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Appreciating two lives


From Beijing to Cupertino the world mourns the passing of Steve Jobs. I became an Apple user when, shortly after the famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial that aired only once, my then boss bought a bunch of Macs for the office. He was frustrated with our existing computers (mainly TRS-80s, the infamous “Trash 80s” from Radio Shack) that were so hard to use, you had to read a 1,000 page manual just to do the simplest things, like cut-and-paste. And mail merge was like understanding the Theory of Relativity!

So Don (my boss) got the computers, but, lo and behold, nobody had the time or inclination to learn how to use them and to teach the rest of the staff. So Don asked me. I happily took the little Mac home and showed Eugene, my roommate, how clever it was. You could draw with it, in color, and it could actually talk! And it was light enough to tote around in a cute little canvas sack. I feel in love with Macs then and there and to this day have remained an Apple user.

I’m not going to say that, without Steve Jobs and Apple, wine writing as we know it would not exist. But Jobs, more than anyone in my opinion, is responsible for the way millions of people have taken the Internet into our lives. He not only invented the first personal computer, the Apple II (which I learned in grad school), thereby making it possible for anyone to compute. He realized, in the 1990s, that the rise of the Internet opened huge opportunities, and he invented the Macintosh to take advantage of them. It was the first computer that was easy to use, was Internet adaptable, and fun. And it looked good, too, a feature of every gadget Steve Jobs ever helped to design.

I remember in the 1990s the big question concerning the Internet was, what is the killer app? Everybody wanted to know how people would actually use it. Email was an obvious answer, but Jobs knew that the Internet was so much bigger than that. He didn’t invent social media, but he seems to have sensed in his bones that people were yearning for more involved, personal ways of communicating with the rest of the world through the Internet. Blogs, like this one, were one result of Jobs’ vision.

I felt bad, real bad, when I learned of his death yesterday. Although everybody knew it was coming, no one thought it would be this soon. His demise feels right up there with the passing of other icons. John Lennon has been mentioned in the media. Perhaps the two of them are up in heaven right now, talking about how Apple Corp. finally allowed iTunes to sell the Beatles catalog. Surely they’re listening to a Beatles tune. I wonder which one?

* * *

Robert Finigan was not the most famous wine writer to come out of the 1970s, but he was one of the most highly regarded among his peers. He published one of the first personal wine newsletters, Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, which was a precursor to Parker, Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs’ Guide, and all the rest. He lived in San Francisco, and I always wondered how, as a wine writer, he could afford his tony place in lower Pacific Heights.

Bob died Oct. 1, at the relatively young age of 68.

I met Bob frequently during the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was getting into the San Francisco wine scene. For a while, he ran the C.I.V.C.  (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), which was marketing the sparkling wines from California that had been established by Champagne houses, like Roederer, Mumm and Taittinger. He gave fancy tastings at the big downtown hotels that I loved going to. He also seemed to have been hired as a sort of functionary to the Getty family–I never understood that relationship, but it was kind of a personal wine advisor. Gordon was getting into wine in a big way, and his son, Billy, was best friends with Gavin Newsom, whom I knew slightly. When Gordon and Gavin decided to launch the first PlumpJack wine shop, in Cow Hollow, Gavin asked me to be part of a small group that would meet weekly, to sample wines and decide which ones would be sold at PlumpJack when it opened. Gavin (who now is California’s Lieutenant-Governor) wanted to assure his customers that every single bottle in the store had been personally hand selected by the team.

We met every Friday evening (I think it was) for six months, and would go through 15 or 20 wines, everybody standing in a circle. Gavin always led; Gordon was usually there; but the voice that carried the most authority was Bob Finigan’s. I would give my views, and Gavin (who was the ultimate decider) duly noted them, but I think Bob’s opinion was what tipped the balance, one way or the other.

Bob was an exquisite gentleman. He dressed nattily, in a urbane fashion, like a college professor. He was very kind and soft-spoken; we got along quite well. I think he must have been ill for some time, because the last time I saw him, about five years ago, he was walking alone across Market Street, toward the Palace Hotel where, perhaps, he was going to some fancy wine lunch. I was across the street, headed in the opposite direction, and didn’t really have the time to greet him. He seemed very frail; he was shuffling along slowly, like an old man, even though he couldn’t have been more than 62 or 63. I was shocked, to tell the truth. Now, I wish I’d taken the time to chat.

