People

Celebrating the Life of Jean-Luc Le Dû

Professionals throughout the industry share their remembrances of the legendary sommelier and retailer

Photo on left by Bob Gruen. Top right: Jean-Luc Le Dû and Michael Skirnik. Bottom right: Jean Luc Le Dû and David Bouley.

While many reveled in post-holiday relaxation this week, the New York wine scene was jolted by the unexpected passing of Jean-Luc Le Dû, one of the city’s most prominent sommeliers and fine-wine retailers. A self-made industry success, Le Dû was an inspiration to many, a neighbor to some, and most of all, a dear friend to anyone lucky enough to have been part of his life.

“There are people who make the world better by what they do, and people who make the world better by who they are. Jean-Luc was both,” says JT Robertson, the general manager of Le Dû’s Wines, in New York City. Robertson worked alongside Le Dû for seven years, and he recounted the endless laughter, warmth, and generosity that Le Dû brought into his life—and the lives of his colleagues and customers. “Now that he’s gone,” Robertson says, “there’s a little less shine in the world, and his absence in death looks to loom just as large as his presence in life.” He notes that while many friends and acquaintances will write about Le Dû’s passion for wine, his passion for people was far greater.

Photo by Yannick Benjamin.

Yannick Benjamin, the head sommelier of the University Club in New York City and a cofounder of Wheeling Forward, an organization that supports recently disabled people, recalls Le Dû as a friend and mentor who helped change his life’s path. “I was in a car accident in 2003,” Benjamin says, “and prior to that, I was already working in restaurants; I had already made the decision to be a sommelier.” After his accident, Benjamin found himself a paraplegic, and he had to confront the challenges that his new physical condition would present in his career. After many health problems, including infections and surgeries, Benjamin returned to his post at the Ritz-Carlton New York, though he replaced his time on the floor with office work.

A mutual friend suggested that Benjamin meet Le Dû, who, coincidentally, was born in the same small village that Benjamin’s father was from. “I was going in for surgery for this infection in my leg,” says Benjamin, “and when I was in the hospital, sure enough, I see a missed call; I listen to my voicemail, and it was Jean-Luc. But I was so down in the dumps about getting surgery, I didn’t want to talk. Talk about bad timing.” Benjamin recounts that after a few weeks, in September 2005, he finally had the courage to go meet Le Dû in person. “He was so gracious,” he says, “and he was unbelievably kind—and at that moment in my life, to be quite honest, I was really almost giving up hope that I was going to be able to find work in the wine and hospitality industry, let alone find work as a paraplegic; when you’re trying to find work in an industry that’s very image driven, it’s challenging.” Le Dû received Benjamin with open arms, excited that he’d finally made it into the store. And although Le Dû didn’t have a position for him immediately, Benjamin proposed a makeshift internship at the shop, suggesting that he work as a stagiaire. Le Dû agreed.

Benjamin worked at Le Dû’s Wines until September 2017. Le Dû supported his continuing education throughout that time, as Benjamin completed his Advanced Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers, finished second and third place in two America’s Best Sommelier competitions, and finished his college degree. “It was all due to his love, his care, and his support of me,” says Benjamin. “I don’t think I would’ve accomplished any of those things if I didn’t land in that store. It forever changed me. I am who I am because of that.”

Jean-Luc Le Dû and Yannick Benjamin.

Forging His Own Path

A New York native for more than 25 years, Le Dû was born in Gourin, France, a small town located in the country’s coastal region of Brittany. It wasn’t wine that first brought Le Dû to the States in the mid-1980s, but rather his passion for music. A lover of all things rock ‘n’ roll, Le Dû headed to America with dreams of pursuing rock music—that is, until a 1964 Cheval Blanc found its way into his glass. Le Dû was instantly hooked and took various positions in some of New York’s most esteemed restaurants, where he could get his hands on his newfound passion. As his palate developed, so did his esteem for small, lesser-known producers.

In 1995, Le Dû accepted a sommelier position at Restaurant Daniel, where he worked for nearly a decade, greatly expanding the restaurant’s wine program and winning the hearts of the restaurant’s regulars, one bottle at a time. Though it wasn’t only the wine that won them over; it was also Le Dû’s dynamism and exuberant passion for his craft. While he was at Daniel, awards trailed him, including Best Sommelier Northeast America in the 1997 Sopexa Competition, Wine Spectator magazine’s Grand Award in 2002, and the James Beard Foundation’s 2003 Award for Outstanding Wine Service. But recognition was never what mattered to Le Dû. Passion was always his driving force, leading him to the next step in his career.

