Robert Parker and the Ascent of California Pinot Noir

It was an astounding 78% of 2009 California Pinot Noirs receiving 90 Points or more from the Wine Advocate that got me thinking more about Robert Parker's history of rating wine and what it meant. I've come to the conclusion that the percent of wines within a category that received 90 points or higher from the Wine Advocate is a reasonable proxy for a reliable assessment of that category by Wine Advocate reviewers and Robert Parker in particular.


The above graph shows the percent of Pinot Noirs that received a 90 point rating or higher from the Wine Advocate by vintage, along with the over all rating that vintage was given in the Wine Advocate rating chart. Keep in mind that the vintage ratings noted above apply ONLY to the vintage in the North Coast, not the Central Coast.

There is clearly a steady upward progression in the percent of California Pinot Noirs that received 90 points or more from Robert Parker. Note too that with the 2004 vintage there is a jump in that percent that carries forward in future vintages with little dip, culminating in a nearly unprecedented 78% of wines receiving 90 points or more in the 2009 vintage. 

Another thing to note is that the number of reviews of California Pinot published in the Wine Advocate has continually increased over time. In fact, while it is not indicated on this chart, in 1989 only 7 wines were reviewed. In 1994, 75 Pinot reviews were published. By 2004 (incidentally, the year the movie "Sideways" came out) the number jumps to 259 Pinot Noirs reviewed. The peak came in 2007 when 349 California Pinot Noir reviews were published in the Wine Advocate.

Of course, what's extraordinary about this graph is that the number of California Pinot Noirs that received 90 Points or more has continually increased over time. The question is "Why"? Clearly it's not a matter of the quality of the vintage being perceived as continually being better year over year. A perfect correlation between vintage rating and wines rated 90 or more does not exist. It also appears that Robert Parker has not simply chosen to review the better Pinots as time has progressed. The eRobertParker database of reviews shows that between the 1989 and 2009 vintages only 3% of the 3,320 published reviews of CA Pinot Noir received less than 85 points.You don't see more and more 79 points ratings as you go back in time.

The only real conclusion that can be drawn from this upward progression of wines recieving 90 Points or more is that there is a perception at the Wine Advocate that California Pinot Noir has continually gotten better over time. For many folks, this begs the question, have California Pinot Noir producers simply become better at what they do, or have they gotten better at appeasing the Wine Advocate's palate. I don't know. 

However, I think something else is at play here. In the graph above the vintage rating, as I mentioned, only accounts for the assessment of the North Coast, not the Central Coast. Yet, the number of Central Coast Pinot Noirs included in the total of Pinot Noirs reviewed in a given vintage has continually increased over time. In 1999 35% of the CA Pinots reviewed came from Central Coast wineries. By 2007 they had increased tor 44% of all wines reviewed and 44% of all wines receiving 90 points or more.

More importantly, in the 13 years that the Central Coast vintage has been rated on the Wine Advocate vintage chart beginning in 1997, the Central Coast vintages have been rated higher than North Coast vintages 9 out of of 13 vintages.

One final note concerning this review of the Wine Advocate's view of California Pinot Noir. The 2009 Pinot Noirs ratings were a collaboration between Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni. Parker reviewed North Coast Pinots and Galloni reviewed those from the Central Coast. Of the 114 reviews of Central Coast Pinot Noirs published in the Wine Advocate database, 87% of them received 90 Points or more. Parker gave 69% of the North Coast Pinots he reviewed 90 Points or more.

I'm sure that over the years, Robert Parker has tasted and reviewed far more California Pinot Noirs than he has published reviews for in his database. And given the apparent desire to publish reviews of CA Pinots that rank 85 points or higher, it can't be surmised that Robert Parker would argue that 97% of all California Pinots going back to 1989 rank 85 points or higher. All that said, there can be no question that over the past 21 vintages, California Pinot Noir has consistently been held in higher and higher regard. And there is at least some reason to believe, given the change in personalities reviewing California wine going forward, that this high regard will continue. Though nothing in life or wine rating is guaranteed.

Some Facts:
-Only 4% of all CA Pinots Reviewed between 1989 and 2009 by the Wine Advocate received the coveted 95 Points or higher rating

-Of all the 95 points or higher rated wines ever reviewed by the Wine Advocate, three wineries account for 41% of all these ratings: Brewer-Clifton, Kistler and Marcassin

-22 Marcassin wines have received ratings of 95 points or higher

-The lowest numerical rating ever given to a CA Pinot Noir with a written review was 50 Points. The reveiew read: "Huge levels of volatile acidity are totally unacceptable. This wine is disjointed, badly made, flawed, and virtually undrinkable because of the volatile acidity. That’s a shame as the wine certainly has plenty of personality."



14 Responses

  1. Tyler - November 18, 2011

    Tom – Which wine got 50 points?

