ETiENNE HugEl‘s suDDEN death, aged 57, was announced in a short statement by the Hugel family winery in Riquewihr, Alsace on 10 April; he had died the previous day.
Hugel, who succeeded his uncle Jean – known widely as Johnny – in the role of roving ambassador for Hugel wines, was famous for his boundless energy, his broad smile, his communication skills (he was a master of social media), and particularly his passion for Riesling. At tastings and wine events at home and abroad, he took evident delight in applying (non-permanent) tattoos to the forearms of fellow Riesling lovers; tattoos spelling out in bold, black ink the name of his favoured variety.
He joined the family business in 1982, in charge of promoting exports. His most recent role was as commercial director, and under his leadership the winery now exports to more than 100 countries. Hugel travelled the world in a tireless quest to spread the message of Hugel wines, from the best-selling gentil to the new, top-level grossi laüe line.
latterly, accompanied by his Japanese-born sommelier wife Kaoru, Hugel also went frequently to Asia, which has become an increasingly important market for the family business and Alsace wines in general.
Back home in Riquewihr, he oversaw operations with his brothers, Jean-Philippe and Marc. He would receive visitors at the famous, yellow, half-timbered house on a corner of the cobbled main street, where they would be assured of a warm welcome and a tasting to remember. At the slightest encouragement, Hugel would bound up into the vineyards that rise steeply above the village with visitors in tow, a bottle tucked under one arm, corkscrew and glasses in the other, to taste the wine directly in its terroir.
in recent years, Hugel watched with delight and pride as members of the younger generation (the 13th) of the Hugel family – his son Jean Frédéric and daughter Charlotte, and his two nephews Marc André and Christian – joined the family firm. With generosity of spirit, he encouraged each of them to find their place and bring their own contribution, particular skills and fresh ideas to the table.
His untimely death is a grievous loss to his family, as well as to countless colleagues and a multitude of wineloving friends and followers around the world.
‘A visionary and a hard worker, my son Etienne travelled the world relentlessly, showing unparalleled people skills and infectious enthusiasm,’ said André Hugel. ‘Throughout his life he was able to communicate his passion, his professionalism and his personal values to all those with whom he worked.’
Famille Hugel is a member of the Primum Familiae Vini, (PFV) which includes a select number of the world’s best family-owned wineries. On hearing of Hugel’s death, Paul symington of symington Family Estates wrote to fellow members: ‘Yesterday was a very sad day. We lost a very good friend. Etienne’s commitment… was unparalleled. The PFV has lost one of its greatest members.’
in a tribute on her website, Jancis Robinson MW described looking through her notes about Hugel’s trip to london last year to launch the family’s schoelhammer Riesling. ‘i see i described Etienne as “irrepressible”. i cannot express strongly enough how sad i am that he has now been repressed forever.’
Thierry Meyer, Regional Chair for Alsace at the Decanter World Wine Awards, said: ‘Etienne liked to live at 100 miles an hour – but that was no reason for him to leave us so quickly and so unexpectedly.’
‘To succeed [his uncle] Jean Hugel, who spoke three languages – French, german and English – with incredible verve, was not easy,’ said Bernard Burtschy, wine writer and DWWA co-Chair for languedoc-Roussillon. ‘Worldwide traveller and Asia lover, Etienne got there by passion and enthusiasm. Alsace has lost its brightest ambassador, the world of wine an aesthete with huge knowledge.’
Readers of Decanter.com also shared their memories. simon D recalled meeting Hugel at the london Wine Trade Fair. ‘He showed us iPad photos of his bike trip through Bali and generally treated us like old friends. He came across as totally genuine, without malice or edge, and gloriously devoid of an edit switch or mute button. Despite continuing to pour samples and being surrounded by half a dozen other people, he had that rare gift of making you feel like the only person in the room. i’m sure there are many with similar stories – he was that kind of guy.’
‘Alsace has lost its brightest ambassador, the world of wine an aesthete with huge knowledge’