As her wine broking business nears its 35th anniversary, Becky Wasserman’s unofficial role as one of Burgundy’s most eloquent ambassadors is firmly cemented. She reflects on her journey with Rosi Hanson
Wasserman at a glance
Born January 1937, Manhattan, New York City
Parents Father, stockbroker; mother, Romanian ex-prima ballerina and dancer
Education Mrs Glave’s School, Rudolf Steiner School, Hunter College High School, New York; Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
Family Husband Russell Hone; sons, Peter and Paul Wasserman, three step-children, five step-grandchildren
Interests Cooking, reading, music
Awards Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole
Company Le Serbet, leserbet.com
When Becky Wasserman moved from Philadelphia to Burgundy in 1968, she had no idea of starting a wine business. With her then husband, an artist, she thought it might be a good place for their two small sons to grow up. They rented a house in the tiny village of St-Romain and looked for somewhere to buy. She certainly did not expect that years later she would be credited with helping to shape Burgundy’s current reputation. ‘That sounds so pompous!’ she protests.
Another new arrival in Burgundy that year was Aubert de Villaine. They became friends, sharing a love of music, wine and food. De Villaine, director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, has a great respect for all that Wasserman has achieved.
‘Becky has understood Burgundy better than anyone else,’ he says. ‘she can explain it – this makes her one of the best ambassadors for Burgundy in the world, especially in the US. There is no-one better, because she is capable of speaking about the “climats de la Bourgogne” – the terroirs – in a way that is practical, not just intellectual, from all she has learned from the vignerons.’
Change of career
Wasserman trained as a classical musician but found herself in need of a job to support herself and her young sons following her divorce.
‘Opportunity is everywhere – I looked for what I could do,’ she says. having lived in St-Romain, she knew the nearby barrel makers François Frères and she set out to sell French oak barrels to American winemakers. Soon she was also representing Taransaud barrels in the US and making contacts in the Californian wine world. Those contacts were of interest to some of her local friends, the winemakers in the Côte d’Or.
Michel and Noelle Lafarge and Gérard and Anne-Françoise Potel asked her to take them to visit Californian vineyards. ‘People were thrilled to meet them, especially michel who was then mayor of Volnay,’ she recalls. ‘someone said, “look at his hands” in tones of awe. They were vigneron’s hands, typical of someone who worked among his vines.’
After that a few people asked if she could put together a little list. ‘My trips to sell barrels financed the air fares and that was the beginnings of the wine sales. Aubert suggested some growers on the Côte Chalonnaise, and I chose two from St-Aubin for that first list. I knocked on doors of “continental” restaurants on my next trip. I just told them we had some wonderful wines – I didn’t have any samples. One day, back at my cheap motel, a tough-looking guy appeared and said his boss wanted to see me. I was whisked off, rather nervously; the boss could have been from central casting, he wanted to know what I was doing on his turf.’
Undaunted, in 1979 she started Le serbet, her wine selection and exporting business, and gave up selling barrels. ‘It was all catch-as-catch-can, born out of desperation really. It was so small; I was selling tiny amounts,’ she says. ‘There was no business plan – I made all the mistakes in the book. When I started, there was no marketing or branding – that language didn’t exist. There was no wine media. It was an era with a certain innocence to it.’
In those days few American consumers visited France. she realised that growers who were able to travel attracted attention. Grower visits and tastings became a big feature in the marketing of small estates by Le Serbet. ‘I saw a certain emotion when wine drinkers had a chance to meet the people who actually tilled the soil and made the wine. It was very gratifying for the growers and me.’
The relationship Wasserman has with growers, whether she represents them or not, is remarkable. At the recent celebration of 35 years of the company there were 75 domaines present, 55 of them part of the ‘Le Serbet family’, as she likes to call it. She inspires affection. De Villaine says there is a reason. ‘In regard to business, she has always been very courageous about difficulties caused by bad debts and made sure her vignerons have not suffered. She has set an important example to others in Burgundy.
