Jean Hugel, who died aged 84 on Tuesday 9th June 2009, was one of the outstanding figures of France's wine industry, decorated by the French government and adored by wine lovers throughout the world.
He was born Jean Frédéric on 28th September 1924, but was better known as Johnny. During the Second World War, he shared the fate of many of his countrymen by being called up for military service for the 'wrong' side. He chose the air force, and spent much of the war in Italy forever training for various roles, from bomber-navigator to medical orderly.
He returned to Riquewihr on VE Day and immediately resumed his studies in Bordeaux and Montpellier. Hugel et Fils was a much respected house in Alsace, dating to 1639; in 1948, Johnny took over the running of the business with his brothers Georges and André. Johnny took charge of the vineyards, making the wine and then selling it. In all three capacities, he was entirely successful, and over the next 50 years ensured that Hugel wines were exported and admired all around the world.
He was a tireless ambassador, not just for Hugel but for the whole of Alsace. He worked on the commission that marked out the Alsace grand cru boundaries, but its conclusions were watered down by Paris mandarins who, trying to please certain powerful lobbies, made the grands crus too many and often too big. As a result the term 'grand cru' has never appeared on a Hugel label.
Johnny more successfully presided over the creation of two new appellations: Vendanges Tardives (VT) and Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN), which created the necessary framework for the production of sweet wines in Alsace. These are some of the strictest wine laws to be found anywhere in the world. On retirement, the job of presiding over VT and SGN passed to his kinsman, Pierre Trimbach.
Johnny's retirement was first mentioned in 1997 and then again in 1998. His nephews, Etienne, Marc and Jean-Philippe even created a cuvée in his honour, Homage à Jean Hugel. But while this gesture produced some wonderful wines, notably a 1998 gewurztraminer of great purity, and a marvellously concentrated Riesling from the same vintage, Johnny never fully retired. He continued serving the interests of the business with the same commitment, zeal and humour as before, and lending support to his talented nephews.
'People who like wine are nicer than people than those who do not like wine' was one of his many sayings. Johnny's own tastes were catholic and he was an authority on other wine regions as well as his own. There was never any sparkling wine at Hugel because he always said that 'Champagne is better'.
Johnny was a great friend of The Society, and was a member himself. His annual series of tastings , often with Gérard Jaboulet, who shared the same agent, were eagerly anticipated and always sold out. One of his last appearances here was at a Society dinner held at Glyndebourne where he was a frequent visitor. In 2004, The Society's Committee of Management held a dinner at the Traveller's Club to honour his 80th birthday.
His last bottle was one of his own: a riesling Selection de Grains Nobles from the seminal 1976 vintage.
Johnny Hugel is survived by his wife Simone, his two daughters, Dominique and Judith and by four grandchildren.