Robert Parker and CA Chardonnay: A History

This post continues a series in which I look at the meaning of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate's ratings of California wines. In these posts I assume that the Wine Advocate's power is important to the California wine industry and that the percentage of wines within a category that are rated 90 points or higher is an appropriate proxy for the Wine Advocate's overall view of the quality of a category.

A funny thing happened on the way to the 2002 California Chardonnay vintage: The Wine Advocate got religion!

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The graph you are looking at here shows the percent of California Chardonnays that were rated 90 points or higher in Robert Parker's Wine Advocate for the 1990 to 2009 vintages. In addition the Wine Advocate's rating of North Coast Chardonnay is also charted. Something happened around 2002, didn't it.

Average Percent of Chards 90 Points Or Higher (1990-2000): 37

Average Percent of Chards 90 Points Or Higher (2002-2009): 71

As with the Wine Advocate's reviews of Pinot Noir over this same time period, the number of Chardonnays reviewed by Robert Parker has continually increased as you draw nearer to 2009. In that same time, the number of Central Coast Chardonnays within the overall number of Chardonnay reviews in a given vintage has also increased. I note this latter point because the accompanying vintage rantings on the chart are for North Coast Chardonnay only.

That said, this increase in the percentage of California Chardonnay's receiving 90 points or more from the Wine Advocate beginning around 2002 is astounding in its size. Understanding the reason or reasons for this increase is difficult. There are a couple of likely possible explanations:

1. California Chardonnay saw a huge leap in quality beginning around 2002 according to Robert Parker's palate.

2. Robert Parker's palate changed about this time, leading to him better appreciating the style of California Chardonnay.

The first explanation is certainly true and accounts for part of the reason for the jump in 90 point rated wines. But the quick jump in the number of such wines isn't explained by merely saying, "California started to make better Chardonnay."

A couple people I've show this chart to suggested that the benefits of re-plating vineyards due to the phylloxera outbreak in the late 80s and early 90s would have seen its full effect come into being around this time. Others have suggested that the impact of new Chardonnay clones started to have a qualitative effect around 2002. Still others have suggested that around this time many winemakers would have put into action winemaking and grapegrowing techniques that produced bigger, bolder, riper, and more concentrated wines that many say are preferrable to Mr. Parker.

It would be fascinating to try to quantify this latter explanation. Some have suggested a look at alcohol levels might do the trick. Others suggested a review of the wording used in the reviews of wines might help clarify this explanation. Unfortunately, both of these studies would be extraordinarily difficult to carry out.

As for determining if Mr. Parker's palate orientation changed, that isn't possible to determine.

Any other explanations readers might have for this remarkable jump in the Wine Advocate's view of California Chardonnay over time would be welcome.


-Between 1990 and 2009, the Wine Advocate published reviews for 3,804 California Chardonnays

-Between 1990 and 2009, 8% of all CA Chards reviewed received the coveted 95 points or higher

-Of the 291 Chardonnays that received 95 points or more between 1990 and 2009, four wineries received 48% of those ratings: Aubert, Kistler, Marcassin and Peter Michael. Peter Michael received the most with 42 wines rated 95 points or greater.

-Only 2% of all published California Chardonnay reviews between 1990 and 2009 received less than 85 points.

-The Chardonnay receiving the lowest point score along with a written review between 1990 and 2009 was rated 72 and carried this written review: "The 1991 Chardonnay's fruit is obliterated by the wood."




9 Responses

  1. Marcia M. - November 21, 2011

    Was there a substantial difference in the volume number of Chards reviewed b/w 1990 and 2002 and b/w 2002 and 2009 to account (in part) for the big change in scores?

  2. Tom Wark - November 21, 2011

    There is a steady progression in the number of Chards that are reviewed over the years.
    1990: 98
    1994: 171
    1997: 192
    2002: 194
    2006″ 199
    2008: 296
    Yet, the number really shouldn’t have an impact on the number of wines that receive 90 points or more, I don’t think.

  3. Marcia M - November 21, 2011

    I’m not statician, so I won’t argue. I was expecting to see a much greater quantity over the years. Seems like a pretty steady climb, too.

  4. english essay writing - November 24, 2011

    That’s why so many are turning to Europe, though even some producers

  5. Tia - November 24, 2011

    Interesting Post! I love reading your wine history articles.

  6. Tom in DC - November 28, 2011

    Single Vineyard bottlings? Lots of wineries that used to make only a reserve now make a reserve and some number of single vineyard bottlings that all get 90 points or higher.

  7. Tom in DC - November 28, 2011

    The Advocate also reports frequently on “value” wines and most of these wines score in the eighties. I wonder if a higher percentage of California wines made it into this category prior to 2002, perhaps reflecting a subsequent run-up in prices for Cali wines and/or the Advocate’s expanded staff and resulting coverage of additional value-oriented wine regions?

  8. Christian Miller - November 30, 2011

    The quantity of Chardonnays reviewed shouldn’t have an effect on the % over 90 points, unless those additional Chardonnays skewed towards the high end. This is what Tom in DC suggested, which seems plausible; but would presumably be much more the case for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.
    And why the sudden jump in 2000-2002? The viticultural theory is interesting, but as I recall the shift in the North Coast away from hotter locations for Chardonnay, and planting of newer and more diverse clones, was well under way in the late 90s.

  9. Jill - December 25, 2015

    California has got lots of sunshine so getting ripe grapes has never been a problem. That’s why California’s wineries are successful as long as their owners aren’t afraid to work and to make it happen. Actually before I started writing my historyessay on wine, i though that best wines are in Italy and France; but I never thought that here in California we could make some of the finest wines on the world. Even an article in Forbes ( states that in Californian wines grapes speak for themselves.

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