As a former history major, I think that in order to fully appreciate the present, you need to grasp what came before.
I never wanted to be an obituary writer, but as a wine journalist I need to honor two people, Joe Dressner and Robert Finigan, who recently passed away. Both of these men had an impact on the wine industry that has been and will continue to be felt for years to come.
Dressner had been involved in the wine industry since the 1980s, but it was only in the past decade that his star began to shine as he became a champion of wine growers in France and Italy who were making wine with little intervention and placing terroir above everything else. After his passing, I wrote in my blog that other strict adherents to the natural wine movement often repeat his words, word for word.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Dressner was known as an iconoclast who was very much his own person and did not have any issues expressing his views. I know this first-hand as throughout the years we had our few debates, always over wine. I can’t remember the first time I actually met Joe as there is an indelible image of him, standing in the Louis Dressner one-room office in lower Manhattan, glass of wine in hand, talking about his growers.
Before Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, there was Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, a newsletter that was widely read among Bay Area wine drinkers. It debuted in 1972 and published its last edition in 1990. By this time, Parker was on the rise and the Wine Spectator had established its credibility with wine enthusiasts.
I met Finigan in 1992, when I first moved to San Francisco and was a young sommelier at Amelio’s, a formal French restaurant in North Beach. He often came in not just to dine, but also to sit at the bar and have a glass of wine. New to the Bay Area, it took me a little while to realize just how powerful this man had been. In spite of his experience and influence, he was always very respectful and graciously complimented my work.
When I opened up Hayes and Vine Wine Bar a couple of years later, I felt immense gratitude for his encouragement.
When I heard that Finigan passed away, I felt sadness for all of the young people in the wine industry who have never heard of him. Long before the current trend to question elevated levels of alcohol in wines, Finigan was a skeptic, famously questioning the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux for this very reason. He was a visionary, and while Parker and other critics might be better-known, Finigan has a rightful and important place in wine history.
The same is true of Dressner. Joe’s death was widely written about in wine circles. He had struggled with cancer for several years, so it was not a surprise — however, his loss is already being felt.
Sitting down to write this week’s column I almost started to wax and wane about Champagne. There is plenty of time for that, though. For now, I’d rather raise a glass in honor and celebration of these two men who I greatly admired and remember them for their pioneering achievements.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.