Wed 13 Apr 2016

Remembering Etienne Hugel

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It seems not long ago that we were grieving for Laurence Faller. Yet Alsace is now faced with another desperately premature loss as it was reported that on the morning of Saturday 9th April, Etienne Hugel very suddenly passed away, aged just 57.

Etienne Hugel

Etienne always seemed to be in a hurry, no less so than in this sudden exit from the world’s stage, and it leaves us desperately sad and empty. Such a loss seems impossible to comprehend.

He entered the family business in 1982, not the best of vintages for Alsace. But his uncle, the irrepressible ‘Johnnie’ Hugel had made sure there was enough good claret to make up for any shortcomings. Château Léoville Barton1982 would thereafter always be associated with the Hugel family. Etienne was the twelfth generation of Hugel, along with his cousin Jean-Philippe and winemaker brother Marc.

Family meant everything for Etienne. Indeed, the official name of the business was recently changed to Famille Hugel to reflect this indelible bond. Each active member of the family had a role, and for Etienne this was sales and marketing, to which he was admirably suited. As roving brand ambassador, replacing his revered uncle Johnnie, he was in his element.

Selling Alsace wine has never been an easy proposition and so a successful salesman has needed the skills akin to those of a proselytiser. Here, Etienne excelled with his energy, undying love and passion for the wines, his charisma and his unfailing ability to engage with everyone who fell under his spell.

Etienne Hugel

Etienne was the master of communication in all its forms. The Hugel website is a model in interaction. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were the tools of his trade. In this regard he was my mentor, teaching me the importance and vitality of social media. Not so long ago I had my first Facetime conversation with him. Not an experience I particularly enjoyed!

He was a constant traveller and globe trotter. At first he shared the accumulation of air miles with Gérard Jaboulet, often appearing together at venues, including several memorable Wine Society tastings. It is impossible to think of Etienne without recalling that sad July day in 1997 when, with Johnnie and Nick Clark MW, we were all sweltering by the Chapelle on Hermitage Hill to say adieu to Gérard Jaboulet.

Of late, Etienne’s travels seemed to have become more focused on the Far East and indeed he regularly spent the first few weeks of the year based there. He was surely at his happiest in Singapore or Japan. He shared some of his impressions with wonderful photos which he posted on Facebook. His love for Kaoru, his Japanese-born wife, was immense and he was especially proud when together they won a contract to supply Japan Airlines.

As Hugel brand manager, Etienne was always keen to raise the family image at every opportunity. Joining forces with other great wine families seemed a most natural way forward and he was a fervent supporter of the Primum Familiae Vini which included Pol Roger, Symington and Drouhin among others.

Etienne was always keen to innovate. With his brother Marc, he created a new cuvee of pinot noir. Nobody had believed that Alsace could produce great red wine. The new cuvée, ‘Les Neveux’, proved everyone wrong. The first vintage, 1990, remains an exceptional red wine showing no signs of dying.

One of his last acts was to help modernise the famous yellow labels. They now seem bolder, more confident, reflecting the renewed dynamism that is clearly evident at Hugel. At the top end, the name Jubilee, coined to mark the firm’s 350th in 1989, gives way to something that has the touch of the atavistic and archaic and yet equally bold. Grossi Laüe is Alsacien for ‘Grand Cru’, and will replace the name Jubilee.

And there was still more. Amidst great pomp and ceremony last year at The Shard building in London, a new wine was revealed. This was a 2007 riesling, a great vintage and from a very particular plot of vineyard on the grand cru Schoenenbourg and called Schoelhammer. This is undoubtedly a grand statement of a wine and already hailed as one of the world’s finest dry rieslings.

Riesling is at the core of what Alsace and Hugel are about. It was also Etienne’s particular passion; riesling in all its forms, from steely dry to lusciously sweet. And his brother Marc made riesling in all those styles, providing Etienne with a showcase that was second to none.

However, we did think he had gone a little too far when out of his briefcase came a handful of riesling tattoos. Still we were game and for the next few days, some of us were sporting ‘riesling’ tattoos on our forearms.

Etienne Hugel tattooing Marcel

Though selling Hugel was the aim, Etienne quite happily sang the praises of other vignerons and more than once made recommendations of who I should visit. The Hugel shop in Riquewihr has a formidable range of Alsace wines.

He never missed a Wine Society tasting, and was due to co-host a tasting of botrytis-affected wines with Fabrice Dubourdieu. More often there was the Wine Society Alsace roadshow, often with his cousin Jean Trimbach.

After a Chester tasting we danced a cancan on stage for the amusement of members. After an equally memorable tasting in Bradford we booked into the best curry House in town. The Maitre d’ did show some surprise when we turned up with a case of gewurztraminer but he took it surprisingly well!

He was generous with his time, welcoming me in my early days with The Society and sharing his Alsace with me. There must be many other wine buyers, wine writers and sommeliers who will today be thanking him for all those hours he spent preaching his gospel.

Etienne helped bring on board the thirteenth generation. His son Jean Frédéric is part of the sales team while his nephew Marc-André is on the production side, working with Marc. A cousin Christian is in accounts and is daughter Charlotte is currently working in London, learning her craft at the offices of wine importers John E Fells.

Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them, to his father, wife and brother and to the many Hugels that make up this great and indomitable family.

We shall miss you Etienne.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

Comments

  1. Robin gilles says:

    Thanks Marcel for thèse words.

  2. Nick Simpson says:

    Met him once at a WS tasting. Absolutely charming bloke. What a shame.

  3. Andrew Lawlan says:

    Lovely tribute to a truly wonderful man. A true star.

  4. Mark says:

    Sad news about the “early” passing of Etienne…. Fine words from Marcel… A toast to Etienne and the fine Alsace wine that she was passionate about…

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