- Written by Rand Sealey
More About the 20 Point System
Now that the Wine Advocate has come out with Dr. Jay Miller's reviews of Washington wines, the 100 point wine rating system used by that and other publications has come into increased focus. It is a compelling testimony to the strides that Washington wine making has made to have 338 wines score 90 points or more and 810 recommended in the Wine Advocate. That said, this event reinforces my belief that the 20 point system is a more precise gauge for evaluating wines.
The first thing I must state is: do not multiply 20 point scores by five to get the equivalent 100 point score. The 20 point system has very different gradations. I have written before (Sept. 4, 2009 and March 2, 2010) about the Davis 20 Point System which was originated by the University of California at Davis in the late 1950's. Here is a recap from these articles.
The Davis 20 Point System was commonly used in evaluating wines until the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator came along with the 100 point system (I have used 20 points ever since I started Esquin in 1970). The Davis faculty experimented with 100 points in the 1940's, then came to the conclusion later that a 20 point system provided more precise results. The Davis system assigned points on a form with the following standards.
Clarity (2 points) - Brilliant, near sparkly, clear with no haze or particulates.
Color (2 points) - Appropriate color for varietal/type and age.
Bouquet (4 points) Distinct varietal characteristics, balanced bouquet ("corked" is a defect here).
Total Acidity (1 point) - Proper balance, appropriate for varietal/type and age.
Sweetness (1 point) - Appropriate sweetness, well enhanced/well balanced.
Body/Texture (2 points) - Appropriate body for varietal/type and age.
Flavor/Taste (2 points) - Complex flavors, appropriate for varietal/type and age.
Acescensy (Bitterness) (1 point) - Well balanced, no perceptible bitterness.
Astringency (1 point) - Appropriate levels of tannin for the varietal/type and age.
Overall Quality (4 points) - Wine's of "noble" quality with distinct and distinguishing character. (It is here that there is room for subjectivity. Wines that are "charming" with some special character get 3 points. Typical or unexceptional wines get fewer points.)
The scores are totaled for a given wine to obtain the following ratings:
17 - 20 points - Wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects.
13 - 16 points - Standard wines with neither outstanding character or defect.
9 - 12 points - Wines of commercial acceptability with noticeable defects.
5 - 8 points - Wines below commercial acceptability.
1 - 5 points - Completely spoiled wines.
One interesting thing about the U.C. Davis System is that wines scoring 17 - 20 points are considered "wines of outstanding characteristics having no defects." This must mean that some wines are more outstanding than others. This is what the 17 - 20 point range means to me:
17 points - Very good, above average wines.
18 points - Exceptional, fine wines.
18.5 points - A step higher, more complex and nuanced.
19 points - Outstanding wines with much complexity.
19.5 points - Great wines that show extraordinary character.
20 points - Wines that are not only flawless, but possess superlative depth and complexity.
Occasionally (but not often) I will use a + to indicate a wine that is a notch above it's point level in complexity.
The beauty of the 20 point system is its simplicity which reduces (but does not eliminate) the influence of subjectivity in the evaluation process. Wines get rated on the basis of their overall balance and total performance. This is what I strive for.
Initially, when I started the Review of Washington Wines, I was going to use the 100 point scale as it seemed to be the one most widely understood by wine consumers. But in talking with Chris Camarda of Andrew Will on a visit to his winery on Vashon Island, he convinced me to do otherwise. Chris pointed out that almost no one will buy a wine that gets 85 points, even though using school grading that would be a B and hence very good. Most 100 point scale ratings peak out at about 92 points, so there is a range of 89 - 92 points for most Recommended / Highly Recommended wines, a level of precision that is actually lower than that of 17 - 20 points. Under the 100 point system, few wines get 93 or more points which becomes a Holy Grail that wineries strive for. In sum, the 20 point system, in my opinion, delivers a more precise estimation of a wine's overall quality than the 100 point system.
- Written by Rand Sealey
More About Maison Bleue's Whites
As I stated in my review of Maison Bleue's 2009 whites, I believe Jon Martinez has taken "white wine making to a new, higher level." Here, I'll tell you a bit more about this.
When I visited Jon in Prosser, I tasted through the wines and was fairly blown away by how impressive the whites were. It is no secret that red wines are Washington's strongest suit, but here I see terrific potential for whites as well, especially from Jon's French Creek Vineyard and Dick Boushey's vineyards.