Philippe Marchal met Le Dû in April 2001 while interning at Daniel, where Le Dû was then head sommelier. Le Dû offered Marchal an assistant position, which led to a three-year working partnership at the top restaurant. “It was the most intense and passionate moment of my sommelier career,” says Marchal, who is now the portfolio manager for Austria, Germany, and France at Massanois Imports in New York City. “I learned so much with him, especially the wines of Spain, Italy, and Australia, as well as the auction business. I learned to work with a rock star.” Marchal says he discovered Le Dû’s passion pretty quickly, and he describes the lively atmosphere Le Dû created at the restaurant, including the nonstop playing of the Clash and the Ramones in the cellar. “He showed me New York by night as well,” says Marchal. “It really was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Le Dû’s energy for all things new, including producers, appellations, and vintages, is something Marchal will never forget. Carrie Marchal, Philippe’s wife and a former David Bowler sales rep, notes that Le Dû’s hiring of Phillippe set the stage for her to meet her future husband. “When I’d call on Jean-Luc at the store,” she recalls, “he always joked [about] how he should get all the credit for my happy love life.”

Matthew Conway, the general manager and beverage director of the restaurant Marc Forgione in New York City, recalls a unique happenstance in the Rhône Valley with the legendary vigneron Thierry Allemand, which intriguingly led back to Le Dû. Conway describes his initial interaction with Allemand as somewhat guarded and cold, though after some discussion (and wine, of course), Allemand invited him down to his personal cellar to find a bottle to share. “He decided on a bottle of 1999 Sans Soufre,” says Conway, explaining that Allemand proceeded to reveal the history behind this now relatively well known cuvée. “He let us know that a guy that he had enormous respect for in New York, named Jean-Luc Le Dû,  had come to taste with him in the mid-‘90s.”  Allemand recounted that he’d made a small amount of wine without sulfur, and he offered Le Dû a taste of his newfound experiment. “Jean-Luc tasted those wines,” says Conway, “and was so enamored with them, and so excited about them, that he wanted Thierry to bottle wine in a large amount with no sulfur.” Allemand explained to Conway that his gut reaction was to say no, though after much persuasion—and an agreement from Le Dû to pay up front—he took the plunge. Thirty cases were bottled, 20 of which were sold directly to Restaurant Daniel. Though sulfur-free wines are somewhat common now, the concept was practically unheard of (in America). Le Dû was buying them for a fine-dining restaurant two decades ago.

“He believed in the producer and the region, and to pay up front for a sizable quantity—that stuck with me,” says Conway. “And the next time I saw Jean-Luc, I had the conversation with him about how special it was, and he was so humble. I’m not sure if that program [sans soufre] would exist if Jean-Luc didn’t show the confidence in Thierry to bottle that wine. I couldn’t think of a better testament than someone who believed in somebody, changed the way they did something. I was very impressed by his foresight and humble nature.” Conway remembers Le Dû as a powerful and thoughtful person, not just in the New York City wine community but the wine world at large.

In 2005, Le Dû opened his namesake retail shop on Washington Street, in New York’s West Village neighborhood. Since then, the spacious, sleek space has showcased Le Dû’s favorite producers, mostly small and artisanal vignerons, from Montefalco to Montrachet, and everything in between. His passion for music, playing guitar, traveling, and art was always intertwined with his love for wine.

A Day in Paris

I was lucky enough to see for myself how easily his passions mingled. By a twist of fate, Jean-Luc and I happened to be in the City of Lights at the same time, in 2016. Although we’d been friends in New York for just a few short years, we decided to meet for lunch on a cold winter day on Rue Daguerre, in the quiet 14th arrondissement of Paris. I walked up to the restaurant and spotted him before he noticed me—red plaid shirt; blue, thick-framed glasses; and laughing on FaceTime with a friend. I approached him, and he immediately hung up, jumping up and squeezing me tight, pulling my seat out to settle me in across from him. For the next hour and a half, we sat on the enclosed terrace of a simple bistro, laughing over cheap Loire Valley reds and chain-smoking Parliament Lights until the waiter finally brought us our bill. Neither of us had plans for the rest of the day, and by coincidence, we found ourselves just around the corner from Paris’s Catacombs, an underground exhibit that, surprisingly, neither of us had ever been to. We chugged one last glass of wine and ventured over.

Photo by Vicki Denig.

For the next hour, we crawled through the underground tunnels scattered with bones, taking pictures of each other and making up stories of what might have been the lives of each of the perfectly placed skulls. After the tour concluded, we wandered through the Luxembourg Gardens in a wine-induced haze, slowly made our way to Fnac so that he could buy an album he’d been hunting for. On entering the store, his eyes lit up, and he started grabbing CDs and albums every few feet, asking me which songs I knew and scolding me for “not knowing the classics.” When we checked out and exited the store, he pulled a purple CD from the plastic bag and handed it to me, informing me that I needed it, that I’d love it, that I must listen to it as soon as I returned home. We stopped at a bar, drank another Leffe, and headed to Le Comptoir to end the day with a glass of wine and dessert. I’ll never forget the way he asked me to take his picture, because he was “as happy as a pig in shit.” This photo will always be my favorite of him.

