Jonathan Waters worked at the Savoy in London, where he waited tables in black tie and learned Russian service. Then he started at Chez Panisse in 1984 as a short shift busser, running all the supplies around the packed restaurant. By 2000, he had taken over the wine program, managing the list as well as serving as maître d’. Jonathan’s tenure at Chez Panisse ran for well over three decades. He died suddenly on May 28, 2022.
For his family, his friends, his colleagues and the guests at Chez Panisse who came to know and love Jonathan over the course of his long tenure there, his passing is a tragedy and a loss we cannot overstate.
Patrick J. Comiskey, his long-time friend, says that “Jonathan was the first person guests at Chez Panisse saw when they eased into a beloved and memorable dining experience, made more memorable by his grace and joy, light and wit and spirit.”
Having interviewed Jonathan many times over the past decade about his approach to wine at Chez Panisse, I gathered some of his thoughts here. His voice resonates through these passages, a gentle, articulate voice I will never forget. —Joshua Greene
On Clos Rougeard 2006 Saumur Champigny Les Poyeux
That wine takes my heart away; I stop in my tracks. A piece of music does that; there are opera arias that make me pause and I don’t move. You almost need nothing else for a moment. We were serving it…and some people loved it. Still, I want them all to pause and have a divine moment. I want them to understand how amazing this wine is. It’s like when you show your favorite film to your girlfriend, and she says, ‘Yeah, it’s okay.’ If one likes things beyond a certain point, you have expect that not everyone will agree with you.
On “quiet wines”
If you think of the borders of a tasting impression, there’s acid, there’s fruit, funk, earth. The center of a quiet wine doesn’t announce itself immediately.
If you think of a still pond: The acidity and tannin are all at the edges, but in the middle of the wine, nothing is pushing itself forward. Sometimes the acidity rushes across to meet you, or the fruit is like wind that pushes right across the lake.
A quiet wine is when you have one or two beats of silence between a musical beat. The silence makes you want to taste the wine again. What’s happening there? It doesn’t tell you right away. Sometimes there is nothing there.
The food itself tends to be still—we don’t use too much spice. I tend to let the wine be a second fiddle to that, to find a wine that will pair gracefully rather than dramatically.
I pair wines that are not too tannic or too acidic. Sometimes one chooses a wine to walk in step with the food, or sometimes a wine to fence with the food. I tend to find wines that flow alongside, rather than contrast or oppose.
The waiters have taken to schiava and it goes really well with lots of our food through the winter…grignolino from Pavia, a wine with the same kind of structure…and the Chez Panisse zin, our house red [made by Green & Red in Chiles Valley]. Those are the glass wines waiters sell a lot here.
On the Chez Panisse house zin from Green & Red
We taste the wine every year—it’s the staff beverage, so we drink it a fair amount. We also have the advantage of having a zin festival where we pour ten vintages going back. Jay Heminway continues to tweak it, now using all estate fruit, a little syrah; he continues to make it better. We’re very happy with the relationship and it provides an inexpensive good glass of wine for our guests. It’s the cheapest red wine on our list.
He calls me every year and says: Do you want to order it again? It isn’t guaranteed, but I tell him, of course I do. Usually, I buy 350 cases a year, and I said I want to get 400 cases next year. We started doing this late night steak special after 9:30, which is late for Berkeley: one plate with shoestring potatoes, rocket salad and a glass of zin for $25. It was Alice’s idea. The kitchen was reticent at first, but it’s brought in a young crowd. It’s all young hipsters with their gorgeous girlfriends on dates. It’s clearly brought in a different crowd. When you run a restaurant you like drawing different people in and the late night steak has really done that. Like many ideas Alice has, they don’t seem like they will really work, but they do. That’s the genius I credit her with.
When we started wine pairings two or three years ago, I would decide by the week, look at the menus and set up all the pairings. The waiters would smile and use completely different choices on the evening they were there. Now, the waiters are the ones who decide for the evening what they are going to pair.
I realized they wanted to do it themselves. They are smart, with great wine knowledge. If they made the choice themselves, they would be behind the choice and it worked much better. I had not needed to be in charge. Now we talk about it.
The waiters are engaged in it. I welcome some of the waiters into my tastings, and I’ll bring something in that they want as long as they are behind it. Part of the wine is the belief and a story: The more the person who’s bringing you the wine is engaged, the more likely you will be engaged. If the person is bringing a wine they’ve been told to bring, they may not bring it with as much heart and you may not receive it as well.
On building a list
The domestic pinots really move quickly. None are very expensive; all have a little age on them. I have six to seven domestic pinots and probably twelve red Burgundies; half of them are on the reserve list.
One builds a list out of joy, and then replenishes a list based on what runs out. What do you need? I need pinot, I need Burgundy, I need chardonnay. I may be very intrigued to try some strange txakoli, but I am going to need to replenish that pinot section every week.
On being in the moment
In the dining room, you were there to connect with the people; you could follow through with that experience. I’m working the counter at the shop one or two days a week, but the experience is different; people are taking the wine home. You’re not there to take them through it. Did you read Michael Pollan’s book about psilocybin being used to treat depression [How to Change Your Mind]? People would do the drug in a controlled environment and that augmented the experience. With that person in the room with you, one moves forward with a comforting hand—it’s not just a mild augmentation. That’s what I was able to do at Chez Panisse, even if it wasn’t always my words or hands. You were still in a place, with people all around you, with the lights and the feeling. It wasn’t just trappings. Now, I sell wines by words written on paper; it’s different than being with the people, being in that moment.
A huge part of my role was customer contact. Now, it’s mostly just people picking up wine and leaving. I am writing notes for the website, but I’m writing into a silent void. I’m a person who loves connection; this is not my type of year. That was as much my role, to connect people to wines—the spark was as much of what I was interested in as the content, the spark that started the fire, not necessarily the wood itself. I’m not sure that will return. The future is a little hazy now.
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