Why So Many 2016 Napa 100-Point Wines?

Granted, the existence of perfection in wine is hotly debated. There are critics, including those that have adopted the 100-point scale, that argue there can never be a 100-point wine. I find this a curious stance. Surely it is pointless to set a grading system with a glass ceiling keeping the top grade unobtainable and therefore the highest score a wine can achieve is an arbitrary figure somewhere below?

Of course, Robert Parker and his team of reviewers (myself included) at Robert Parker Wine Advocate wholeheartedly maintain that if you apply the 100-point scale, there must be such a beast as the 100-point wine. But to be clear, “100” is a rare score that is never given without careful consideration and much deliberation. To qualify for 100 points, a wine must be without “faults” and of the highest quality, considering factors such as fruit ripeness, intensity, complexity/depth, balance, length and a singularity about the wine—a unique signature that not only interests, it excites.

So, yeah, my most recent Napa report was bound to get the tongues of 100-point nonbelievers wagging. Anyone who has read the report that was published on October 29 will note that I am extremely excited about the quality of the 2016 vintage in Napa Valley. For several reasons outlined in the introduction of my report, I believe 2016 to be the best, most consistent Napa Valley vintage among a string of five great years: 2012-2016. If I isolate just the Napa notes (a few other California regions are included among the nearly 1,400 wines reviewed) and just the red Bordeaux varieties wines, I awarded 26 100-pointers in total. None of these were given lightly or without careful consideration of the hallowed position they hold among all the other great wines of the world that have received the pinnacle of wine criticism accolades throughout our 40-year history of Robert Parker Wine Advocate.

Soon after my Napa report posted, I got a message from my good friend Ron Washam, AKA The Hosemaster of Wine, commenting, “I looked at your Napa report. Wow, that's a LOT of 100 point scores! Of course, now I may have to lampoon you, the Oprah of wine. ‘You get 100 points, and YOU get 100 points, and YOUUUU get 100 points!!!’"

"In particular, many of Napa’s “grand cru” vineyards—such as To Kalon, Dr. Crane, Spottswoode (pictured above), Colgin IX Estate, Screaming Eagle, Kongsgaard The Judge (Chardonnay), etc.—offer lovers of these places a chance to really view the singular expressions that these sites have to offer with absolute clarity," says Lisa Perrotti-Brown in her latest Napa report.

I’m not specifically pulling Ron up here because I know he was simply winding me up with his usual pinch of the-way-things-are, as he does, and that he is well aware of all the arguments I’m about to put forth. And this isn’t the first time I’ve heard a comment about Napa regularly receiving what appears to be a very high or seemingly disproportionate number of 100-point scores in an epic vintage, especially compared to the motherland of Bordeaux blends: Bordeaux. If we take a look at another recent, very great vintage for Napa, 2013, we can see (via our database’s pretty clever advanced search facility) that Robert M. Parker, Jr. awarded 48 100-point ratings to the red wines of Napa for that vintage. So, why does a small, relative whipper-snapper of a region like Napa produce more 100-point wines in a great vintage than Bordeaux does in a comparable vintage? The answer is pretty simple. As does everything with wine quality, the results are first and foremost dictated by site and, more to the point, how that site is presented to the consumer.

Let me start by saying that I’ve just come back from Bordeaux, where I was also tasting the 2016 vintage. When I mentioned to winemakers in Bordeaux that I had just finished tasting around 2,000 top Napa Cabernet-based wines for the 2016 vintage, their jaws dropped. In Bordeaux, a far larger region than Napa Valley, I would be tasting more like 800 top wines.

Many people compare Napa with Bordeaux because of the grape varieties, but in truth, Napa has more in common with Burgundy than Bordeaux when it comes to how the vineyard land is divided and how the individual bottlings/labels are done. In an average year, the top Châteaux of Bordeaux’s Médoc will produce around 15,000 to 25,000+ cases of Grand Vin composed by blending fruit from a vast area of vineyard land that encompasses upwards of 160+ acres in some cases. In Napa, nearly 80% of the wineries produce less than 10,000 cases and most of their “Grand Vin” equivalents equate to less than 1,000 cases in a vintage, sometimes as little as only 100-200 cases. Thus, if the vineyards of Mouton, Lafite or Latour were subdivided like Napa and with the best parcels bottled under separate labels, in great vintages we might see multiple 100-point wines from each Château instead of maybe just one. Conversely, Beckstoffer’s Dr. Crane vineyard in Napa produced three tiny production, 100-point wines in 2016 from three different wineries. If all of Dr. Crane vineyard were blended into one bottling à la the Bordeaux model, it would potentially produce one perfect wine at most or maybe not even that, if you consider that the vineyard will inevitably possess less successful sections that could rob the wine of a point or two.

It may be the case that there are some wine critics who try to play the numbers game and limit the number of 100-point wines to some arbitrary figure simply for the sake of conservativism, because they don’t want to give the appearance of being too generous or prone to score inflation. We have the confidence not to do that at Robert Parker Wine Advocate. Not only do such limitations break the number one rule of wine criticism—consistency—it is simply not fair to all those wines that should have rightly earned their ranking among 100-point wines and does not do justice to the region, vintage and ultimately to the consumer. As a critic, if you subscribe to the premise that there is such a thing as a 100-point wine, then you must also embrace that there can never be predetermined limits to the number of wines that can receive 100-points from a great region in a great year such as the 2016 vintage in Napa Valley. 

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