Musings of a Wine Maven

HENRI BONNEAU, le DERNIER ADIEU

by Jerry Clark

Rue Joseph Duclos in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Henri Bonneau's family home is in the background, with green shutters, and his legendary wine cave lies behind the blue shutters. Photo by Jacques Navarre

WBA Winner Logo (post)I arrived at No. 35 Rue Joseph Ducos just in time to watch five men, led by son Marcel Bonneau, carry the casket of legendary winemaker Henri Bonneau (1938 – 2016)  from his long-time home to the 11th-century church Nôtre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, across the street.  In moments, it seemed, the casket had been carefully placed in the center aisle in front of the altar.  That was March 26th.

Just five days earlier, I had been in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with business associate Jacques Navarre; it was one of the stops on our ten-day visit to wine producers in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley.  I had not anticipated returning to  Châteauneuf-du-Pape, yet when I heard the news that Monsieur Bonneau had died, I immediately made arrangements to do so.  But I am getting ahead of my story.

On March 21st, I happened to find myself in the company of Madame Bonneau and her son Marcel. At the time, I had no idea who they were as they came out of the maison village with the light green shutters on Rue Joseph Ducos. On that morning, Jacques and I happened to be in the company of Robert Barrot, owner of Château des Fines Roches, one of the estates where we would be tasting wines as part of our trip.  He had walked us up to the highest point in the village, the remains of the summer Château of the Avignon popes, as it provided a complete panorama of the vineyards, contrasting those on the hillsides with those on flat land.

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People gather before funeral services outside Henri Bonneau’s family home, where he was born and lived all but two years of his life. Jerry Clark stands in the foreground. Photo by Jacques Navarre

On our return to the center of town, Madame Bonneau approached Monsieur Barrot in the street to let him know that her husband Henri was in a hospital in Marseilles due to serious complications of diabetes affecting one of his legs.

When he parted from them and rejoined Jacques and me he explained what he had just learned. I was dumbfounded when he made us aware of who he was speaking with, and, further, that I was standing in front of a small unobtrusive building—between numbers 33 and 35—that had served as wine cellar to the Bonneau family for several generations. There was a total lack of markings to advise what lay behind the ancient walls. I felt I had quite a story to tell my friends when I returned to America.

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This sign hung on the door of the pharmacy in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, providing details about services for Henri Bonneau. Photo by Jacques Navarre

Monsieur Barrot, was raised in the adjoining house to the Bonneau family, number 33. Though he and Henri drew their livelihood from the wine of the village, they would have been friendly regardless of the proximity of their homes, as Châteauneuf-du-Pape has only 2,000 residents.

Three days later, on the morning of March 24th, Jacques and I, still on our tour of wine producers, were in the cellar of négociant Tardieu-Laurent in Lourmarin, doing a barrel tasting of the 2015 vintage. When we got to their Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Bastien Tardieu explained it was 100% Grenache, I took the opportunity to relate my favorite anecdote attributed to Henri Bonneau:

“ Châteauneuf-du-Pape is Grenache. All the rest is like salt and pepper in the soup.”

Bastien nodded, and then said Mr. Bonneau had just died, at age 77. Again I was dumbfounded. He had passed away on the same day that we had crossed paths with his family. Over dinner that night I told Jacques I wanted to modify our schedule and to attend the funeral.

Though I have never had the opportunity to drink any of Bonneau’s renowned Réserve des Célestins, for me he was the “other face” of Châteauneuf-du-Pape . There are thirteen grape varieties permitted in the appellation, and Famille Perrin take special pride in using all of them in the making of Château Beaucastel. Given Bonneau’s focus upon a single grape and a lengthy aging practice, some folks would even say he was a maverick, yet his prices, especially when his wines show up at auction, outstrip the internationally known superstar properties like Chateau Beaucastel, Chateau Fortia, and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe.

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Rue Joseph Ducos in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Henri Bonneau’s family home (with the green shudders) is in the foreground on the right side, adjacent to his wine cave (with the blue shutters/door). The church where services for Monseiur Bonneau took place is across the street.

The Saturday morning of the service, on March 26, was warm and sunny, a significant contrast to the previous five days of classic Mistral intensity and cold. As the approximately 150 mourners settled into their pews, the priest stepped forward and began by telling us that we were here to say our final goodbyes to Henri. As an altar boy I had learned my Latin liturgy well enough. But that was a long time ago, and my attendance in church since Latin was discarded has greatly lapsed. Therefore, I was not familiar with the prayers in French, a language I speak better than comprehend. So I pretty much let the moment, more than the prayers, flow over me. It was solemn, as I expected it to be before entering. Only one lay speaker came forward, and for me he really set the tone for this final farewell. I would guess his age to be in the mid-thirties, and I immediately recognized him as someone standing at the door of No. 35 when I arrived, with a face of pure sadness, and at the brink of losing his composure. Now inside the church, in full control of his emotions, he told of the countless times as a younger man he had come to speak with Henri about his craft. Often Henri would invite him to stay and share a simple meal at the family table, and continue their dialog. He had lost both a mentor and a friend. All of us could feel his loss.

