Thursday, 14 April 2016

Etienne Hugel - The Loss of Another Wine Titan

I have gotten to know quite a few winemakers over the last few years.  but very few would I genuinely call "friend".  Etienne Hugel, the formidable 12th generation co-owner of Famille Hugel of Riquewihr, Alsace, was one such.

Emily, me, Etienne and Kaoru c. 2012
To wake up on a Sunday morning at 6:30 am is never a pleasant experience.  To wake up on a Sunday morning at 6:30 am to a Whatsapp message saying that Etienne was no longer with us, was a surreal experience I hope never to repeat.  What hit particularly close to home is that I was to meet him and his lovely wife Kaoru for lunch at the Auberge de l'Ill this coming Saturday, 16 April.  It is hard to believe that instead of enjoying their company over a glass of Pol Roger, I will be paying my final respects to a friend and mentor.

I have written a lot about Etienne in these pages, so much so that he has his own tag.  We first met more than five years ago, at a Hugel winemaker dinner which I attended with a bunch of Australian miners.  The crowd was small, but the wines were superb.  After finishing the lovely 2007 Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer, we asked Etienne if he would like to join us for a digestif at the Angel Bar.  Sensibly, he turned us down, as nothing good ever came of going to a place called the Angel Bar.

Soon after, Emily and I planned a visit to the Hugel domaine in Riquewihr, so we teed up a personal appointment with Etienne deep into the harvest season.  After taking us around in his VW Phaeton (my "Protestant Bentley", as he used to say), he hosted us for an in-depth tasting in the cellars.  I wrote an article for Flavours magazine based on our visit, and sent him a draft for fact-checking.  He wrote back within an hour:

"Julian,

If we were a lavish Champagne house you would get an award for your story and a Mag bottle ;-)
...
Again, one of the best insider stories written on us lately.  BRAVO and THANKS!"

Imagine, for a moment, how I, a young-ish food writer who knew next to nothing about wine (some would say I still don't), felt after receiving such praise from as prominent a wine personality like Etienne?  He was, of course, not done yet, and when he arrived in KL, he bought a stack of the Flavours issue in which my article was published, to give out to customers at this tastings in Malaysia and elsewhere.  A few days later, he emailed me this picture of a hotel F&B team for whom he conducted a wine training session, simply titled "Tasting with Flavours in Jakarta" (you can read an unedited version of my article here).  But that was the measure of the man, and he was always generous with his time and encouragement.

Courtesy of Etienne Hugel
That was in November 2011, and he asked how I would like it if he came back with a case of special wines in January 2012 and hosted a dinner specially for my friends as a thank you?  I said absolutely, we had a great dinner, and a little tradition developed. 

Every year since then, I have looked forward to a November email from Etienne, always larded with incorrect but entertaining use of Singlish ("Hello lah", was one of his more cringeworthy efforts) telling me when he was coming back to Singapore the following year and to make plans to tee up our annual dinner.  These were always fun events where, as he would say in inimitable Etienne-speak, "You provide the crowd, I provide the lubrication".  Occasionally, there would be a little flourish, such as complimentary Govinos from Kaoru's stint as their Asia rep (2015), or a vertical of his Jubilee Rieslings just to show (half in jest) that his Rieslings could compete with those of "the cousins", as he called the Trimbachs (2014).  Always, there would be a new culinary adventure, whether it was Cantonese (2012) or Teochew food (2013), local Singaporean-style seafood (2015), and even Alsatian food once (2014), which I thought would be a novelty for him as he never seemed to be in Alsace. 

Hello lah?  Not this November, not ever again.


***

Etienne was a key inspiration behind our Alsace Wine and Gastronomy Society, and was a wonderful sounding board for some of our wackier schemes.  Right to the end, he believed in us and supported us, and was instrumental in the success of our Alsace Festival in March.

Photo
Etienne c. 2013; Kaoru in background (courtesy Dr Peter Wong)

The tributes to Etienne emphasise his friendly side, the lanky, energetic and tattoo-crazy Frenchman.   But when it came to the crunch, he could bully and cajole, he would bite, scratch and pull as hard as anyone else.  A mutual friend recently commented that for an Alsatian Protestant, Etienne was a surprisingly exuberant personality, but in his work ethic and single-minded focus, he was a true Lutheran.

Alsace wine lovers in Asia owe Etienne a massive debt, as does Alsace itself.  I speak no untruth when I say that winegrowers in Alsace are generally an insular group, who are content not to take risks and focus on their existing markets.  Etienne, like too few others, refused to accept that status quo.  He always told me that the Alsace pie was too small, and we needed to work on growing the pie before squabbling over who got a bigger slice.  He often had to promote wines from other Alsatian winemakers at big showcase events overseas when their producers couldn't make the trip out.   Awkward?  Possibly, but he did it without hesitation.  He was an ambassador for Alsace first, and Hugel second.  Which is not to say that Hugel suffered; after all, Japan recently became Hugel's No. 2 export market.  As Etienne wryly commented a few weeks ago, he wasn't sure if his grandpapa Jean would have approved of that, but the wines are flying far and wide, as far as the man himself and at good prices.  That is surely a good thing.

As one does on sad occasions such as these, one tends to look through one's letters and emails to divine some sort of purpose, or in the hope of discovering some sort of cathartic experience.  Etienne shared the following with me in 2013:

Dear Julian,


Just back from Paris for a long weekend with Kaoru, couldn't resist going to check the Shangri-La for a lunch at their Shang Palace which brought us back to Asian mode.

The experience was memorable and brought our minds back again to your part of the World, as Singapore saw the first opening of a Shang Palace...

Your own passion for Alsace is similar to my own for Asia and our paths had to cross. I am so glad they did.

Also the fact that we enjoy sharing good things in life with people we enjoy makes us similar minded.  The fact that you are with European (sic) born Emily and I share destiny with Japanese born Kaoru also makes us similar.

The fantastic World we live in makes all this possible and we should enjoy every opportunity given to us, sharing and exchanging make our hearts richer..."

Farewell Etienne, and thank you for your friendship, a gift no less valuable even though you shared it widely.  I'm sure, in the fullness of time, that our paths will cross again, and I will be glad when they do; after all, you still owe me lunch!  ;)


***

Postscript (Saturday, 16 April 2016) - Today was the day of Etienne's funeral, and it was an awful, awful day from all perspectives.  Even the weather, normally so bright and sunny in April, went rainy, chilly and windy.  And while we all knew this day was coming, it was gut-wrenching to see friends old and new, with whom I had been tasting wine and breaking bread happily in the preceding days, in such a grim context.

The Protestant Church of Ste Marguerite in Riquewihr was packed to the rafters, with mourners from France, Japan, India, the UK, Germany, the USA, Singapore and Taiwan, amongst others.  I wonder if Etienne knew how many people, from so far and wide, loved him and respected him.

Etienne will be cremated on Monday 18 April, and his ashes probably scattered in one of Hugel's grand cru vineyards in accordance with family tradition.

I miss you already, my friend, and I pray you have found peace.

3 comments:

  1. So sad Julian, thanks for sharing the man and some of the moments :(

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  2. Dam sad. Good well written post, can't have been easy writing it. Feeling for you.

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