Robert Parker and the End of an Era in California
My recent interest in the work of Robert Parker flows from the recognition that in my 20 years working in wine marketing, this critic has ranked among the most influential forces in the American marketplace. It's a remarkable story insofar as the Wine Advocate was not begun by Robert Parker to so impact the marketplace. And yet, there he stands.
In addition, along with the Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits Magazine and the Wine Enthusiast, Robert Parker has been an extraordinary supporter and innovator of the most important marketing tool for wine: the 100 Point Wine Review. Wine, it now seems to many, is a product that calls out to be ranked and rated. And so it is.
What I've learned from digging deep into Mr. Parker's ratings of California wines is that Mr. Parker is the most important source of opinion of primarily the most elite and most expensive wines in the American Marketplace. He has ceded the job of evaluating the most popular wines and less expensive wine to his competitors who have gone much farther down the road toward providing a comprehensive set of wine evaluations of wines accessible to more people as well as the elite wines. This is a business and probably a personal choice on the part of Mr. Parker and it is a legitimate niche to carve out.
However, it's absolutely clear that Mr. Parker reviews only a tiny percentage of the most interesting wines in California, produced by very dedicated winemakers and wineries that sell much more wine than those of the wineries he tends to review. The number of wines he reviews is far less than the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast. The California wines most likely to show up reviewed in the Wine Advocate tend to be of great importance to a very tiny portion of wine drinkers and even enthusiast wine lovers.
Still, the impact of these reviews is unquestioned. This is why I found it fascinating to discover that with the 2002 California vintage, Robert Parker became far more generous with the most valuable thing he has to offer: a 90+ point rating. Interestingly, this increase in the number of 90+ point rated wines did not come as a result of simply publishing only high scoring wines. For years Mr. Parker made it a rare occasion to publish a review under 85 points. Around 2002 Robert Parker simply found that a far larger percentage of California wines he reviewed deserve 90+ points. In the context of the history of the Wine Advocate, it's a clear case of grade inflation. This is not to say that this large percentage of wines did not deserve the ratings they received.
However, a 90+ point rating from the Wine Advocate now is far less valuable than it used to be. There are simply so many of them relative to the total wines reviewed. I think this is too bad and I think it reduces the value of the Wine Advocate brand in the same way that giving MVP trophies to every player on a Little League team devalues the idea of accomplishment and excellence. This is shame because I believe the Wine Advocate and Robert Parker has been a positive force in the American wine industry. Parker has been demanding in his insistence that American winemakers step up and reach their potential. And it should be noted that at the same time he has bemoaned the price inflation he witnessed throughout the 00s.
Robert Parker's announcement this year that he is retreating from reviewing California wines and handing that job over to Antonio Galloni is the end of era. During that era California wines became known as possessing quality equal to those from every corner of the globe, not in small part because of Parker's enthusiastic promotion of California's best wines and his encouragement of the California winemaker. With this retreat, there is no question that the influence of the Wine Advocate over the California wine market will recede a bit, if not a lot. I don't know if that is good or bad. But I know it is a fact.
For earlier posts in this series see:
Robert Parker and the Nature of "90"
Robert Parker and the Ascent of California Pinot Noir
Robert Parker and California Chardonnay: A Historyy
Robert Parker and the Odd Case of The Case of the 2002 Vintage