MISTER CALIFORNIA

IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID FINK

David Fink grins as he reaches into the wine rack beside him. ‘You’ll like this’ he promises, producing a pristine magnum of 1999 Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru. ‘Look at that fill!’ He gives the bottle a proud kiss and returns it safely to its home. This excitement and passion is David in a nutshell, bringing a level of joy to his world of ultra-fine wine and hospitality that is so infectious it’s impossible not to get swept up in the moment.

David’s stories are peppered with entertaining anecdotes, fascinating people (he counts Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti amongst his close friends, for example) and the recollections of many, many bottles of incredible wine enjoyed in a dizzying number of amazing settings through the years. With so much to talk about, it was therefore a great pleasure to catch up with David to find out a little more about ‘Mister California’ himself.

Your company, the Mirabel Group, is known for its portfolio of outstanding boutique hotels and restaurants. How did you find your way into the world of luxury hospitality?

My journey started with my mother and my Southern background. I grew up in Virginia (my English and Scottish ancestors first settled there in 1621) a state which just has the most incredible sense of true Southern hospitality. My mother made sure to imbue that approach to life into all her children whilst we were growing up.

During high school, all I wanted was to date the most beautiful girls I could … but for that, I needed money, so I started working hospitality jobs as a waiter. Not only was it great bang for the buck in terms of pay (for a teenage boy, at least) but I also discovered a natural love for hosting which has now been my business for over 40 years. Really, I’m a one trick pony.

I worked for many different companies throughout California in the first part of my career. However, when 9/11 hit the United States, it was shocking on so many levels and led to a huge re-evaluation of what I wanted and what was important. I wanted control and to create some- thing truly special. I was working in a ‘dream job’ at the time but I wanted to be more entrepre- neurial and put my home in Carmel, my family, and doing what I loved first. I had first written a business plan in the mid 1990s around the idea of offering small, luxurious boutique hotels and restaurants in California wine country, and being based in Carmel I was fortunate to be in the perfect place to finally make it happen.

You’re famously a lover and advocate of incredible wines. Were you always focused on wine, or was there an epiphany moment?

As you know Virginia was not really a wine state in those days and so I didn’t discover the world of fine wine until I was about 20. At that time, drinking early harvest Gewürtztraminer was the height of sophistication. I was the only non-French waiter working in a formal place in San Diego which sadly doesn’t exist anymore. We had a very suave French maître’d from Nice who served a bottle of 1959 Lafite to a table one evening and saved the dregs for me. He showed me how to taste and appreciate the wine, and it was a real wow moment. I had never tasted anything like it, and I knew I immediately needed to learn more.

At that time in the early 1980s, the American fine wine industry was still in its infancy, with only a few of the producers we know today like Heitz and Mondavi on the scene. Most of the big names were yet to come along, so the wine scene I was exploring was still very Europe focused. I started exploring Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux be- fore I found my next epiphany: Burgundy and Pinot Noir.

For me now, Burgundy will always be the ultimate fine wine region. An example of all the reasons why is a bottle of 1969 DRC La Tâche which I tasted a few weeks ago. I’ve had 4 or 5 of these bottles in my life and it was just fantastic. It was so pale that it almost looked like rosewater in the glass. However, even at over 50 years of age it had incredible depth and a beautiful long finish. It was an ugly looking bottle (the label looked like it had spent some time in the microwave) but the contents were delicious. It just goes to show that with Pinot Noir you can never predict taste and quality from colour alone and there are so many unexpected treasures out there. I could easily talk about Burgundy alone for the next two days.

We’ve just been admiring a couple of the stars of your home cellar – when did you start becoming a serious wine collector?

I’ve always collected a little bit and had some treasured bottles along the way that I remember to this day. When I started buying, I could buy Henri Jayer Richebourg for 120 dollars a bottle – which unbeliev- ably by today’s standards, was very expensive at the time considering the average price for fine Burgundy was below 40 dollars a bottle. In those days even Burgundy was so affordable that I had a friend whose house wine used to be 1978 La Tâche.