I will miss Bob Finigan. The world of wine has lost a gifted and loving voice.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    Jobs was very smart, no doubt. But from one point onwards he had a team that must have done tonns of things (getting paid for, of course) and never got the credits. Or who’s to believe he did it all?

    Just like Thomas Edson and other great inventors… one more guy who wasn’t a saint.

    I stick with Tesla, Da Vinci, Galilei…., Newton and Einstein. Just saying.

  2. Carlos – of course Jobs didn’t do it all. But he did create the climate and conditions for Apple to change the way we do things (and no, I’m not a fanboy).

    Steve – I never met Finigan but I remember reading his Wine Guide – that may have been my first exposure to wine writing. Reading his prose led me to everyone else. I’m sad to hear of his passing.

  3. Bob Finigan lived next door to me in college. I was a couple of years older and did not associate with the younger low life so it was not until a couple of decades had passed and we wound up sitting next to each other at a wine luncheon somewhere that we remade the connection. I was very surprised to find Finigan to be as soft spoken and personable as he was because his writing always struck me as somewhat authoritarian and severe.

    He did predate me as a wine writer, and, in all truth, his relaxed focus on California made my publication possible with its California focus. He helped make the wine criticism industry in something that has become big time. Sadly, he could not sustain it. But he never lost his love for wine.

  4. My appreciation for wine grew in the 1980s when I was on the SF University Club wine committe with Bob Finigan. I learned a great deal from him, and being on that committee was a step toward later buying a vineyard and starting a winery. His compliments on our wines meant a lot to me.

  5. Steve,

    Jobs’ was visionary and great, but let’s not get too carried away with revisionist history vis a vis the Internet. He didn’t have much, if anything, to do with blogs and 1998, when the iMac came out, wasn’t exactly the backwoods of the internet. 1995 til 1998 was a hugely transformational time and everybody in the technology sector was engaged in Internet activity, including me. At that point in time it wasn’t about hardware it was about the browser and portals.

    If anything, Marc Andreesen, with what would become Netscape, had a much more profound impact on bringing the internet into our lives. Blogging gets credited to a lot of people, none of whom are Jobs.

    I would have been nodding my head if you started with the iPod. Or went from the Apple computer in the 80s and early 90s with desktop publishing to the iPod. The iPod –> iPhone –> iPad triumverate is where Jobs should get significant and due credit for creating three game-changing markets, but the iMac and the Internet and blogging are not a part of that equation.

  6. I met Robert Finigan at a few wine dinners/tastings in the 70’s. Sorry to hear of his death, especially since I am also 68. He once declared that there was not a single California wine that would improve with age and none over 10 years of age that was any good. We thought he probably got lots of invitations to taste older wines to prove him wrong. The 1895 Simi Zinfandel was one of those. Joel Peterson’s parents Walt and Frances wrote the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club Newsletter in the 60’s with wine writing descriptors that inspired him to write. He published excellent notes.

  7. It will be interesting to see what happens to Apple now.

    Even though Finigan was overshadowed by Parker, it’s always a shame when an independent voice is silenced.

  8. I have fond memories of Finigan’s early typescript “Private Guide” which I followed avidly and learned from. And if I really want to get nostalgic, I will remember that he bought most of the wines he rated at retail, anonymously, and used only a 4-tier rating system. Ah, those were the days . . .

  9. When I was in my early 20s, I was a pantry cook at the Washbag and met Finigan one day at the bar. He was very, very friendly and invited me to dinner or to taste wine–I can’t remember which, but at the time I thought he was a million years older than me and I declined his invitation. Oh what I would give to go back and ask him a question or two now.

  10. “But Jobs, more than anyone in my opinion, is responsible for the way millions of people have taken the Internet into our lives.”

    …What about the people who developed the Internet?

  11. J, we can always debate exactly who is responsible for what. As a historian, I think it’s already been agreed that Steve Jobs was one of the most important people in the (admittedly brief) history of the Internet. Who would you say has had a greater impact?

  12. Really happy you mentioned Robert Finnigan, Steve. Very happy.

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