The Davis 20-point scale: how does it score today? – wine scoring system

Warren Winiarski

You reach out and grasp the stem of the glass. Raise it to the light. Observe the color and clarity, then the viscosity as you swirl the wine. Raise the glass higher, close your eyes and sniff the layers of aroma. Sip. Note the entry, the mouth feel and the finish, as well as the concentration of flavors and the balance between the various components. Swallow. Feel the slight grip on the back palate; then the persistent, harmonious finish. Now, pick up your pencil. You assign points for the color, points for the aroma. But how do you score the other numerous impressions registered in your mind?

Imagine the difficulty you would have if there were no way to describe or quantify the colors and aromas of a wine, imagine how limited your description would be. It is an easy step from there to grasp the limitations of a wine scoring system in which there is no explicit provision for you to take account of such qualities in a wine as its concentration, mouth feel, complexity or persistence of flavors.

We chose the four above-mentioned qualities as examples. There are others, In winemaking today, for example, the textural character of tannins is thought to be important. So a scoring system lacking a category to describe that character – supple, hard, grainy, etc. – could be deficient. If you were making or tasting wine today, we think you would not have a useful enough means to analyze these components in wine. We also think that as a winemaker, without being able to focus on the qualities for which you were looking in your wine, you would be less able to influence their presence.

We said “imagine” a wine scoring system as though we were asking you to think about the issue in terms of “once upon a time.” But, in fact, we were led to consider the contemporary concerns of wine scoring because of the Davis 20-Point System. What are some of the other problems of that system for winemaking today?

It appears to be used in its literal form mainly by initiates to wine judging and scoring. So, while it may be useful as a “primer” or basic method(1), experienced tasters do not use it in this way. Such tasters seem to give the wine a score on the basis of an intuitional assessment which presupposes categories other than those of the Davis scale. If judges are then required to “fill in the numbers”, they attempt to “justify” their intuitional score by dividing it among the existing categories.

Whether the Davis categories and their individual values are in fact the ones which caused the “intuitional sum” is doubtful when one considers the following quirk. When broadly experienced tasters attempt to follow literally the Davis scale, the points mount up so quickly that one easily reaches 17 points for a wine of no particular merit. Based on experience, the judge is reluctant to award the 17 points to such a wine, especially with the recognition that two of the points come into the score simply because the wine does not have “acescence”. (Is it really helpful to give a wine two points because it is not like vinegar, or one point because it is only a little like vinegar?) Should the judge go back and take the two points out to bring the wine back to an average 15, or stay with the literal requirements of the scale and remove points from other categories? Either way seems like fiddling. Could the problem be in the system?

Another reason why the total points seem to accumulate so rapidly is the four possible points for the category “aroma”. When the scale was developed, the goal of most California winemaking was to make varietally distinct wines, and the aroma was considered the clearest indicator of the grape’s varietal character. Increasingly, the emphasis is on making a “better” wine, not a more “varietally distinct” wine. This change of emphasis may lead to blending of varietals, and thus a diminished varietally distinctive aroma. Should it be scored low or high?

This raises the question whether “varietal” (as a goal) is still the leading edge of fine wine making in California. Much of the evidence in this article points in the opposite direction. In fact, it may be that the inadequacies of the Davis scale today are perceived because the most complex and important aspects of a wine are no longer thought to be its varietal distinctiveness.

There are other signs that the Davis scale needs revision. These signs appear when one considers other methods of evaluating and communicating opinion about wine quality. Experts and consumers alike read wine reviews in which descriptive terms are used that are not represented in the Davis scale. Descriptions and judgments of wines similar to those in wine reviews are heard at gatherings of professional winemakers.

It is in such wine descriptions that we hear about:

“the multiple layers of aroma and flavor” or “depth”

“the intensity or concentration of aroma and flavors”

“the character of tannin in red wine (soft, supple, hard, harsh)”

“the textural mouth feel character of white wine (gentle, smooth, rounded, angular, rough, phenolic)”

“the proportionate disposition of components into the overall impression” or “balance”

“the continuity of impression from aroma through flavor to finish” or “integration”

“the persistence of the finish”

We could go on but the point is clear: the Davis 20-point score system does not go far enough to describe the complexity of current wines. More exactly, it does not address itself to the characteristics such as the ones above that are used to analyze many wines today.

Such aspects of wine “anatomy” or similar ones are important not only to wine writers speaking about fine wine. These are also some of the most important aspects of wine anatomy for winemakers. We strive to modify and influence their presence or character in the wines that we make and in the grapes which go into these wines. While there may be some difference of opinion on the meaning of these terms, most would recognize them and acknowledge that they represent distinct and important aspects of fine wine analysis.

