Robert Parker and the End of an Era in California

Robert Parker Wine RatingsMy 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

9 Responses

  1. paper writing services - November 24, 2011

    One final note concerning this review of the Wine Advocate’s view

  2. Bruce Nichols - November 24, 2011

    “I know it is a fact?” Not sure how you came to that conclusion to claim it as fact.
    Not to take anything away from Parker, but is it not possible that Galloni will be every bit as influential as a representative of the Advocate.
    It has been my experience over the last several decades as a consumer, broker, restauranteur, merchant, and writer that most, if not all, followers of the Advocate’s ratings take them as a whole, not just the parts. “Parker’s” ratings are to wine as Xerox is to copiers and Coke to cola. In all these years, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh, that 92 point rating was assigned by Neal Martin or Jay Miller, so it is not as valid…”
    Parker is the Advocate and the Advocate, Parker.
    If anything in the past few months, I’ve heard a number of Cailfiornia winemakers, merchants and consumers express optimism in a new palate, a new voice.
    So, I pose the possibility that the Advocate’s influence will not recede at all; it may even increase with a fresh set of opinions.

  3. Tia G. - November 24, 2011

    Great Post. Thanks for the info.

  4. John Lopresti - November 25, 2011

    I wonder how much Parker was a creature of the time of his tenure at WA, in the sense that new technologies like precise refrigeration controls became available to manage fermenting throughout its various extractive stages until dryness, and the new knowledge developed for accuracy of aging in wood and then binning the cases. If there is new science, perhaps the masks which cover young tannins and elevated alcohol will be different from the fruit-forwardness concept.
    My sense is it was more than a dominant and nuanced critic that shifted and refocused modern viticulture and enology; and Europe as well as other regions all eagerly installed the new technology, admittedly for an array of purposes, some of them mere ‘industrial swill’ oriented.
    I remember the first time a winemaker gave me a tour of a pinot noir transfer process, where he claimed the wine inside the steel pipes was chilled into the 20s, well below freezing, nearly a slush in consistency. That was long ago. But those experiments led to many discoveries, some of which Parker evidently liked. No longer was winemaking as a craft limited to cave temperatures and traditional fastidious cellaring practice; there were new horizons. And the research still has a long way to go.

  5. Blue - November 25, 2011

    Love reading your posts. Thank you!

  6. Samantha Dugan - November 26, 2011

    I have to wonder how long it will take those, outside the wine business and super collectors, to notice? I think saying Robert Parker for many is like saying Saran Wrap or Kleenex. I still get people coming in to our store saying “Robert Parker gave this Burgundy a 94” when Parker hasn’t reviewed Burgundy in how long?

  7. Thomas Pellechia - November 28, 2011

    The burning question I need answered is: who cares?
    The fact that someone’s palate preference can spark an “era” says more about us than about Parker.

  8. Tom Wark - November 28, 2011

    Clearly I care. But I may be the only one. Still, the fact is that Parker has been among the most influential wine personalities and this fact alone suggests a closer look. But you may be right. His popularity may indeed be more of a commentary on “us”, than on him and his methods.

  9. harvey posert - November 30, 2011

    tom —
    i think the eparker news release is indicative of what is happening; it’s now a business and not a “calling” — with appropriate caveats.

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