Robert Parker and the Odd Case of the 2002 Vintage

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.

As I noted in yesterday's post on the history of Robert Parker's reviews of California Chardonnays in the Wine Advocate, something curious happened around the reviews of the 2002 vintage: The percentage of wines receiving 90 points or more increased significantly. In fact between the 1990 and 2000 vintages of California Chardonnay, Robert Parker on average gave 37% of all wines reviewed in these vintages 90 Points or more. Between 2002 and 2009, that vintage by vintage average of 90 point California Chardonnays jumped to 71%. It was an astounding leap in the number of 90+ rated wines that happened nearly overnight with reviews of the 2002 vintage.

The very same phenomena happens with Mr. Parker's reviews of California Cabernet Sauvignon, Proprietary Red Blends and Zinfandel. Below are charts that track the percentage of 90+ points received by these varietal category of wines from 1989 to 2009:


Note the jump in the percentage of California Cabernets receiving 90 Points or more beginning with the 2002 vintage. The 1989 to 2001 vintages saw an average of 39% of their wines receive 90+ points. The 2002 through 2008 vintages saw an average of 74% of all published Cabernet reviews receive 90 points or more.


Again, with Proprietary Red Blends from California, note the jump in the number of wines that receive 90 Points or more around 2002. The 1989 to 2001 vintages saw an average of 48% of their wines receive 90+ points. The 2002 through 2008 vintages saw an average of 67% of all published Proprietary Red Blend reviews receive 90 points or more.


Finally there is Zinfandel. Once again, there is a remarkable increase in the number of Zinfandel's receiving 90 points or more beginning with the 2002 vintage.  The 1989 to 2001 vintages saw an average of 25% of published Zinfandel reviews receive 90+ points. The 2002 through 200p vintages saw an average of 67% of all published Zinfandel reviews receive 90 points or more.


Chardfinal copy
Here is another view of the Chardonnay graph published in yesterday's post that shows, again, a precipitous jump in the average number of Chardonnays receiving 90 points or more beginning with the 2002 vintage.

A few things need to be noted about this information:

1. Generally, the number of published reviews across varietals has increased over the years at the Wine Advocate.

2. It has been extraordinarily rare for the Wine Advocate to publish any reviews receiving less than 85 points. This is clearly an editorial decision by Robert Parker because..

3. Mr. Parker has stated numerous times that the vast majority of wines he tastes do not make it into the Wine Advocate because, as he stated in a 2003 article, "There is also no doubt that 75% or more of the wines I taste during a year are insipid, mediocre efforts that offer little pleasure, and are more akin to industrial swill than true hand-crafted wine" and adding in a 2008 article that "31% of the wines tasted have actually made it into the publication."

4. The vast majority of California wine reviews that Robert Parker has published in the Wine Advocate between 1989 and 2009 are higher priced wines.

5. The same consistency with which Cabernet, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Proprietary reds see a jump in 90+ point reviews beginning  2002 and continuing onward is not evidenced with California Merlot and Syrah. Syrah's graph looks like the Pinot Noir graph, while the Merlot graph shows an increase in wines receiving 90+ points beginning in 2002, but that increase in 90+ point wines is not sustained continually in future vintages as it is with Chardonnay, Cabernet Proprietary Red Blends and Zinfandel.

Still, this information does not account for what appears to be an very large jump in the number of wines that began receiving 90+ scores with the 2002 vintage, reviewed by Mr. Parker primarily in 2003 and 2004.

In a final post in this series that explores Robert Parker's reviews of California wines over the past 20 years, I want to explore the implications of this increase in 90+ scores beginning in 2002 and make some final observations. However, I end this post with an invitation to readers to offer their own explanations for the findings.


Posted In: Rating Wine


6 Responses

  1. Julien Weiller - November 22, 2011

    Maybe this was so just to mirror amelioration of French wines happenning with the new millenium vintages (great Bordeaux in 2000,great Burgundies in 1999 and 2000)? Also was it a reaction to Aussies taking over the market? If so, was this adjustment objective?

  2. John Lopresti - November 22, 2011

    I suppose, one way to increase the top end is to raise the threshold for inclusion in the reviews. That is, maybe select inclusion for only 1 in 5 wines, rather than 1 in 3. This would represent tightening the standards for admission into the published ranking report.
    Historically, perhaps the graphs reflect some variant of the post 9/11 effect; the judges began to appreciate the simplicity of good wines more as those first few years post-9/11 passed. Most wines identified as 2002 vintage would have appeared first in ~2004 tastings; and, glancing back in time, the 2000 vintages would be a substantial part of the 2002 tasting.
    How about the wine tasting screeners? If Mr. Parker worked with several, new, more enthusiastic pre-screeners beginning with the 2000-2002 vintages, judges willing to score higher, the bar-graph will rise along the Y axis.
    It might be interesting to map the labels tasted against the mergers and acquisitions in the trade over the relevant time period. I would even put the entire sheaf of data into Excel tabbed spreadsheets and organize reports on the whole sample as well as significant subparts, indexed to the vintner’s name.
    Several of the graphs appear to demarcate Y2K as the nadir, and by 2002 the trend upward is noticeable.
    The zinfandels appear to be the least appreciated varietals pre-2002. Maybe this lesser cousin to the other more widely acclaimed varietals permits the judge more room for imprecision; quality varies for zins, pricing is lower for fruit and wine, but there is more statistical room for maneuvering in the headspace above the chart, i.e., more room for fluctuation, and, certainly, for increasing the score.

  3. Steven Mayer - November 23, 2011

    Tom — Thanks for the wealth of information in these statistics. But as someone who has long decried the “Parkerization” of California wines, I’m not surprised by these numbers. Robert Parker has long favored the big, overly manipulated, ultra-ripe, high-alcohol fruit bombs that have come to dominate wine styles in California. And when the most powerful wine critic in the world speaks, winemakers feel they have little choice but to listen.
    In my opinion, Parker has significantly influenced the direction of winemaking in California, and to a lesser extent in Europe as well. Compare the rising alcohol content in the wines Parker has rated with the rising scores you have documented and I think you’ll see a correlation. Parker’s overall scores are higher because winemakers have begun making wines to suit his palate.
    If you think the Saxum 2007 James Berry Vineyard is really worth 100 points, then you’ll disagree with me. Many wine lovers in California have been complaining for years about the unfortunate tendency to sacrifice nuance, elegance and complexity in order to achieve concentration and raw power.
    That’s why so many are turning to Europe, though even some producers in Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley have drunk Parker’s Kool-Aid.
    Again, thanks for sharing those illuminating stats.

  4. Tom Wark - November 23, 2011

    Here’s the thing. Winemakers aren’t making wines for Parker’s palate. They are making wine for the consumers whose palates match Parker’s. No one would would make wine in the style that Parker likes if there were not consumers who also liked that style. Now, we can argue over the merits of big wines, but you can’t argue with the fact that many consumers love them.

  5. TiaG - November 25, 2011

    Love reading your posts! Thank you!

  6. Derek - December 27, 2011

    Tom, Very interesting. Do you have access to parallel graphs from Wine Spectator over the same time period?

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