  2. JohnLopresti - November 18, 2011

    I would like to put in a word of praise for the grapevines. This borders on the imprecision of the branding term “old” vines; however, the more ample reservoir of carbohydrate reserves in increasingly mature plants just might be one of the reasons for the ascending curve. Winemakers are obtaining better fruit.

  3. Edible Arts - November 18, 2011

    “For many folks, this begs the question, have California Pinot Noir producers simply become better at what they do, or have they gotten better at appeasing the Wine Advocate’s palate. I don’t know.”
    Other logical possibilies are that Parker has lowered his standards or that his palate has become more enamored with the virtues of pinot. Consistency of one’s palate over time is difficult to test.

  4. Tom Wark - November 19, 2011

    I think more than any other varietal, Pinot Noir has seen the most improvement in quality over the past 20 years in California. Certainly the seriousness with which the industry has taken it has been on the ascent and this has led to the search for appropriate vineyard locations. Certainly the establishment and age of well placed vineyards must have something to do with Mr. Parker’s continuous increase in appreciation. As I go forward with this examination of the Wine Advocate’s treatment of different varietals over time, you’ll not that no other varietal possesses such a near and tidy trend line.

  5. Tom Wark - November 19, 2011

    Yes, those are possibilities. However, I’m doubtful of that explanation since it implies no significant increase in quality of CA Pinot. But I don’t think that can be argued about the varietal over the past 20 years.

  6. Alexander - November 20, 2011

    THANK YOU!!! I so appreciate this site. This is the information I was looking for.

  7. WebsiteRomania .com - November 20, 2011

    Very nice article. I will wait next one.
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  8. Thomas Matthews - November 21, 2011

    Some quick comparison data from Wine Spectator’s reviews of recent California Pinot Noir vintages:
    2009: 379 tasted so far; 55% are 90 points or higher
    2008: 483 tasted so far; 30% are 90 points or higher
    2007: 704 tasted so far; 36% are 90 points or higher.
    I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions.
    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  9. randy - November 21, 2011

    There goes the neighborhood… If Parker is loving CA Pinot’s, chances are those who value acidity, vineyard nuances, lighter bodies and only moderate new french oak will not… If we want to make Syrah… let’s just make syrah.

  10. Paul Bressler - November 22, 2011

    Using 2007, for which the number are quoted above, Parker published 349 reviews of which 66% received 90 or more points. Doing the math, that comes to 230 wines.
    According to your numbers, 36% of 704 wines scored 90 points or more. That comes to 253 wines.
    Maybe I’m dense, but I’m having trouble figuring out what conclusion you would like me to draw.
    Is it that Wine Spectator publishes more reviews of less expensive (and correspondingly lower rated) wines?
    Is it the Wine Advocate publishes few reviews, and is thus more selective, in effect cherry picking the best and leaving out those with lower scores?
    The fact remains that Wine Spectator published more 90+ point reviews than Wine Advocate.

  11. Thomas Matthews - November 22, 2011

    You may draw any conclusions you like. I’m just adding to the data under consideration, and I’m interested to learn from others’ reasoning. It seems clear that Wine Spectator threw a wider net in 2007, and that may have included more lower-quality wines. It’s true that a wine-by-wine comparison would yield more information than these aggregations. Maybe Tom Wark would like to undertake that study.
    Thomas Matthews

  12. Tom Wark - November 22, 2011

    There is no question that the Wine Spectator, and the Wine Enthusiast, both review more wines than Robert Parker. With regard to the 2009 California Pinot reviews, the Spectator reviews far more.
    My search of the WS Database shows:
    Total 2009 CA PN Reviews: 402
    Total 2009 CA PN 90 Points or more: 214 or 53%
    Total 2007 CA PN Reviews: 703
    Total 2007 CA PN 90 Points or more: 255 or 36%
    For the Wine Enthusiast:
    Total 2009 CA PN Reviews: 323
    Total 2009 CA PN 90 Points or more: 126 or 39%
    Total 2007 CA PN Reviews: 832
    Total 2007 CA PN 90 Points or more: 411 or 49%
    Wine Advocate:
    Total 2009 CA PN Reviews: 237
    Total 2009 CA PN 90 Points or more: 184 or 78%
    Total 2007 CA PN Reviews: 349
    Total 2007 CA PN 90 Points or more: 230 or 66%
    This all just confirms the above: Robert Parker doesn’t review nearly as many Pinots (and probably wines) as the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast.
    There is no question that the Wine Advocate “cherry picks”…across all CA varietals. But my question is why, with the 2002 vintage and going forward, did such a larger percentage of Cab, Chard, Zin and Red Blends reviewed by Mr. Parker receive 90+ points than in previous years.

  13. book report projects - November 24, 2011

    Was there a substantial difference in the volume number of Chards

  14. Tia - November 24, 2011

    I’m not really a fan of California Pinot Noir but I love reading your stuff.

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