Robert Finigan, who died last Saturday, was one of the first wine people I met when I moved to San Francisco in 1977. He had already established himself as the leading U.S. wine critic for serious wine drinkers, even though he did not write for a major newspaper or magazine. Hard to remember now, before there was Wine Spectator and other wine magazines and newsletters, before people tweeted and blogged about their latest wine finds, wine critics were known for the pulpits they preached from. In other words, the newspapers or magazines were the vehicle that delivered readers. My Sunday column had a reach of more than 1 million readers because it was in the San Francisco Examiner, where I was the food and wine editor.
Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines broke the mold in this and other ways. Leading wine writers then seldom set out to systematically address whole categories of wines. They wrote general stories about regions or vintages and never leveled criticism at specific wines, but in his Bay Area newsletter Finigan made specific recommendations and backed up his credentials by naming wines he determined were undeserving of praise. In 1977, the year I moved to California, his newsletter went national, and his assessment of wines or vintages were the ones that carried the most weight.
In person, Bob was a quiet guy, but it turned out we shared a number of interests, including fascinations with both baseball and opera. I can't say we became close friends, but we went to baseball games and saw each other at the opera and symphony concerts as often as at public wine tastings. When I had to review a San Francisco restaurant for Wine Spectator, Bob was my first call to accompany me when my wife could not. The conversations always spanned a wide range of topics. Bob was Harvard-educated but down to earth about it.
At one point Finigan purchased Jack Shelton's restaurant newsletter, which had done for local restaurant criticism something similar to Finigan's wine letter by unabashedly praising or unflinchingly hammering restaurants in his reviews. But by then, Bob's influence as a wine critic had been overshadowed by a brash lawyer from Maryland. The turning point came in 1983, when Finigan slapped down the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux, finding the wines overly alcoholic. Robert Parker, who had a small local publication of his own, loved the vintage, raved about the wines, and made his name as a bold critic on that call.
By 1990, Parker's ascendancy, multiplied by troubles with his financial partners in the newsletters, closed Finigan's publications. He continued to write, and for a while he reviewed wines for a small-circulation wine magazine, and started up a short-lived restaurant guide. He wrote books, including a very good primer called Robert Finigan's Essentials of Wine: A Guide to Discovering the World's Most Pleasing Wines (1987) and Corks and Forks: Thirty Years of Wine and Food (2006).
He confided to me one of the scariest times of his life, when the after-effects of a cold virus robbed him of his sense of smell for several months. You can imagine what it would mean to a food-and-wine critic if the objects of our attention tasted all alike, which is to say, like nothing. Issue dates of his newsletters passed without publication. The senses did return, fully, but that scare, combined with the financial partner problems, weakened his already diminishing franchise.
I will always remember Bob at the ballpark, though. No one I knew shared the depth of knowledge about the game combined with the world view to put it all in context. I remember driving to Candlestick Park to see a Giants game with him, a friend who sings tenor in the opera chorus, and another friend who is in an opera-listening group with me. We were listening to a CD compilation and playing "guess the tenor." I doubt if other cars full of married guys going to that game were doing that.
Michael Bonanno — CT — October 6, 2011 2:09pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — October 6, 2011 6:39pm ET
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