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

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

A minivan struck Waters while he was riding his bicycle home on Friday night. He died from his injuries the following morning at Highland Hospital in Oakland, sending shockwaves through the Bay Area’s food and wine world.

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

“He had a joy about his work and it was contagious,” said Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters (in relation to Jonathan Waters). “The staff felt like he was there for them and the customers loved him. Even when we were closed, they’d 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 similarly influential: He brought Californian bottles to the forefront during a time when most American wine drinkers were exclusively sipping European wines. As a result, Jonathan Waters impacted the rise of some of California’s most well-known wineries today, such as Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino and Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helen.

His small yet dynamic wine list gave Chez Panisse a lasting reputation as a restaurant for local oenophiles to discover something new — fringe producers and natural wines — versus the most famous or expensive bottles. Trends and critic scores never drove his decision-making, according to several colleagues.

Jonathan Waters, known as the longtime wine director at Chez Panisse, began 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 both England and Wisconsin. A 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, despite not having much experience in wine or restaurants. He also spent many years as Chez’s maître d’, although more recently he took a leave of absence to pursue other projects.

“I was just looking for people who had the right spirit. Jonathan was one of those people,” said Alice Waters. “He was just great with people. He had this kind of instant rapport and a very great passion around wine.”

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

“He always found this amazing beauty in the way he described something,” she said. “He wanted to know about the producer and their family and who they are and tell that story. All of the backstory was equally important.”

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

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

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

Courtesy Don Stephens

Instead, he brought exposure to many small wineries.

For more than 30 years, Jonathan Waters made the restaurant’s house red selection a Zinfandel from Green & Red Vineyard, set in Napa’s lesser-known Chiles Valley wine region. At least half of Green & Red’s visitors learned about the winery through the restaurant, said Green & Red owner Tobin Heminway. “They sold a 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 shout-out in a San Francisco Chronicle article — and then a spot on the Chez Panisse wine list. He recalled that Jonathan Waters would often show up at his urban winery unannounced, dripping in sweat after a soccer game or bike ride, to taste wine.

Friends and colleagues described a “quiet elegance” to the way he worked as well as his great sense of humor. He built community, frequently inviting people over and cooking for them at his home, said his daughter Hazel Waters. “He could throw together a meal out of nothing on the spur of the moment,” she said. “My father loved people and gathering. The hearth 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 Tom Howells

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

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