Jonathan “Jonno” Waters, a Berkeley resident known to many residents of the East Bay and beyond as the longtime wine director of Chez Panisse, died on May 28 at age 60 following a collision with a driver at Shattuck Avenue and 55th Street in Oakland. His friends and family have come together here to share some remembrances of his life and his memorial service. Memories of Jonathan Waters and words of support can be shared via the college fund page for his daughter, Hazel. — Nosh editor Eve Batey
A community connector
Jonathan Waters was the sort of virtuoso – of wine, of generosity, of celebration – whose skills shone just as brightly in elegant dining rooms as they did in his own humble home. I remember the first time I was invited to Jonno’s house and how it didn’t matter that the wine and food were excellent (though they were) or that I won at the hilariously confusing word game we played over our empty plates (because I didn’t – Jonno did). What mattered was that this smiling, twinkly-eyed man immediately made it clear to me, and the other wine drinkers and game losers, how much he loved that we were there, with him, in his little rambling house under a redwood in West Berkeley.
There was something sacred about his home, as if, there in the shade of that redwood, people have been gathering for centuries to cook, eat and drink. And play parlor games, which Jonno did love, or rather, loved to win. But what Jonno really loved to do was connect. It was another of his skills: connecting. With dear friends or new guests over a glass of wine and deck of cards, with the community beyond Delaware Street and Shattuck Avenue, and especially with his wonderful daughter. I can feel the hollow place where the Jonno connection has been broken, burnt out, like the filament in a fuse. In time it will be repaired, but for so many of us, it will never be replaced. — Cal Peternell
Polite and profane
I met Jonno when he became the wine buyer at Chez Panisse, whenever that was. First I met the impeccably polite and hospitable Jonno and liked him immediately. I don’t remember how long it took to meet the wicked, hilarious, profane Jonno, but that’s when I fell in love with him.
That Jonno tried to teach me to wake up and appreciate the wonder of being here together in this ordinary moment. He didn’t allow me to be indifferent or forgetful of that wonder. He always asked what I was reading and how was my sex life, not that he really needed to know, he just wanted to remind me not to forget about those things. He didn’t care for luxuries because they just distract from the things that matter. If he loved you then he poked and annoyed you, with his little smile, I think he wanted to remind you not to waste this moment by being so goddamn passive. — Keven Clancy
So many stories
I’m a storyteller, but I haven’t known many people with a deeper repository of stories as Jonno had. I’d ask him about, I don’t know, his college tours with Hazel, and we’d be down some 10-minute rabbit hole about him doing his own college tour 30 years before, and wrecking a car in Texas on a beer run for a guy who owned 25 Ford Mustangs and him thinking “Oh, it’s cool, he’s got 24 left.” And my jaw’s on the floor and I’m thinking “Shit, all I asked was how’s your daughter?” This happened ALL the time.
I loved and cherished my friendship with him, and feel I learned so much about friendship from him. He knew so many people and inhabited so many circles, and his warmth and compassion made this all seem effortless. I envied and loved his ability to bring people together; he was like a universal binding ingredient. It’s one of the many reasons his loss is devastating; it’s on us to be that connective tissue ourselves. — Patrick Comiskey
A devilish wit
In so many ways, Jonno was like the wines he loved. To describe him requires a world that is adjective rich. To appreciate the whole of him, you’d definitely need some terroir in the mix: soil, soul, heart, the agony of the vine so deeply rooted in its place and time. Jonno was the personification of all of this – he brought a certain kind of abundance to all our lives that is hard to define. And to know him was to grasp all the complexity and beauty of a first, and a last sip.
Of course, he would have laughed at such a poetic opine, self-deprecating little leprechaun that he was. In his own words, he surely would have come up with something more scrappy or undeserving: an untended vine or something you’d send back like a corked fine wine. But his brand of devilish wit, his often disparaging self-view, was a part of his whole, and it brought many of us closer to his candid, refreshingly unposed soul. Jonno was a beautiful human and a wonderful man.
To Chez Panisse, and the huge extended family that loved him, his loyalty will live on. It was truly a filial affair. To so many of us, it felt as though he had always been there. And it was practically true! He spent more than half his life devoted to the restaurant. It will take as long, probably longer, to adjust to his absence there.
To me, as to so many others, he was a longtime, treasured friend. It would be hard not to want Jonno as your friend. He was so many things. Unexpected, charming, challenging, comforting and always pushing for some truth. He contained multitudes (Whitman/Dylan reference would not have been lost on Jonno!). The lightness and darkness in him blended into something that always felt familiar and true. He was a searcher. If you get to spend time with people who are searchers, you are lucky.
If you got to enjoy wine with Jonno, you are lucky.
If you got to learn a little, or a whole lot about wine from him, you are lucky.
If you got invited to his warm and sweet little cottage and longtime home on Delaware Street, you are lucky.
If you heard stories of his trouble-making days as a kid, you knew … he was lucky! (And that made you lucky to hear them.)
If you knew him as a parent, you are lucky.
If you know his beautiful daughter, Hazel, and recognize his sparkly eyes, dry humor, grace and goof in her as well, you are lucky.
