful restaurant wine inventory should have wines covering well-known lower priced labels, lesser-known value in the middle range and highly scored, high priced wine that garner recognition. This approach tends to satisfy a much wider range of consumer, offer a selection all can explore/enjoy/afford and provide up-sell opportunities for the staff when the occasion calls for it. Instead, distributors in many states are preventing this type of responsive approach. Read the piece at this link for additional info: Restaurant Wine Sales
Fruit/Wine Supply Exceeding Demand
Wine travel in Europe teaches you one thing: don’t be afraid to order cheap table wine with a meal there. Even table wine in Europe can be very good. The growing over-supply issue may change the landscape in the U.S. For many years now, the $10-15/btl retail price has delivered poor quality in the U.S. I am hoping this market trend will bring more, better quality fruit and wine to the market at reduced prices, instead of vineyards dropping the excess fruit to rot in the fields. See information on this at this link: Wine Supply
Premium Wine Sales are Flat
The continued growth in this category is coming primarily from price increases, not the volume of wine. Interestingly enough, consumption of premium craft beer has also weakened. This is very likely being caused by an aging Boomer generation drinking less wine, without Millennials filling the gap. The younger generation seems to be moving towards exploration and looking for value, rather than committing to older high-priced labels. See information on this at this link: Premium Wine Sales
Direct-to-Consumer Beverage Sales Continues to Grow
As long as State legislatures and the Supreme Court continue to keep their hands off this segment of wine/beer/spirits distribution… this will likely be the savior of the small producer… for those that get it right. With the extensive consolidation in the beverage distribution industry in the last few years, there is just not enough room on the shelf for the growing number of labels, especially for smaller producers without a sizable marketing budget. The continuing growth in the number of small producers will force an understanding of how to connect and maintain a relationship with a clientele, or fail. Wineries must continue to move towards improving the wine experience for potential customers, rather than provide a traditional tasting room as the only engagement. This is the only segment left in the wine industry that offers a solid business opportunity, but selling out each vintage will increasingly become a challenge, without the bulk purchasing distribution can offer. The trick will be how to build the DtC channel for each producer. With most small wineries being about the farming, or the winemaking… there will need to be a newly developed understanding of marketing and customer engagement. It will be a matter of survival. See information on this at this link: Small Winery Sales
Changes are Coming
The U.S. wine industry is likely to look quite different five years from now. There is a good chance, with the Millennial penchant for exploring new wines, that imported wine sales will grow faster than domestic in the future. This pressure may actually force the U.S. wine industry to get better at producing quality in that $10-15/btl range that typically does not exist today. An outcome I am looking forward to…
All aspects of the beverage industry are working so hard to leverage technology, online social media and media access… the efforts are humorous at times. Often I feel bombarded by recommendations from the wine industry: in person, in writing, by software, on websites.
How Do They Know What I Will Enjoy?
We now have apps for retailers, apps for consumers, apps for wineries, apps for restaurants, etc… all designed to help either respond to demand, create demand, or convince me which wines to buy. I am so tired of this deluge of software telling me what I should know about the beverage market/industry, or what I should be buying. If this software can attract enough participation, a database can be developed to identify popular flavor profiles, but how does this really help me? Do I really need to know what the other guy is buying?
I get so frustrated with wine stewards, tasting room attendants, retail clerks AND apps wanting to tell me what beverage is popular, because I am sure to enjoy it. Since when am I sure to appreciate a beverage, because it appeals to the next guy? I don’t need more sources telling me what other people prefer, I need more direct assistance leveraging my preferences to select beverages I KNOW I will enjoy.
The wine industry makes the wrong assumption. I don’t need to be told what to buy, I need an understanding of the actual tasting experience with the product. I need an app that I can input my data: likes wine with high acidity, texture, complex flavors, fruit forward… and it pops out matching wines. It could be for Bourbon too: caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, a little spicy, not too sweet and not too hot… and I get a list. This is where technology could actually pair demand with production and offer both buyer assistance AND seller demand creation.
Why Isn’t Anyone Working on This?
I have been asked to look at/test run several wine apps. Most all depend on sharing consumption trends. The ones that try to do it the right way, all get it wrong, i.e. just because I enjoy black coffee, doesn’t mean I will appreciate savory flavors in wine. I am going to put it out there in the public domain, the questions needed to structure a questionnaire that captures real wine preferences:
Prefer wine with/without food?
Drinking the wine now, or holding in your cellar?
Easy drinking, slightly sweet wines?
Wines that clear your palate and are crisp?
Textured wines with good mouthfeel?
Can you appreciate savory flavors in wine (complexity)? Must a wine be very fruity to appreciate?
Do you prefer reds with red, or black fruit flavors? Whites with citrus, tropical, or stone fruit flavors?
How much dry/cottony feeling in the mouth can you appreciate?
What is your budget?
Let me ask these questions of a wine enthusiast and I can pick out a wine they will enjoy 9 out of 10 times. I have done this with friends so many times… So why is that so hard to design software around? Picture a wine app that is loaded on a tablet that could assist an attendant to make a recommendation based on these simple questions?
If you have simple questions that can provide insight into wine preferences, please share.
***** I will put the challenge out there. If there is a wine app that handles wine evaluation in this fashion, please contact me. I will promote your solution anywhere I can. *****
Three systems are most commonly used for wine scoring today: Robert Parker’s 100 Point System, UC Davis’ 20 point System and the Gold-Silver-Bronze Medal designations. So, let’s dive into each and understand their components, focus and determine their real-world reliability.
