Finigan's Wake: What Robert Finigan Meant to the Wine World

by Chuck Hayward

Finigan's Wake: What Robert Finigan Meant to the Wine World

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 7th, 2011

While I never imagined using this blog to write an obituary, Robert Finigan was one of those people who made a powerful impact on me as my passion for wine grew and my career took off. Therefore, it seems appropriate to remember him here.

Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines

Finigan's success began on a trip to Bordeaux where he declared the 1969 vintage to be subpar, an opinion that proved spot on. At a time when wine appreciation in America was starting to gain momentum, wine writing was limited to books and a few columnists in the Los Angeles Times. In 1972he was the first to publish a wine journal—his influential newsletter, Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Winesyears before Parker began the Wine Advocate in 1978 and well before the rise of the internet. Finigan set the standard for periodicals that came afterwards, including Charlie Olken's Connoisseur's Guide to California Wines (1974) and Nick Ponomareff's California Grapevine (1973).

In tasting the 1982 Bordeaux from barrel, Finigan found the wines to be too rich and lacking the classic style of the region. Robert Parker, however, lavished praise on the wines, which later became immensely successful. Thus, the Wine Advocate began its ascendency, some would say at the expense of Finnegan's newsletter, which ceased publication in 1990.

I had a chance to ask Charlie Olken for some of his observations on Bob and his life. He observed that:

 Bob Finigan was a pioneer of sorts, and he owned the goose that laid the golden eggs. We never got to be as big as he was at his peak, and the crumbling of his empire was a combination of personal and financial failures… Along the way, he was married to Alice Waters, Alexis Lichine's daughter and Marimar Torres. That trio by themselves could undue even the strongest of men although I certainly have no insight as to how those relationships came about or why they failed.

Robert Finigan, picture from his blog

Bob Finigan was also a great mentor. When I began working in the biz, I thought I knew a bit about wine. I quickly realized that in Louisiana, I might have been a big fish in a small pond but in San Francisco, I was a small fish in an ocean of bigger, smarter ones. (Wine industry sharks were few and far between back then). Thanks to folks like Bob, Charlie, Gerald Asher and Darrell Corti, I was given lots of insight into the world of wine. But more importantly, they were gentle in their manner, their guidance being more subtle than absolute. All of them acted to reassure me that my path to knowledge was as valid as theirs. At the same time, they acknowledged that the opinions of a new guy were equally valid, even if he had a penchant for Doritos and wore punk rock clothes. It's a valuable lesson I have remembered to this day.

And even though he knew quite a lot about wine, Bob maintained an inquisitive nature and modest tastes. He frequently sought out my opinion for well-priced wines for everyday drinking or for parties at his home in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. Although he had a firm background in French wines, he had no problem sampling wines from the Southern Hemisphere or new varietals that started to appear in the market.

If there is anything that I hope our readers can take from Bob's passing is that we all, no matter our age or profession, remember those who laid the foundations for the industry that eventually became our career or avocation. Robert Finigan contributed a great deal to the wine industry and I am lucky to have been able to say thanks while he was still around.  I hope you will take the time to recognize those who made the difference in choosing your own path. They will certainly appreciate it, and you won’t have any regrets for missing the opportunity to do so.