We are groping for a more precise way to identify and communicate about these anatomical aspects of the wines we make. A better way of categorizing what we taste, smell, and perceive will enable us to make better wines, just as the Davis scale did in its day.

The Davis scale is a remarkably instructive and powerful means to quantify the important basic quality criteria for wine. It does not go far enough for the fine wine category which comprises the leading edge of the California winemaking endeavor. We should examine this seeming paradox.

The Davis 20-point scale for evaluating and scoring wine has been used in California with some modifications apparently since the mid-’30s. It provided an intellectual framework for evaluating sensory impressions of wine. It also provided a judgmental category for general impression. The method was to divide the whole, overall impression of a wine into its various sensorial “parts”. It assigned a number value to each of these parts, with the sum to total the arbitrary number 20. The component parts were not equally weighted; rather they were assigned a different numerical value based on the perception of their relative importance.

At the time the scoring system was devised, the California wine industry was emerging from the shadow of prohibition: winemaking knowledge was meager and practical skills were almost non-existent. The system was meant to stimulate the production of quality wine and to provide the standards by which quality wines could be recognized and identified.(2) Another of its functions was to provide some measure of objectivity for the analysis of wine character at a time when there were hardly any.(3)

From the evidence identified in a forthcoming book(4), the contribution the scoring system made to the improvement of California wines was immense. It achieved its purposes remarkably well, and it would be impossible to overstate its importance among other factors in bringing “quality” objectives to the center of the wine industry’s attention. In doing that it served not only to identify standards, but to encourage living up to them. It encouraged the lifting up of goals and aspirations, it produced competition for quality and thereby raised the definition of quality itself. Everyone in the wine industry owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to its originators.

What about the future? We have spoken about the basic, even primitive character of the categories in the current form of the 20-point system. Because we tend to take them for granted now, it is difficult to remember that at an early time in our winemaking capability, those basic standards were like targets in the sky. They had then an educative function, but they are like grammar and spelling to us now; we want to write poetry!

A similarity is observed in the way we used to harvest the grapes for our wines. It is not so long ago and still within memory that the only criterion for “quality” at harvest was the concentration of sugar. This was at the commercial level! Later the criterion of acid was added, and then the sugar-acid balance. pH was brought in later; skin maturity more recently. Now, there are many winemakers who wait for the basic numerical criteria to reach a certain point and only then do they go to the field to taste for the yet unidentified qualities they are looking for in the grapes. There is scientific research being devoted to identifying these “true” final criteria for harvest in the hopes of transferring such elements into wine. The identification and control of these elements, it is believed, will lead to wines which are more profound, complex and beautiful.

We think it is important to develop a scoring system which will be appropriate for such wines!

The Davis 20-point system, as it is presently constituted, has thus far led us out of the wilderness. We need something today that will be more appropriate to fine wine and enable us to enter into the promised land.

We’re not sure whether this means two scoring systems or one. But we, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars would like to encourage the revision of the Davis system of scoring to reflect the current winemaking capability of California. We are not certain the new system should be exclusively “Davis” oriented or originated. In the past, the academic disciplines were the only place where such an origination could take place. Today that may not be true. There are numerous other possible non-academic contributors.

We would like to propose the formation of an organization, which we would fund and which would be administered by Wines & Vines, whose purpose it would be to solicit and evaluate suggestions for a possible revision from the whole industry as well as from the enology disciplines at Davis and Fresno State.

The goal of all these activities would be to produce a wide-ranging consensus on a new format, and new categories of wine scoring (examples of which have been suggested in this article). It is hoped that the result of such a revision, would be to encourage, as the current format did, progress in California wine making.

What They Say:

After a fine meal, a wine connoisseur was offered some grapes for dessert. “Thank you,” said he, pushing the dish away from him. “But I am not in the habit of taking my wine in pills.”

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

1 Indeed, the categories of the Davis scale describe the basic, “primordia” of wine’s components, e.g., clarity, color, aroma sugar, acid, flavor, astringency, etc.

2 On the Davis scorecard wines which achieved 13-16 points were identified as being “standard wines with neither an outstanding character nor defect.” So, “standard” was 3/4 of the way to perfect. A wine could still have a “noticeable defect” and still be halfway to perfect – achieve 10 points.

3 Lapsley, Jim. Fall 1996. Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Repeal to the Modern Era. U.C. Press.

4 Lapsley, Jim. op.cit.

(The authors are winemakers at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley.)

(Wines & Vines, through its Associate Editor Larry Walker, would be pleased to be a part of getting the organization underway. Please send comments and/or suggestions to Larry Walker at this magazine. He will act as liaison with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.)

COPYRIGHT 1996 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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