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Tuesday Tributes: Best of the Blogs
More on High Ripeness—Another Country Heard From

By Charles Olken

You know how, when you were a kid, that there was always another kid who had something to say about everything. I found that kid and his comments about high ripeness in California wine. He could have been a latter day “low-alcohol acolyte”. Instead, he was the guy whose writing dominated the wine commentary field before R. Parker Jr. came along.

His name was Robert Finigan, and he lived next door to me in college in my sophomore year. I never knew him, of course, because he was a senior, and seniors do not talk to lowly underclassmen. I didn’t discover this amazing bit of coincidence until years later when he was introduced by Tim Mondavi to a room full of writers as “the man”, and his alma mater was dropped in polite conversation. Like all the rest of the writers in the room, I was left to introduce myself to the assembled masses, and I managed to drop the name of the same alma mater into my short public peroration.

Later, “the man” deigned to talk to me, asked me what year I graduated, did not hold my subordinate status against me, and asked me where I lived. “Kirkland B-33”, I responded knowing that this location overlooking the subway yard was not exactly the most sought after room in the joint, and to my surprise, he responded, “I’ll be damned. I lived in Kirkland B-32”.

Mr. Finigan holds a rather important place in my life, although I would never admit it to him at the time since we were competitors in the wine newsletter business. Despite the fact that he lived in San Francisco and was not in the least averse to enjoying good California wine, he seldom wrote about them. As the result, when my wine collecting habit began to get out of control, and reading everything that was written about California wine became part of my passage into wine geek and zealot, Mr. Finigan and everyone else writing ignored my needs.

And thus an idea was borne. Perhaps there were other folks like me around who wanted a more focused publication—one that actually covered the increasingly important California wine scene. Mr. Finigan occupied his high perch for about two decades but gave up the newsletter some time around 1990. But, by then, he had left behind a series of writings that chronicled the times and the changes around him.

I kept all of his writings, or as many as I could lay hands on, since he was writing before I started collecting wine or his writings. And, fate would have it that I was today cleaning out the reams of paper that have collected in my office over these last three and a half decades in order to be able to put more paper into said office. Now, admittedly, Mr. Finigan did not write a blog. He had never heard of a blog in those days, but his writings were not different from what we see in many of today’s blogs.

His comments on ripeness, which run far shorter than this introduction to them, would fit right into the give and take on the subject today. As we used to say on the mean streets where I grew up when the “know it all kid” would interrupt an on-going conversation, “Another country heard from”. Herewith, Mr. Finigan from his newsletter dated March, 1989—

“In reflecting on the progress of the last fifteen years or so, it’s both interesting and useful (Editors Note: Dear Bob, why not say “instructive”) to consider the winemaking process at different points in time. There was the phase of trying to get the grapes as ripe as possible and then to extract the maximum in flavor and color from them, with alcohol levels to match.”

Yesterday’s blog proffered the thesis that the California style of wine had been subject to criticisms about high ripeness for forty years. In coming across Mr. Finigan’s writing from two decades ago, I found confirmation of that thesis. But, I would also point you to the comments section to yesterday’s blog. The brilliant writer, Tom Johnson, checks in with comments along the same vein from a century ago.

I live here near San Francisco for two reasons. It is a lively, intellectually vibrant place that rivals my native Boston, and it has that one virtue that also makes our wines so special—sunshine. Our wines will always be a product of our generous climate. That does not make them better or worse than France or Italy or anywhere else in the world. It makes them different, special and very good. The carping about California wine is very old, much older than I knew, but it will continue as long as there are new generations of wine drinkers who think they have just discovered the “truth”.


What is truth?
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:5/10/2011 5:35:23 AM

" will continue as long as there are new generations of wine drinkers who think they have just discovered the 'truth'."

Hear, hear.

Either you or I have gotten old, as this attitude above, which I share, proves that we each have developed somethign called wisdom!

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/10/2011 2:43:14 PM

About ten years ago, a wine country person of my acquaintance going all the way to my infatuation with the 1970 CA Cabs (he told me to go up the hill to see Lew Stewart at Souverain, which turned out to be a great recommendation for brillaint Cab at $5 the bottle) moved to a position in charge of a winery specializing in Chardonnay. Over the introductory launch of his efforts, he leaned over and said something like, "We've come a long way in three decades. I think we have finally acquired wisdom".

It turns out that I never went as gaga for his new Chards as he hoped and now I am no longer as wise.

We are only wise wihen we say things that people believe and we can back up our points with experience. To the low-alcohol exclusivist club, I am simply old and jaded. Twenty years from now, they may see the error of their ways. I will have long since given up wine and my only hope is that I still have all my own teeth and know what I am eating. :-}

No Subject
by Anonymous
Posted on:5/10/2011 7:08:10 PM

Wow, that was a blast from the past. And what was in the tap water on the Kirkland B-30s floor?

"There was the phase of trying to get the grapes as ripe as possible and then to extract the maximum in flavor and color from them, with alcohol levels to match.” And yet, if I recall correctly (and setting aside those late harvest Zins), the alcohol levels of such maximized wines were pretty middle-of-the-road by today's standards. So what else has changed?

No Subject
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:5/12/2011 2:37:02 AM

Testing with Firefox 4.0.1 because IE 9 would not let me go back to make edits.

Mr. Finigan
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:5/12/2011 2:42:23 AM

So, Charlie, you and Robert F. are both Harvard men. I knew he was, and graduate school MBA. I subscribed in the 1980's when I moved to California, when I also starting getting CGCW.  Was sorry to see him stop publishing, because he owed me for multiple issues. I wrote him about it but he said the publishers had all the money. Restaurant reviews were the best, but wine was right on also. I'll look for your both on Facebook from the other Harvard guys (not Winkelvoss!)



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/12/2011 8:14:09 AM

It's a bit odd that I never knew Bob Finigan in college because everyone knew his roommate, Orville Schell, the great China expert, UC Berkely professor and co-founder of Niman Schell meats. He was a big-time force on campus.

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