Berkeley restaurants

Jonathan Waters, wine director of Chez Panisse, dies after a bicycle accident

A beacon of the Bay Area’s wine and restaurant industry, Jonathan Waters died Saturday, May 28, at the age of 60, following a bicycle accident. He was the wine director of the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley for more than 30 years, influencing the rise in popularity of Californian and natural wine.

A van hit Waters as he was cycling home on Friday evening. He died of his injuries the following morning at Highland Hospital in Oakland, sending shockwaves through the Bay Area food and wine world.

While wine was at the center of his life’s work, Waters’ unusually serious approach to relationships struck a chord the most with friends, colleagues and patrons of Chez Panisse.

“He had a joy in his work and it was contagious,” said Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters (no relation to Jonathan Waters). “The staff felt like he was there for them and the customers loved him. Even when we were closed, they would come in and say, ‘Where’s Jonathan?’ »

Chez Panisse was a driving force behind the Bay Area’s farm-to-table movement, and Jonathan Waters’ wine list was equally influential: he brought California bottles to the fore at a time when most drinkers American winemakers sipped exclusively European wines. As a result, Jonathan Waters had an impact on the rise of some of the best-known wineries in California today, such as Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino and Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena.

Its restrained but vibrant wine list has given Chez Panisse an enduring reputation as a restaurant that allows local oenophiles to discover something new – fringe producers and natural wines – compared to the more famous or expensive bottles. Trends and critics’ ratings never guided his decision-making, according to several colleagues.

Jonathan Waters, known as Chez Panisse’s longtime wine director, started working at the Berkeley restaurant in 1984 as a busser.

Russell Yip/The Chronicle 2011

Jonathan Waters, also known as “Jonno”, was born in Cyprus and raised in England and Wisconsin. An avid soccer player, avid reader and devoted father, he joined Chez Panisse as a busser in the early 1980s and took over the wine program in 1989, although he did not have much wine experience. or in restoration. He also spent many years as Chez’s maître d’, although more recently he has taken time off to pursue other projects.

“I was just looking for people who had the right spirit. Jonathan was one of those people,” Alice Waters said. “He was just great with people. He had that kind of instant connection and a really big passion for wine.

Jonathan Waters has taken a hands-on approach to his wine education. He didn’t bother to get the traditional wine certifications or credentials, but instead learned directly from wine professionals. Debbie Zachareas, sommelier and co-owner of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, recalled Waters’ “poetic” ability to describe wines.

“He always found this incredible beauty in the way he described something,” she said. “He wanted to find out more about the producer and his family and who they were and tell that story. The whole backstory was also important.

Despite creating one of the best wine lists in the country, Jonathan Waters “flew under the radar,” added Zachareas. “There was no ego in anything he touched.”

Jonathan Waters brought attention to many small California winemakers at a time when most people preferred to drink European wines.

Jonathan Waters brought attention to many small California winemakers at a time when most people preferred to drink European wines.

Courtesy of Don Stephens

Instead, he brought fame to many small wineries.

For more than 30 years, Jonathan Waters has made the restaurant’s house red selection a Zinfandel from Green & Red Vineyard, located in Napa’s lesser-known Chiles Valley wine region. At least half of Green & Red visitors have discovered the winery through the restaurant, said Green & Red owner Tobin Heminway. “They sold one case a day,” she said. “That’s how integral we felt.”

Chris Brockaway, owner of Broc Cellars in Berkeley, said Jonathan Waters gave his natural wine brand one of its first big breaks — a shoutout in a San Francisco Chronicle article — and then a spot on the wine list from Chez Panisse. He recalled that Jonathan Waters would often turn up at his urban vineyard unannounced, dripping with sweat after a football game or a bike ride, to sample wine.

Friends and colleagues have described a “quiet elegance” in his way of working as well as his great sense of humor. He built a community, frequently inviting people over and cooking for them at his home, his daughter Hazel Waters said. “He could organize a meal from scratch on a whim,” she said. “My father loved people and gatherings. Home was his heart.

Jonathan Waters was known for his influential wine list at Chez Panisse as well as his great sense of humor.

Jonathan Waters was known for his influential wine list at Chez Panisse as well as his great sense of humor.

Courtesy of Tom Howells

Berkeley wine importer Kermit Lynch described Jonathan Waters as a Chez Panisse staple, ready to welcome him with a smile and a hug. “He made me feel like I was the best thing that had happened to him all day,” Lynch said.

At the restaurant, he was a natural mentor and leader.

“People, no matter what, just wanted to follow him. He was always very open and supportive,” said Sam White, co-owner of Ramen Shop in Oakland, former Chez Panisse colleague and close friend. “You know when you’re in a room full of people trying to make a decision and all eyes are on one person? It was that guy.

Waters is survived by her daughter, Hazel Waters, and her mother, Kate Razo; her father, David Waters; his brother, actor Mark Rylance; and his sister, Susannah Waters. A memorial ceremony is planned. More details will be posted on Ramen Shop social media. A GoFundMe has been set up to help support Hazel Waters, who will start college in the fall.

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]