Jean-Luc, your mark on New York’s wine industry will never be forgotten, though more importantly, the personal impact you’ve had on the lives you’ve touched will allow your legacy to continue far beyond your years. We love you relentlessly.

Remembrances of Jean-Luc Le Dû

(If you have a story or anecdote you’d like to share, please send it to us: erica@sevenfifty.com.)

From Chris Wilford, owner of the wine bar Denizen, in Brooklyn, New York: “I remember Jean-Luc coming over to one of my first Vino & Vinyl parties at my place. He brought a big case of 45s from his old DJ’ing days in Brittany. Nobody could get an album on for an hour! Finally my buddy (not in the wine biz) came up to me and said, “Hey, who’s that dude bogarting the table?!”  We had a good laugh and a great time. He came and guest DJ’d at my wine bar, Denizen, back in July—sadly, [it was] the last time I saw him but a memory I will hold on to forever. RIP, brother.”

From Yannick Benjamin, describing Le Dû’s generosity and willingness to help his nonprofit organization, Wheeling Forward, whose first event raised over $20,000 and was held at Le Dû’s shop: “Every time that we help another person with a disability transition from a nursing home to independent living, every time we do household modification or help, Jean-Luc’s legacy will be part of it, because we were able to generate that first base of money at the store. He so generously shared his client base so they could come and support us. He was totally about what we are: quality of life.”

From Yukari Sakamoto, chef, sommelier, shochu advisor, and author of Food Sake Tokyo: “I was a student at the French Culinary Institute in NYC in 2000. I was also simultaneously studying wine with the American Sommelier Association. Jean Luc allowed me to volunteer in the cellar at Daniel. Each time a distributor came by with wine he would invite me to join in on the tastings. It was invaluable experience, from stocking the cellar to helping put together the wine list as vintages and inventory was constantly changing. One of the memories that sticks in my mind the most was when I had dropped a half-bottle of wine that broke with a loud crash and splash. Jean Luc came around the corner and told me not to worry, adding that I was lucky that it was not too expensive of a wine. Phew! I moved to Tokyo and was the sommelier at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Grill & Bar. Was so happy to see Le Du Wines in the Village on return visits to NYC. Thankful for Jean Luc’s kindness and generosity. Still in shock.”

From authors and writers Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg: “The genesis of our 2006 book What to Drink With What You Eat (in which Jean-Luc was featured) goes back in part to our fascination with two interviews we did with sommeliers for our 1998 book Dining Out—one with Larry Stone, and the other with relative upstart Jean-Luc, who had just taken on the role of sommelier at Daniel at the time we spoke with him. We bonded with Jean-Luc over our shared love of music, and he definitely kindled our love both of wine and of wine and food pairing (including introducing us to Banyuls as a seemingly magical way to make two chocolate lovers even more crazy about a chocolate dessert). After spotlighting him in a five-page sidebar in Dining Out, we were thrilled when a short time later Daniel—with Jean-Luc at the wine program’s helm—was nominated for and soon thereafter won the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Wine Service Award.  Jean-Luc has been a trusted resource for us over the years, as both wine expert (whose expertise we drew on while writing about wine for The Washington Post) and wine retailer (whose store we loved to patronize, as did many of our friends we turned on to it). We will miss him dearly.”

From John Hintz, of New York-based Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C.: “I got engaged and married at Restaurant Daniel in 2002.  In preparation for the wedding, we met with Jean Luc, who had a few bottles of red and white for us to try.  I still remember the wines we selected, but what I remember most clearly is how I joked that all we needed would be some Chateau d’Yquem to go with the dessert course.  Without hesitation, Jean Luc said that he had a double magnum of 1990 that he would sell me (at a price I will not mention, but it was a very good price).  Needless to say, my guests were impressed by all the wines, but particularly the d’Yquem as most of them had never had it before (and some had never even heard of it).  I still have the empty bottle in my apartment as a keepsake. Although we only knew each other through Restaurant Daniel from that first meeting and when I would see him working when I had dinners at Daniel thereafter, I was fortunate to sit next to Jean Luc at a small dinner of friends (and friends of friends) within the last year or so through my friendship with Markus Draxler, former maitre d’ of Daniel.  Jean Luc was gracious in saying that he remembered that I had purchased the d’Yquem, but that did not matter to me. What mattered to me was how full of life he was.  I thoroughly enjoyed that evening, I regret not getting to know him better over all these years.”

Vicki Denig is a New York-based wine and spirits journalist and wine educator, discovering the world through the lens of a glass, one sip at a time. When not tasting or traveling, she can most likely be found running through Astoria Park or sipping on Cabernet Franc.

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