However, I had family and work to focus on and it wasn’t until I started my own business in that I really began to collect. And it’s been suc- cessful; we probably now have 12,000 to 15,000 bottles across the Mirabel group!

I am of the opinion that a cellar is for drinking and sharing, but it shouldn’t be so big that you’re not going to be able to drink and en- joy it. I don’t think of my cellar as an investment but as something to be shared. It’s just wine at the end of the day, and I think it’s a pity that pricing has gotten to where it is with fewer and fewer people able to afford the best. Wine should be accessible, particularly for young talent in wine and hospitality, and it’s a real shame that the new generation simply can’t afford many of the high-end wines now that I was buying when I first started out. However, there really are so many incredible up-and-coming young winemakers who are well worth seeking out and investing in, although I won’t name names or all the allocations will be gone.

You now make your own wine too at the Fink Family Estate Vineyard. You have clearly been inspired by winemakers around the world – what is your vision for you own wines?

When my family were young, I became very caught up in a very romantic vision of growing grapes, so I planted a small plot at our home in Carmel. Now I’m wiser and realise that as a hobby it is a great way to lose money. It’s an amazing adventure, I just don’t do it to make a profit.

I’ve been privileged to learn from some of the best winemakers across the world, with Burgundy of course being a particular inspiration. Aubert de Villaine taught me humility and a deep passion for terroir, and I have been lucky enough to spend time with Charles Rousseau and Henri Jayer, both incredibly humble and simply focused on mak- ing the best wines they can. Closer to home, I also consider Bill Harlan and Cyril Chappellet mentors in the wine business.

These winemakers and many others I have met are all amazing people, and I have learned that the one thing they all have in com- mon is that they are driven by quality, not quantity. It’s never about huge volumes, simply getting the best grapes from the best terroir and that is the fundamental principle of great wine. I spent 15 years or more learning about every aspect of the vineyard and grape growing, and it became clear that everything important happens in the vineyard. However, day to day I’m also fortunate to have an architect-winemaker brother to help me. Overall, the journey been very fulfilling and I learn more and more every year.

Your yearly GourmetFest in Carmel is another of your most famous projects, can you tell us a little more about it?

GourmetFest is actually my third food and wine festival, following other events such as the Masters of Food & Wine event which I started in 1987. I learned a huge amount from that experience, most importantly what not to do.

Through my relationship with Relais & Chateaux [at the time David was a member of the International Board of Directors of the group] I had access to many of the world’s greatest chefs. Following on from previous successful events I had organised it seemed like such a great opportunity to bring these people together, and so the first GourmetFest went ahead in 2014.

The principle of Gourmetfest is to create a bridge which connects five different key groups; chefs, winemakers, wine media, our partners (such as Rolls-Royce) and of course our treasured guests. GourmetFest brings all these people together for four amazing days to create new friendships and connections which never go away. I firmly believe that the strongest bridges are always built at the table, just look at the Last Supper. The greatest currency we have is time, and time spent with one another over great food and wine is the one of the most important things there is.

Covid has of course crushed the event over the last couple of years, but we are hoping to be back in 2024. It’s a different world that still isn’t back to normal and we are dedicated to making sure that GourmetFest comes back in the right way. Taking care and doing the right thing is our top priority, but we can’t wait to get going again.

And finally, what’s next for David Fink?

In today’s world of luxury hospitality, service has become more impor- tant than product. Guests all over the world want to feel taken care of like never before, so I am busy ensuring that all my endeavours are delivering exactly what our guests need. I always focus on service first and how I can help every guest have a unique experience that they simply cannot have anywhere else.

Later in 2022 we are opening a newly restored 26-room historic hotel almost on Carmel Beach called, appropriately, Carmel Beach Hotel & Spa. Then in the spring of 2023 we make a dream of mine a reality as we open the Maison 1896 hotel in Beaune. Maison 1896’s restaurant will be a collaboration with two incredible talents – a chef and a wine director from San Francisco – which we will announce this summer.

That aside, I’ll be travelling to Burgundy often and Venice (amongst other places) planning the next GourmetFest, looking forward to a Burgundies on the Beach event I’m hosting in October, making my wine and planning to be home for Thanksgiving.

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