After tasting at the winery, Jon drove me over to the French Creek Vineyard; a ten acre parcel planted with 30-year-old Chardonnay vines. There, I saw a gently sloped hillside with near-perfect southwestern exposure. The gnarled vine cordons were surrounded by by stony, well-drained soils. Interspersed were chunks of granite (one of which I took) that had been strewn there by the Missoula Floods of 15,000 to 13,000 years ago. The site is a true "gem." On the way back, we drove past a nearby vineyard of 35-plus year-old Chenin Blanc vines whose grapes Jon plans to buy to produce a dry white in the manner of a Savennieres from France's Loire Valley.
I returned home (after a delicious lunch with Jon at Wine O'Clock) to Walla Walla with samples for re-tasting. I went through them one by one over the course of a couple of days. I checked my notes and scored the wines on the modified U.C. Davis 20 Point System score sheet. (See my blog of March 2, 2010 to see how this system works.) I found three of the four wines to merit 19 or more points on a qualitative basis. The fourth, the "Jaja" received 18.5 points, the highest yet that I have awarded for an under $20 dry white. Their respective levels of complexity were highly impressive as well. The quality-price ratios on these wines are phenomenally high.
- Written by Rand Sealey
An Update on Nicholas Cole Cellars
Back in March of 2009, I did a Focus write-up on Nicholas Cole Cellars. I found owner-winemaker Mike Neuffer's Estate wines to be highly impressive, rating them 19+ points. Recently, I revisited these wines at the Nicholas Cole tasting room in Walla Walla with General Manager Jeanie Inglis-Chowanietz. The ratings remain the same, but the prices have been reduced considerably in the light of today's wine market. As such, these wines now represent exceptional value for their high quality levels.
My notes (August 16, 2010) in order of tasting:
2005 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Camille," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($35)
This blend of 45% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cab Franc and 1% Petit Verdot offers a smoky, exotic raspberry, boysenberry and cassis nose with scents of dried roses and tobacco. The chewy, textured flavors show a dried fruit character, with tones of licorice and mocha that lead into a ripe, chewy tannin finish. 18.5/20 points. (Not reviewed 3/2009 - new addition).
2006 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Juliet," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($34)
This 53% Sangiovese, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cab Franc blend, with dashes of Merlot and Petit Verdot, exhibits a rich berry nose with scents of tobacco, sandalwood and clove. The flavors are medium-bodied, but show a classy character, with lovely supple fruits that lead on to a long, complex pomegranate and orange peel finish. 19/20 points.
2005 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Michele," Walla Walla Valley Estate ($38)
A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this is a head-turner. It emits an exotic bouquet of raspberry, cassis, sandalwood, crushed roses, oriental perfumes and cigar box. Finely-fruited and focused, it displays an exoticism that continues through the back, laced with orange peel, silty minerals, mocha and licorice, supported by chewy tannins and fine acidity on the lingering finish. 19.5/20 points.
2006 Nicholas Cole Cellars "Dauphine" Syrah, Walla Walla Valley Estate ($36)
Deep purplish colored, this wine offers a sensuous blackberry and cassis nose with whiffs of lavender, incense, spice and pepper. On the palate, the flavors are lush and chewy, yet well-focused - the essence of Syrah. A juicy back is accompanied by licorice, coffee grounds, chocolate, semi-dried fruits and silty earth minerals, followed by a seductive lingering, lightly spiced finish. 19/20 points.
2005 Nicholas Cole Estate Reserve, Walla Walla Valley ($75)
This blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot is a stunning wine. It shows an exotic, intoxicating nose of wild semi-dried berries, with scents of lavender, rose petals and oriental perfumes. The flavors are deliciously silky, yet well-defined, flowing seamlessly through a ripe, berried backdrop, marked by nuts, silt earth and vanilla bean. The oak is subtle, never obvious, even though 100% new Taransaud barrels, and is accompanied by spices, orange peel, toffee and pomegranate on a long, fine-grained tannin finish. 19.5+/20 points.
A Subscriber Comment on Last Week's Blog, "Is Walla Walla going to be the next Napa?"
A few days ago, I received this email from Rick Johnson, owner of Walla Faces winery and Walla Faces Inns in Walla Walla.
"I have to agree with most comments in this article. I think that the remoteness of Walla Walla is why it will never be another Napa. I grew up in Seattle and never travelled to Walla Walla until five years ago. Walla Walla is on the way to nowhere. It has not been a destination until the recent wine industry success. However, that being said it is still not easy to get here. As mentioned in your blog it is a 4.5 hour drive from either Seattle or Portland. Airline access is extremely limited. Horizon currently has only two flights a day coming from Seattle.
I see Walla Walla not as a future Napa. But rather, I see it as a unique wine area in the state of Washington. It has many boutique wineries, scenic interest with the Blue Mountains, and as Debbie says a "cute Downtown" that harkens back to days of old. I know that there are some locals that are afraid of seeing this remote corner of the state changing. I don't think they need to worry too much."
