Spanish-Californian Wine Pioneer Marimar Torres: “I Make Wines I Like To Drink”

Marimar Torres may come from one of the most prominent winemaking families in Spain but, when she started making wine in California in the 1980s, she was flying solo. To mark her 77th birthday, here’s the story of how Marimar Torres, one of the great ambassadors of Spanish wines in North America, came to blaze the winemaking trail in Sonoma at a time when women in wine were few and far between.

“Seven is my lucky number,” Marimar Torres told me, eyes twinkling, when I visited her family home in Sitges, outside Barcelona, a few days before her recent birthday: “So I’m very excited for 77!”.

Marrying a wealthy man

Marimar Torres was born in 1945 in Barcelona, Spain, the youngest of three children and the only girl. While her brothers were primed from an early age to assume the reins of the family wine business, established in 1870, the future set out for Marimar was a different one.

“My father wanted the best for me and that meant marrying a wealthy man—ideally one from an aristocratic wine family—so I would have an easy life,” she recalls.

However, Marimar’s had her sights set elsewhere. Although her wish to study an MBA was not granted by her parents, they did eventually allow her to attend business school. By the time she graduated, she was also fluent in six languages, including Spanish, Catalan and English.

Traveling to the United States

At this point Torres’ wines were beginning to take off across the pond and, one summer, seeking to lure his daughter away from a planned vacation with her friends, Marimar’s father invited her to accompany him on a business trip to the United States.

The tour was a success, as was the one that followed, and it was not long before Marimar volunteered to travel alone. The United States was deemed too dangerous so, instead, she was sent to Canada.

“And, oh boy, I did pretty well!” she admits.

It goes without saying that the wine business was not viewed as a suitable place for a woman in those days, although Marimar Torres believes this misconception may have given her an edge.

“I’ve always said that, if a woman is good, she’s better. If she’s bad, she’s worse,” she says, adding that, in some ways, she had it “easier”.

“An easy sell”

“The monopolies were all run by men. And there I was, a woman in her twenties, who knew what she was talking about, and that made it an easy sell,” she continues.

Sales of Torres wines to Canada started to pick up significantly. Seeing how well she was doing, Marimar’s father agreed to allow her to continue promoting the family business across North America.

In 1973, Marimar met the man who later became her husband—the wine critic and journalist Robert Finigan—while on a trip to San Francisco. Two years later, the pair married and Marimar moved to California, much to the dismay of her family.

“My father said it was a mistake and that the marriage wouldn’t last a year. But, in fact, it lasted four!” chuckles Marimar Torres.

Torres and Finigan divorced in 1979 and, in 1981, Marimar Torres convinced her father to make a small investment in California. She admits she came close to basing herself in Napa Valley.

Making wine in Sonoma

“With the money I had I could have bought 18 acres in Napa or 56 in West Sonoma—so I chose Sonoma. And I’m so glad I did,” she exclaims.

At the time, West Sonoma was almost unknown as a wine region but Marimar worked with a viticulturist who assured her the land was suited to planting vines—and Pinot Noir in particular. Back in Spain, meanwhile, her family was not convinced and informed her there was not enough money to build a winery. However, they added, she could still make wine without one.

The first vintage from Marimar Estate was a 1989 barrel-fermented Chardonnay, released in 1991. In April that year, Marimar traveled to Spain to visit her father and brought him a bottle of her brand-new wine.

“We must have a winery in California!”

“He tried it and said it was the best white wine he’d ever tasted,” Marimar Torres says. “He turned to my mother and said, “we must have a winery in California!”.

The following month, in May 1991, Marimar’s father Miguel Torres Carbó passed away. His widow, Margarita, honored her late husband’s wishes, encouraging her sons to invest in their sister’s project in California. In 1992, a 15,000-case winery was constructed and Marimar Estate’s first Pinot Noir was produced.

Today, the 56-acre Don Miguel Vineyard, which Marimar began planting in 1986, encompasses 81 acres, of which 30 are planted with Chardonnay and 30 with Pinot Noir. Also planted to Pinot Noir are 20 acres of a 180-acre property in West Sonoma County, between Freestone and Occidental, named the Doña Margarita Vineyard.

Marimar Estate today

Over the years, Marimar’s wines have received plenty of accolades. Most recently, Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir 2018, the first red wine produced by Marimar Torres in California in 1992, was chosen as one of the 12 best wines by the Global Pinot Noir Masters 2022, an annual contest organized by the British magazine The Drinks Business.

For Marimar Torres, however, prizes are not a priority.

“We don’t present our wines to competitions because the wines that get the highest ratings are the big, bold fruit bombs,” she admits, adding: “I make wines I like to drink.”

Over the years, Marimar Torres has become one of the leading ambassadors of Spanish wine in North America. She continues to run Marimar Estate alongside her daughter, Cristina, born in 1988, who has inherited a love of wine and vineyards from her family.

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