Silver-medal: 17.0–18.4 points – Excellent standard
Bronze-medal: 15.5–16.9 points – Very good wine for its class
UC Davis System:
17 – 20 Outstanding
13 – 16 Standard wines with no defect
9 – 12 Commercially acceptable with no defect
5 – 8 Below commercial acceptability
1 – 5 Completely spoiled
Appearance (2 points)
Color (2 points)
Aroma and Bouquet (4 points)
Total Acidity (2 points)
Sugar (1 point)
Body (1 point)
Flavor (2 point)
Acescency (Bitterness) (2 points)
Astringency (Tannin) (2 points)
General Quality (2 points)
The glaring missing pieces are Balance, Complexity, Finish and Age-Ability. Without these factors, fine wine cannot accurately be judged. The UC Davis System has an inherent bias toward poor to mediocre wines. The problem is the potential for a 16 pt. score (bronze medal) for a typical Concord sweet wine, in comparison to a 16 pt. score for a mediocre Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon. The latter is eminently more drinkable, yet carries the same score. This system allows too much weight for components that would be assumed with fine wine, such as Appearance and Color and virtually none where fine wine shines, such as Balance, Age-ability, etc. This evens the playing field for amateur wines and narrows the gap between the professional and amateur wine categories. BEWARE of medal designations and UC Davis scoring. If you enjoy fine wines and in particular, if you collect Old World wines, this scoring system is not for you.
Parker’s 100 Point System
50 Points for Showing Up 🙂
5 Points for First Impression or Color
15 Points for Aroma or Bouquet
10 Points for Flavor
10 Points for Finish
10 Points for Aging Potential
OK, this has its problems too. Certainly not scientific, or very systematic, but it weighs the important characteristics of fine wines. This too is missing the balance and complexity components, but allows enough latitude to score (let’s say) a U.S. 1997 Robert Mondavi Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvigon versus a French 2000 Chateau La Gaffeliere. Something the UC Davis and Medal systems do not.
Frankly, this system will just not work for evaluating an amateur winemaker’s sweet 2017 Chambourcin (native hybrid grape), BECAUSE Old World style wine quality is in another category of its own. So far removed, that any 20 Point System equivalent would require adding decimal quantifiers (i.e. 19.1, 19.2, etc.) to attempt to make an equivalency work.
5/28/18 – I have had a few comments from those who follow my blog about not including the WSET “Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine”. I have never seen this system used by a wine writer in their media product (although some components are similar to UC Davis system). I am not sure it would/could be a commercially viable solution. I would appreciate any feedback on this, though. I am sure there are some that are using it in the background and converting it to the more common scoring systems (WSET Graduates your thoughts?)
A ” Wine Judge Certification Program”
This year I had an interesting experience with a wine judge training/certification program (Wine Judge Certification Program – WJCP) run by the American Wine Society (AWS). There are very few programs like this, specifically certifying wine judges in the U.S.
This program introduced me to a whole new subset in the wine continuum: amateur winemakers, native grape species and fruit wines. It became very clear to me quickly, AWS has a significant piece of their membership focused on this area. In fact, they have changed the UC Davis scoring system to make it more internally friendly to these wines. I also found out, there are many wine competitions across the Eastern half of the U.S. specifically focused on these type of wines. Who knew!!
Full Disclosure: This focus seemed quite odd and I could never get my head around it. I did make the decision to stop investing in these classes and have since exited the program.
I had never seen a bottle of anything in this category, before these classes. My closest familiarity was the Mogen David Concord wine my parents drank over ice occasionally. Who knew there was a whole wine culture that focused on this type of wine. I still remember the worst hangover of my life from drinking 3 bottles of Annie Green Springs when I was a teenager. I suppose someone has to evaluate these wines, but using the same scoring system to evaluate an aged Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is nothing but tragic. What happened to the idea that wine and local cuisine is a match made in heaven? Certainly, not with these wines.
The Jumble and Ambiguity of Wine Scoring
If it hasn’t become clear yet, there is an enormous amount of confusion surrounding these scoring systems. So, how can we use them to choose wines to match our tastes? Personally, I ignore the 20 pt. and Medal Systems completely and I take the 100 pt. System scores with a grain of salt… unless I am familiar with the judges palate. For example, I have a pretty good idea of what these wine writers/judges rate highly: Parker, Suckling, Galloni and Tanzer. I can make a reasonable guess at quality from 100 pt. system scores generated by these wine writers.
So, what do you do? Well, if you are a fine wine drinker, I would surely ignore the 20 pt. and medal systems. From there, it is all homework. Get to know what your favorite wine writers tend to score highly, learn their palate a bit and use their scores to make your choices!
If I could develop my own scoring system for the wines I drink, it would be a version of a 100 pt. system and look something like this:
5 Points for First Impression or Color
15 Points for Acidity
10 Points for Tannin and its Texture/Mouth-Feel
15 Points for Aroma or Bouquet
10 Points for Flavor
10 Points for Finish
15 Points for Balance
10 Points for Complexity (mid-palate & layered flavors)
10 Points for Aging Potential
A red wine theoretically could have a perfect score of 100. White/rose wine with no tannin would have 90 as a perfect score. Without balance, complexity and aging potential, 35 points are lost! With this type of system you could easily get the point swing needed to separate amateur wines from bottle-aged fine wines.
Many of these components are too subjective to make it onto a judges sheet at an amateur wine competition. The focus there has to be on the basics: no faults, or objectionable components. How many people get to formally judge better wines anyway? Only a lucky few…
Trained, certified sommelier. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Working with the wine industry as a part-time consultant. Providing cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my tasting notes and blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, or my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin.