I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing at age 57 of Etienne Hugel, a passionate advocate and evangelist for Alsace. I met Etienne in 1988 when he called and offered to take me to lunch, "so we can talk about Chinese food." I quickly learned that one of Etienne's many passions was creating imaginative food pairings and that he was particularly keen on showing how well Alsatian wine paired with Asian cuisine.
Our lunch was unusual in many regards, not the least of which was its venue, a now defunct Chinese restaurant owned by an Israeli entrepreneur who was convinced that, after years lackluster pseudo-Chinese food, Americans were ready to rediscover just how sophisticated and complex this cuisine could be. Etienne insisted the meal be at a Chinese restaurant because, he said, "I want to show you that my wines go with everything." And they do -- to this day, I think of Alsatian wines as among the most versatile in the world.
Two wine pairings stand out in my memory nearly 30 years later, and despite Etienne's unabashed enthusiasm for riesling (a love I share), neither of these memorable pairings included that grape despite its presence at the table. My first memory of the lunch (which stretched on for nearly five hours) opened my palate to pinot gris (then called Tokay Pinot Gris, a name since disallowed by the European Union because it conflicts with Hungary's use of the term Tokai). Etienne served the wine with "St. Peter's Fish" in a black bean sauce. I use quote marks because I'd not encountered this fish before, but Etienne knew it well told me he thought it would be popular in the U.S. He was right, or course, except it became successful only after the name was changed to "tilapia." The wine was dry, but in Alsace, pinot gris has a richer texture than in nearby Italy (where it is called pinot grigio), and with that oilier texture came a subtle sweet impression that set off the slight spiciness of fermented black beans with the fish. From a flavor standpoint, it was a meeting of equals and a stunning match.
The second course that so impressed me brought together stir-fried foie gras in a phenomenal pairing with Hugel's Vendage Tardive Gewürztraminer. Oh my, what to say about that? Was I more surprised to find foie gras at a Chinese restaurant, or to see how it paired with a late harvest gewurztraminer? Both really. I knew that foie gras paired beautifully with Sauternes, but had very little acquaintance with the balance of acidity and sweetness obtained in Alsatian late harvest wines. As soon as lunch was over I called my wine store and ordered four bottles of the 1983 V.T. gewurztraminer (only to be met by the question, "what do you want that for? Nobody drinks that.") Eventually it arrived and I've since become a zealous fan of these rich, sweet, wonderfully balanced and food-friendly wines. I went back to the restaurant a week later but couldn't find the foie gras on the menu. "Oh, that was something the wine gentleman came up with," said the owner. "We thought he was crazy, but it worked perfectly."
Yes it did, and it was my introduction to the sometimes zany, sometimes serious and always insightful Etienne Hugel. Over the ensuing decades I met with Etienne several times and learned that he often came up with dishes to show off the versatility of his wines. Conscious that Alsace was a hybrid, viewed by many wine lovers (when it was viewed at all) as neither French nor German but something off the beaten track, he seemed never to tire of his uphill battle to help more and more people discover the pleasures of Alsatian wines. To be sure, he always poured the wine that carried his family's name on the label, but was equally a spokesperson for the entire region. Hugel is not a huge winery by global standards. Etienne told me they produced about 90,000 cases a year and while I imagine that number has risen since then, it was a sufficient production to assure that Hugel and the Trimbach family were the two largest producers in the region by far.
The thing I remember most about Etienne is the combination of seriousness of purpose and enjoyment of life he brought to his work. He always had a ready smile, and was always ready to pour a glass of wine for someone who had never tasted an Alsatian riesling, usually with a comment of, "I think you're going to love this." And people invariably did. He was the warmest and most compassionate of salesmen. He certainly appreciated that people loved the storybook look of Alsace and his home village of Riquewihr, but he cautioned that good wine was no fairy tale -- it comes from hard work and a partnership with the land. We talked about the food of Alsace (which I think is some of the best in France), and how exciting it was to see young winemakers drawn to this beautiful place.
He leaves a legacy of generosity and humility, qualities I think that go very well with a glass of riesling. I'm going to open a bottle now.