Robert Finigan dies at 68; noted Bay Area wine critic

Robert Finigan, who elevated wine criticism in the early 1970s with an influential newsletter that was notable for its authoritative and unvarnished appraisals, died Oct. 1 at his San Francisco home. He was 68.

His wife, Suzanne, said the cause of death has not been determined.

Finigan began publishing Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines in 1972 when wine critics generally were not known for their independence. His newsletter was a sharp departure, offering bracingly honest evaluations not only of fine European but also emerging California wines, of which he was an early and enthusiastic champion.

“Finigan was arguably the first hard-core critic who clearly took the gloves off,” said Wine Spectator magazine columnist Matt Kramer, who called him “the first great consumer advocate” for wine lovers. “He was a demanding critic. He pulled no punches.”


In a review of the 1976 Burgundies, for example, Finigan wrote that the vintage was “trash.”

“For Finigan, who had a reputation as a very good taster of Pinot Noir and Burgundy, to call it trash was really unprecedented,” Kramer said. “It didn’t hurt that he was correct.”

When he gave a wine his top rating, the Chicago Tribune wrote in 1986, readers went “scurrying to wine shops with their wallets open.” His views were “important enough to make French winemakers call him up and argue about his opinions,” food critic Ruth Reichl wrote in 1980.

He later branched out to food reviews with Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Restaurants. By the late 1970s he was considered the Bay Area’s most influential food critic.


A native of Richmond, Va., who was born Sept. 22, 1943, Finigan developed an interest in wine and gastronomy at Harvard University, where one of his roommates was the son of a Bordeaux chateau owner and another was the son of a wine seller.

After graduating from Harvard in the mid-1960s with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s in business, he worked for an international management consulting firm in San Francisco. During business trips he squeezed in visits to wineries in France and Italy, gaining what he described in his 2006 memoir, “Corks and Forks,” as “a fine practical education in what was good and what was not.”

In 1972 he assembled a group of investors to help him launch the wine newsletter. Initially aimed at Bay Area connoisseurs, it went national in 1977 and amassed thousands of subscribers who came to rely on his simple rating system. He classified a wine as Outstanding, Above Average, Average or Below Average. He arrived at his judgments after paying full price for the wines in retail stores and subjecting them to blind tastings.

In 1983 Finigan was one of a handful of critics who went to France to sample the 1982 wines from Bordeaux, which producers had been hyping as the “vintage of the century.” Finigan was underwhelmed, declaring the vintage “disappointing,” “oafish” and “too alcoholic.” He advised his newsletter subscribers to save their money for earlier vintages.

His pronouncement brought his downfall as the dean of wine criticism. That mantle went to his rival, Robert Parker, who lavished praise on the ’82 Bordeaux. Today, that vintage goes for $10,000 to $20,000 a case at auction, according to Wine Spectator’s Kramer.

Finigan ceased publication of his newsletter in 1990 but continued to write about wine. His 1987 book, “Robert Finigan’s Essentials of Wine,” won praise as a comprehensive and literate guide. He wrote in the book that wine “isn’t to be feared, but embraced, in both the greater and lesser manifestations. Like painting or architecture and other art forms, it offers immense diversity to the curious. If you’re tentative about wine, you might reflect on the fact that it is, after all, grape juice.”

In addition to his wife, Finigan is survived by his mother, Mary, and a sister, Jane.

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