Becky Wasserman

POSTED ON 02/01/2008

Becky Wasserman will be opening a special bottle this year: a Jean-Noël Gagnard Blanchot, a Beaune Grèves from Lafarge perhaps, or, if she’s feeling flush, a Mugnier Musigny. Why? Because she’ll be celebrating 40 years in Burgundy. Quite a feat for a woman who arrived as 20-something from New York with an artist husband and two young children in tow at a time when most Americans were travelling to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. Since she became involved in the wine trade, she has helped bring the joys of small domaine burgundy to an appreciative global audience and with it a greater understanding of what many consider the world’s greatest wine region.

Luckily for her, Becky met Aubert de Villaine, Romanée-Conti’s co-owner, soon after she arrived. As a bachelor, he was delighted to sup at the Wasserman table while Becky’s ex-prima ballerina mother sewed buttons on his shirts. Soon she was breaking bread with, among others, the Potels of Pousse d’Or, Hubert de Montille, Guy Roulot and René Mugneret in Vosne Romanée. Husband Bart was a great collector of Burgundy, and au pairs, and when Jean François of coopers François Frères, one of her neighbours, suggested she sell a few barrels, Becky, nurturing thoughts of independence, agreed.

Smoking Marlboroughs as she travelled with barrels in the back of the car in California made them distinctly smoky, though she claims no credit for the Mondavi Fumé Blanc introduced around that time. Her first order was to Mayacamas in 1976, and she soon got the hang of how to ship things, but the turning point was meeting Dick Graff of Chalone, and André Tchelistcheff. The latter, already on his way to becoming a legend, arrived in Burgundy one day with 40 hungry California growers. Translating for visiting California winemakers kicked off her viticultural education.

The 1980s were the heyday of the small is beautiful movement, which suited Becky’s style of business down to the terroir. She began exporting small burgundian domaines, first for Kermit Lynch, then with Christopher Cannan of years before going solo in 1986.
There were setbacks, but she stood by growers even when some of her customers went bust. With over 130 growers on her list, including Champagne and Loire, Becky’s Le Serbet, an all-woman company in which the team are known as Les Serbettes (husband Russell Hone is an honorary Serbette), has been knock-on-wood stable for a number of years.

Becky puts the reason why so many small domaines like working with her down to the fact that they have no stylistic shtick and people like fact that they work in non commercial quantities. Everyone in the team has to agree that they really like the wine before they take it on. Indeed the proud boast of her website is ‘we do not sell what we do not drink’, which, considering some of her growers, is also a rather pleasant one.

As a fan of wines that ‘aren’t too tarted up’ and ‘don’t go to war with food’, she’s concerned at the presence of ‘coca-chardonnay and coca-pinot’, but she is upbeat about today’s burgundy, even if she can’t stand the way that the hype surrounding the grands crus distorts not just prices but the way people think about the region. Despite that, she believes that change has largely been positive, pointing at a greater sense of ecological responsibility, better attention to the vineyard and the living soil, a move away from ‘exaggerated vinification’ and more openness as major steps forward.

Her travels have made aware that people are sceptical about burgundy because of price and its perceived complexity. But her self-appointed mission has been to try to do ‘very honest tastings’ with her customers to convince them that not only is burgundy not necessarily as expensive as they’ve been led to believe, but that it’s not as complicated as they thought either. ‘Our job is to defend burgundy and make people see it’s not that complicated once you get into it and you start to realize that individuality isn’t a bad thing’. In Becky’s case, individuality is not a bad thing at all.

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