Forty minutes after it began, the funeral service ended, the casket was carried out to the attending hearse, and one by one the mourners exited, first giving their sentiments to his widow and son who were standing at the bottom of the church steps. I could only think to say to them was that I am an American who greatly appreciated the wonderful wines he made.

I believe I was the only American in church for his service. Initially I found that very strange. Where was Parker? Of the relatively few women present there was no Jancis Robinson. (London is a short flight, and Ryan Air can likely get one over for under a £100 , maybe under £50.) Then I relaxed and said it was surely much better this way.

The Bonneau family had been making wine long before the outside world took notice. (Monsieur Bonneau was the 12th generation of family winemakers.) Those that could most appreciate his winemaking talent were above, waiting for him. The monks preserved viticulture in the Dark Ages. For over a thousand years, they carefully improved upon what they were entrusted to protect. He would soon be with them – the Cistercians of Clos Vougeot, the Carthusians of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Benedictines of Macon and Chusclan. He would have little problem understanding them, nor them him, as what he practiced, and the cellar conditions in which he worked, would be very familiar to them.

But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so.
Benedicamus Domino.
Hilaire Belloc

Notes:

To learn more about Henri Bonneau and his winemaking, click here.

30 Comments

  1. This is an absolutely moving story, and I’m appreciation of the alignment that brought you to this memorial. Thank you so much for sharing this. What a winemaking life to reflect upon.

  2. Life comprises a myriad of special moments. Of all my stops along the wine trail this may turn out to be the most memorable.

  3. Fascinating, thanks!

  4. As Jill wrote above, the serendipity of it all is exceptional. What a memorable experience. So glad you shared it!

  5. Thank you for sharing this personal story.

  6. Jerry, you have a wonderful way with words! Each of your articles seem to be fascinatingly full of details (historical and current) and personalities that draw the reader into the story and experience being described. This article is no different and captures well a different experience entirely. It is a nicely done article. (By the way, say “Hello” to Jacques Navarre for me—I did not realize that he was a business associate of yours.) Gerry Nathe

  7. Gerry,
    Thank you for your comments. The world of wine is such a contrast from the graphic arts industry in which we labored so long. But I am finding great satisfaction there as well. Jacques is visiting me tomorrow and I will pass along your hello.

  8. This article made me cry for its sensitivity and respect for a man who is only physically gone. What strength he needed to be a diabetic in an industry that demands so much of your body. Diabetics are forced to pick and choose carefully what goes into their bodies, which proves Mr. Bonneau, as a winemaker, had to be discerning and could only make choices that provided the best results. I want to drink what he drank and take my last breath knowing that I have left a light shining, just like Mr. Bonneau. Thank you, Jerry! Thank you, Mr. Bonneau!

  9. I’m please for you, Jerry, that fate intervened allowing you to pay last respects to someone you respected so much in life. What a thing to happen upon. Lovely article.

  10. Pam,
    Thank you. I don’t think I can ever again drink a wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape without remembering that day.

  11. Claire Schmidt Jones June 10, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    The wonderful thing in life is to be able to take advantage of Where you are when you are There. In doing that you encounter and remember the richest moments. Thank you for taking me to that experience so far away from where I am.

  12. Claire,
    Mother was fond of saying things happen for a reason. I just knew I had to return to his service. There were too many signs laid out before me to ignore.

  13. Great read… Great wine.. Thank you!

  14. What a beautiful way to say goodbye to a lovely man and great winemaker.

  15. Great story!

    • I heard once that great stories write themselves. I certainly felt this was an event I had to attend, and then write about. So glad you enjoyed it.

  16. How glad to be you who can find out about the wine maker that was so legendary. If people are addicted about wine then they would not have missed this news. Wine always be an elegant beverage by its taste and color. Visit www. delogie.nl to know all about wine products

  17. Lady Tiara,
    Thanks for your comments. Godverdomme, its good to know that wine is so appreciated in Holland. By the way, that expression from your language exhausts 80% of my comprehension of Dutch.

  18. Thanks for sharing Jerry. Such a lovely and moving article.

    • Lil,
      I think about that day often. At a time of active vineyard take-overs, both here and in France, its nice to realize that the artisans still can make outstanding wines that take us back to the way it was done centuries ago. Such an artisan was Mr. Bonneau.

  19. Fantastic following you as always and look forward to your next adventure! We’d love to offer you a tour with us when next in Australia for a mention – come and enjoy our amazing Australian wines in the Spa Capital!

  20. Ah, that would be a pleasure. It’s been far too long since I have last traveled to your part of this planet.

  21. Your versions can be choice as well. I still have one of Charles Melton’s Nine Popes resting comfortably in the cellar here.

  22. Fantastic article of wine. This museum of wine seems to be amazing. Such a pleasure to read an article of wine from France.

  23. Very pleased that you enjoyed reading this piece.

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