In a year that's already been marked by losses in the wine world, the announcement that Etienne Hugel of Familie Hugel passed away on April 9 at age 57 came as a huge blow. Partly that's because of his significance—he was a tireless ambassador for the wines of Familie Hugel and of Alsace overall, whether in the U.S. or Asia or elsewhere, with an extraordinary gift for communicating their quality (and occasional complexity) with clarity and wit. But the loss seems particularly keen because of his personality as well. I can't say I knew Etienne Hugel closely, but I'd met him several times over the years, most recently at a lunch at New York's Marea restaurant at the end of February. He seemed then as he always seemed: full of life, wry wit, and an enthusiasm for wine overall that was impossible not to find infectious.
The trip he was on when we last met, together with his son Jean-Frédéric, was for the launch of a kind of rethinking of the wines from the 377-year-old estate: the creation of an Estate range of varietal wines; the introduction of its Grossi Laüe ("great growth" in the Alsace dialect) line, drawn from the family's three top vineyards in Riquewihr; and the release of Hugel's remarkable new 2007 Schoelhammer Riesling, drawn from a single plot in the grand cru Schoenenbourg vineyard (and one of the best white wines I've tasted yet this year). As always the conversation was far-ranging—I learned from Etienne for the first time the German term "dreimänner wein" (three-man wine), which means a wine so tart it takes two men to hold down the other and make him drink it—and, as usual, was full of high spirits. I've always felt that a lot of people enter the wine business because of wine, but they stay in it because of people like Etienne Hugel. He will be missed by many.