If you got to spend time with them together, you are lucky.
If you can so easily hear his voice weave in and out of its English lilt, carried from parts of his time spent across the pond, you are lucky.
If Jonno called you beautiful, you were lucky. He meant it.
Jonno was as wild as he was civilized. Clever as he was sometimes untamed. He listened to records, collected first edition books, threw parties with games and had a stellar collection of vintage ties. He was a cook, an athlete, avid reader, inspiritor of life, and he pushed himself no matter what it was he set out to do.
And oh how he loved to rustle up trouble (mostly harmless), then co-opt you into his plan too. He’d perk up like a puppy who wakes you up in the night to play. “Let’s go! It’s time for fun and mischief together. Now!” His devilish eyes would say.
If you got to go camping with Jonno, or on a trip far away, you are lucky.
If you got to try and keep up on a run with Jonno, you were lucky.
If you got to drive tipsy on a darkened road at night, then jump naked into the sea and swim under a full moon’s light, you were lucky.
If you got a seat at the way past midnight Chez Panisse poker table, on many a never ending night, you were lucky.
If you ate staff meal on the roof of the restaurant, because it was forbidden, or he needed to have a heart-to-heart, you were lucky.
If you ever thought in wonder, how he remained so ageless, defying time in that “only Jonno,” kind of way, you are lucky.
Farewell good man, invincible friend. I know it will always feel like you cannot be gone.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Dylan Thomas. And I agree.
Our glasses are raised.
We will not let you go.
We will let you go, however painfully. — Hannah Love
Surrounded by love
Jonno was my mentor and best friend. He taught me how to work and play and be vulnerable. He taught me about true hospitality and service. The details like the “soft elbow” and using “may” instead of “can.” He was the master at making you feel welcomed and that you belonged.
He was also a pirate, a trickster and a gambler. There is always another game to play. Dollar bets on the random moments of life. Risky tosses of bottles and sharp instruments. High dives into frigid pools.
And the refrain was always, “On we go…” to the next hand, next story or next moment. Kind of Vonnegut but with a more Murakami magical dream state. Enough Knausgård to give it weight and sadness but King throughout to keep you riveted and wanting more.
Somehow it all added up to vitality and strength. Running miles, playing soccer games and then working till midnight. Cards after. An enviable ability to keep going to what’s next.
Even if he was a lonely boat in a big ocean he was being pursued by all of us other boats. Trying to match his speed and strength and sharp turns. He was surrounded by love and will be forever.
May he guide us into the next chapter with a knowing smile and an open heart.
On we go. — Sam White
A great mentor
Jonathan Waters aka Jonno! The one and only. One of the most caring, kind, elegant, humble, generous human beings! When he spoke, you can tell how kind he is from his voice.
We always called each other brother rather than our names. He was a big part of my chosen family, he was the biggest connector of our community. He was “the host,” “the cook,” “the poker dealer,” “the decider,” and a lot more. I am so lucky that I worked with him for years, he taught me tons about hospitality and wine. His generosity was not only about sharing his wine, food or books, but also his knowledge. He was a great mentor.
I will always remember him with his big laugh, unique gestures, sarcastic jokes, friendliness, and big hugs. — Zoti Turap
A profound memorial
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 12th, more than 475 people gathered in Berkeley to honor, pay tribute, and celebrate the extraordinary life of Jonathan Waters. Just two short weeks after his tragic and untimely death, this remembrance felt as legendary as the man himself.
Throughout the afternoon and late into the night, people from every part of Jonno’s life streamed into the outdoor site, a parking lot shared by Broc Cellars and Donkey & Goat Winery that had been transformed into a gathering space complete with a wine bar, poker tables, ping pong and a book exchange table, a pizza truck and an entire wheel of comte cheese.
Jonno, as he was known by most, had a devoted career in the service and wine industry, including over 35 years at Chez Panisse restaurant. He played soccer weekly, had dinner parties regularly and dedicated himself to his daughter, Hazel.
Having a seemingly endless network of people and friends whose lives he had touched deeply, the large turnout was anticipated, but no less moving and profound. Old friends, newer friends, co-workers, immediate family, even faithful customers who knew Jonno had touched through the years all came to share and reflect together on the memorable and inspiring way he lived his life.
One thing was clear: one of Jonno’s greatest achievements was the ability to share his boundless love and many passions with so many people. While the mood was equal parts contemplative and full of great sorrow, the event, co-organized with “industry flair” by some of Jonno’s closest friends, was deeply celebratory too.
Tributes included eloquent remarks made by his father and two siblings, his daughter and her mother and a close friend, closed out with a moving harmonica performance. His brother’s game of “whenever” engaged the whole crowd, with people shouting out such thoughts as “Whenever I jump into a cold mountain lake, I’ll remember Jonno,” “Whenever I see a first edition of Murakami, I’ll remember Jonno,” “Whenever I make roasted almonds with rosemary…” “Whenever I lose at a game of poker…” and best of all “Whenever I run into an old friend and it feels like no time has passed…”
The evening closed with sparklers held aloft, a fitting way to say goodbye to such a bright light. — Willow Blish and Hannah Love