(To see last week's blog, scroll down.)
- Written by Rand Sealey
Is Walla Walla the Next Napa?
In his post of August 10 in his Washington Wine Report (www.wawinereport.com) Sean Sullivan has an article entitled "Why Walla Walla will never be Napa." He points out that "Napa has a built-in tourist industry that Walla Walla will never have." Millions of visitors a year go to Napa, many of them day trippers (with its proximity to the Bay Area). Walla Walla is over four hours away from Seattle and Portland. Also, there are proportionally more small producers in Walla Walla than in Napa where the production scale is huge.
This post elicited 19 comments, much more than usual. One compared Walla Walla to the aggressive growth in Woodinville which seems to be aiming for Number One as a wine destination. The most impassioned comments came from Catie McIntyre Walker (the Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman) who wrote: "Right. I cannot tell you how many times I have stamped my feet, yelled at anybody who would listen to me, cringed when some enthusiastic writer from LA or NY (who has never actually visited Walla Walla) thought they cleverly coined that phrase and several times myself blogged, "Walla Walla will never be another Napa." Due to the fact that we are too far away from anything major - and thank goodness for that!"
Rusty Eddy's comment is right to the point: "Walla Walla doesn't want to be Napa any more than Washington wants to be California. The value of WW is its uniqueness. (On the other hand, WW wineries and merchants probably wouldn't turn down any additional wine tourist dollars." An anonymous commenter brought up the "Don't Bend Walla Walla" cry a few years ago when a developer from Oregon tried to build a 365 unit development complete with a golf course, trails and a restaurant, but also coveted rural water and farmland in the process.
Catie's final comment was "Walla Walla is a funny little town and has always been that way. We want growth, but not too much, especially if it means we have to change things. Believe it or not, there are several citizens who hate-hate-hate the wine industry and feel that everything wrong with the city, the wineries are responsible and should be made to fix the problems...." Sean's reply was, "Very difficult to get the balance right. I am sure there are many in Walla Walla who are not pleased that the wine industry has grown there...."
I concur with just about all that was said. As one who lives here 40% of the year, I do not want Walla Walla to become another Napa (or Bend for that matter) any more than Catie Walker does. The inherent charm of WW is its eclectic mix of wine people, academics (3 college campuses) farmers and artists, along with the small town ambience and the majestic Blues. That is Walla Walla's biggest asset and future growth needs to be built on that. Oh, about the lack of proximity to Seattle, Portland and other cities, hey, Alaska/Horizon Air where are the Air/Lodging/Car Rental packages for Walla Walla?!!
- Written by Rand Sealey
The 2010 Seattle Wine Awards
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of a list of the 2010 Seattle Wine Awards and upon perusing it was surprised to discover how much correlation there was with my Review ratings. I had received several announcements about the tasting and the Awards Banquet, but hadn't paid much attention until I looked at the awards list. I have long believed that Wine Competition Gold medals have little, if any, value. I agree with the conclusions of Robert Hodgson in the "Journal of Wine Economics" that "the probability of winning a Gold medal at one competition is stochastically independent of the probability of winning a Gold at another competition, indicating that winning a Gold medal is greatly influenced by chance alone." (See my blog of June 13). But I found a comparison of the Seattle Wine Awards with my ratings of the same wines, to be an exception.
Of the 105 wines in the Awards competition that I have rated highly in the Review of Washington Wines, 90 received Gold or Double Gold Awards. This is an 86% correlation, a remarkably high one. There were 15 wines which got Silver or Bronze which, according to my review scores should have gotten Gold, not a statistically high deviation. I noted that of these 15, ten were in the Syrah/Rhone Style categories where the wide range in styles may account for these differences, as personal stylistic preferences may come into play more than with other varietals or blends. Several of these are very distinctive wines and may not have scored as uniformly well as others in the Awards Tasting.
How do I account for the significantly high correlation between my ratings and the Seattle Wine Awards? I looked at the tasting panel members and saw that all have much experience in the wine industry and in wine appreciation. I have read their bios on the Awards website and found them to be most impressive. The panel is composed of highly qualified wine tasters. I also note that the wines were scored on a modified 20 point system as I do.
My conclusion here is that a wine competition need not always be a random event where the awarding of medals is subjected to the luck of the draw in meeting the preferences of the tasting panel members. In reviewing wines, I have always tried to be objective and evaluate them on a qualitative rather than stylistic one. The Seattle Wine Awards tasting panel has succeeded for the most part in this goal as well.