Apart from her intelligence and culture, she has other qualities – modesty and an absence of egoism – she is never working for her own benefit.’ In 1997 she was made Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole, for services in promoting the wines of Burgundy throughout the world. The ceremony took place at DRC with some of her local supporters there to celebrate – François Faiveley, Michel Lafarge and Dominique Lafon, who had worked for Le Serbet before taking over the family domaine.
At the request of importers, Wasserman runs educational symposia for their customers. These take the form of an in-depth analysis of a terroir, with Burgundy experts such as Jasper Morris MW or Allen Meadows guiding the tastings and vineyard visits. In the evenings the participants drink the wines over dinner in the company of their makers.
Putting wine on the table has always been important to Wasserman. An eclectic crowd, relaxed, conversation – this is, she believes, the best way to communicate a love of Burgundy. Le Serbet could not afford to entertain clients in restaurants, but this has turned out to be an asset. Over the years, hundreds of people have enjoyed sitting at the massive wooden table in the converted barn where she lives. She serves simple but delicious food, usually cooked by her husband Russell (pictured with Becky below), although she herself is an excellent cook, to go with wine from her chosen growers, whether they be simple commune bottles or grand crus.
‘She has always worked to make people understand that Burgundy is not just about grands crus,’ says de Villaine. ‘There are many wines that are little known, modest labels that are also part of the pride of Burgundy – she has championed well-made examples as a counterbalance to people like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.’ She has introduced consumers to younger winemakers, among them Benjamin Leroux, David Croix and David Moreau. She is still enthusiastic about emerging talents: Sylvain Pataille, an oenologist in Marsannay, is one she thinks fascinating.
Wasserman has seen a big change during her career. ‘Pinot Noir was seen as a weak and temperamental grape when I started. Burgundy had already been around but people were afraid of it. They thought it was going to be unstable. Now they are willing to try it. White Burgundy was more appreciated but now that Chardonnay is planted all over the world it is less associated with Burgundy.
‘When I started working with Frédéric Mugnier, no one liked the wines – they were too pure. It was still an era when commentators wanted big wines, with – hideous vocabulary – “mouthfeel”. What Frédéric does has almost engendered a whole school. The wines have transparency, not opaqueness.
‘The generation of growers who are in their 50s, such as Christophe Roumier in Chambolle-Musigny, look back at a time when they concentrated on work in the vat-house and cellar. Now it is all about the soil. Customers are very up on it – they have much more knowledge about this patch of ground that is geologically most complicated.’
Wasserman shows no sign of retiring. ‘I hope to continue to make the case for lesser-known Burgundies,’ she says. ‘This is not a battle that has been won. A splendidly eccentric cellar could be created with only Beaune or Nuits premier crus – there are 40 premier crus in Nuits-St-Georges alone. I especially like Les Chaboeufs and Aux Cras. I’d like to create an interest in Beaune; Pertuisots and Les Aigrots are two favourites.
‘My current thing is to get people to drink appropriately – there are times for grands crus, but not at every meal. Pierre Morey does not drink his Meursaults every day. He told me that in the summer he prefers to drinks his Aligoté and Bourgogne Blanc. That is what I mean about “appropriate” drinking.’
I wondered how she feels about the purchase of vineyards by rich outsiders. ‘Parcels of vineyards here have been bought and sold for many years without creating headlines. The day that we hear about someone purchasing a hectare of old-vine Aligoté, I will celebrate,’ was her response.
Rising prices also create headlines. ‘There are still Burgundies for every pocketbook,’ she says. ‘I do not begrudge a vigneron his or her right to bank some money against unpredictable hailstorms, inheritance issues, and the cost of replanting. I can no longer afford Richebourg but am delighted with an occasional brilliant red Corton.’
Her company has grown organically. ‘I have a great team, my sons are both now intensely involved, which is important to me, and I want that to continue. Our part of the wine business is very workaday. We do it for the wonderful moments – sitting round a table drinking an absolutely beautiful bottle. No one speaks. It’s like falling in love and not blabbing about it!’
Rosi Hanson is a freelance wine, food and travel writer
Written by Rosi Hanson