A Farewell to Becky Wasserman, a Great Sage of Burgundy
Whenever I had the opportunity to visit Burgundy, I would look forward, if possible, to seeing Becky Wasserman. Ms. Wasserman, an American wine …
Whenever I had the opportunity to visit Burgundy, I would look forward, if possible, to seeing Becky Wasserman.
Ms. Wasserman, an American wine broker in Burgundy who died on Aug. 20 at 84, ran something of an open house for wine travelers, whether for lunch at her office in Beaune, practically upstairs from the legendary restaurant Ma Cuisine, or for dinner at her home, a cluster of ancient stone buildings in Bouilland, a tranquil backwater west of Beaune.
These gatherings were great fun. You were assured of a warm welcome, excellent company and great conversation. The wines were invariably fascinating, served with simple, wonderful food — a hearty soup, stew or roast chicken — usually prepared by Ms. Wasserman’s husband, Russell Hone, a droll Englishman who was as towering as Ms. Wasserman was short.
What I cherished most of all, though, was that I could always count on Ms. Wasserman for a good dose of wisdom.
Ms. Wasserman understood Burgundy. She understood wine and she understood people. And she could explain things in a way that was enlightening, offering not just answers but insights.
In 2008, when I was writing an article countering the long-held reputation of red Burgundy as a frequently disappointing minefield of unreliable quality, I visited Ms. Wasserman. She agreed with my overall point, but she cautioned me not to make too much of consistency.
“Burgundy is and will always remain the anti-product,” she told me. “Burgundies react differently according to their age, according to the weather, according to the ambience. It’s nice to have natural things that react.”
Throughout her long career in wine, which began a few years after she moved to Burgundy in 1968, Ms. Wasserman often served as a sage, sharing knowledge hard-earned in her early days, when she was often the only woman in the room. Not only did she introduce Americans to a wide array of vignerons whose bottles would become among the most coveted and treasured in the world, she helped people learn how to think about wine, not by instruction but through example.
To her, good wine, especially Burgundy, was not merely a tasty beverage in a glass. Nor was it a collector’s item, to be invested in for profit.
Instead, good wine was something personal, cultural and historic, produced by people with the deepest respect and understanding of their land and vineyards. She once quoted to me Hubert de Montille, an influential vigneron in the Côte de Beaune, with whom she worked.
“He said, ‘My vineyards were here before I was born, they will be here after I die, it is up to me to honor or dishonor them,’” she told me. “That still sends a shiver. I didn’t realize they had thought about the vineyards so personally.”
Ms. Wasserman’s wisdom was in part the result of timing and experience. She witnessed Burgundy’s metamorphosis from a weary, insular society, still beholden to suspicion and distrust fomented in World War II, through an unfortunate embrace of modern technology and chemical shortcuts in the 1970s and ’80s to, finally, embracing the crucial importance of conscientious agriculture and transparent winemaking, and so becoming the world’s most prized and influential wine region.
In the process, as the greatest wines, the grand crus, reached stratospheric prices, she fought against fetishizing them, promoting instead the region’s more earthbound, humble bottles to a world that looked only to the skies.
Ms. Wasserman began her business in the 1970s after an earlier marriage had broken up, leaving her a single mother with two young sons, Peter and Paul. She began selling French barrels to California winemakers. This led to an increasingly clear understanding of the intricacies of Burgundy terroir and wines. Slowly, she transitioned to identifying promising young producers and putting them together with American wine importers.
“The content of a barrel in the end was more enticing than a barrel itself,” she said on Levi Dalton’s wine podcast, “I’ll Drink to That.”
Back then, Burgundy was still dominated by big négociants, merchants who bought grapes or wine from vignerons and bottled and sold it under their own labels. The merchants prospered, not the farmers, who were often subject to arbitrary price changes or decisions not to buy grapes at all, if the merchants decided the market warranted such a drastic step.
Over the course of the 20th century, such actions compelled farmers holding unsold grapes to begin bottling wines themselves, under their own labels. What began as a gradual movement accelerated during Ms. Wasserman’s years in Burgundy. Often, she was the conduit by which a new producer could be introduced to the rest of the world.
But she was not solely motivated by commerce. She wanted wines that expressed her sense of Burgundian culture and flavor. “If we don’t drink it, we don’t sell it,” was the mantra for what became known in the 21st century as Becky Wasserman & Company after her sons joined her in the business.
“Burgundy is byzantine,” she told The Times in 1982. “It’s intricate, full of nuances, complexities. But only a few winemakers are making wines with these qualities. They are the wines I look for.”
Even back then, Ms. Wasserman foresaw that Burgundy’s future lay in re-embracing the sort of agriculture that predated chemical farming, which permitted both grapes and wines to be more expressive. One of her earliest business acquaintances was René Lafon of Domaine Comtes Lafon of Meursault.
“He’s considered a rebel because he sticks to tradition,” she said in 1982. Years later, with Burgundy’s best producers agreeing that wines were far better when not farming with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, it became common to hear them speak of adopting the methods of their grandparents.
“Today’s heroes and heroines work the soil,” she told me in 2008. “This was a big change.”
Ms. Wasserman was nonetheless empathetic with Burgundy’s farmers, even if she disagreed with what they were doing.
“I think one forgets that in Burgundy after the war it was not easy to get things going again,” she told me. “People left school at 12 to go to work, and when they were sold on something that made work a little easier, you have to understand them.”
Her portfolio eventually came to include established domaines like Lafon, Simon Bize, Michel Lafarge, Denis Bachelet, Sylvain Cathiard, Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier and Comte Georges de Vogüé as well as up-and-coming younger producers like Benjamin Leroux, Sylvain Pataille, Jérôme Galeyrand, Nicolas Faure and Chanterêves.
While Ms. Wasserman’s heart was in Burgundy, she began to extend her business beyond this small territory in the late 1980s, as the world economy sent Burgundy prices tumbling, as strange as that may seem today, when prices have never been higher.
She worked with excellent producers in Alsace, in the Loire Valley and in Languedoc, and she was an early champion, along with the American importer Terry Theise, of Champagnes made by small farmers rather than the big houses.
Her business became a proving ground for many ambitious young people, like Dominique Lafon, René’s son, who eventually took over Domain Lafon from his father, and Jim Clendenen, who went on to make wonderful wines at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara County.
Aside from using her home to entertain visiting wine writers, Ms. Wasserman over the years hosted annual Burgundy symposiums, at which experts like Clive Coates, Allen Meadows and Jasper Morris would lead convivial tastings.
While Ms. Wasserman drank her fair share of grand cru Burgundies, she adored the more modest regional and village wines, especially those from appellations that she felt were unloved or underappreciated. She was thrilled when I told her in 2017 I was writing an article about aligoté, Burgundy’s often forgotten other white grape, which was so subordinate to chardonnay that many people believe it’s only fit to drink as Kir, augmented by crème de cassis.
Even as prices of top wines soared in the last 20 years, she insisted that wonderful Burgundies were available at every price. She was right, even if she had to repeat herself to a public more interested in grand cru Musigny than in passetoutgrains, a blend of pinot noir and gamay that is a wonderful thirst-quencher.
She never stopped looking for new producers. Daily, work would break midday and she and her staff would taste whatever bottles had come their way with lunch. In recent years, her staff did more of the tasting as she and Russell stepped back from the day-to-day business.
But she continued to welcome wine lovers in her resolutely old-fashioned way. She told me in 2018 she was delighted that I had begun an email to her with “Dear Becky,” rather than “hello or hi.”
She also confessed that she was growing weary of explaining that a carefully made regional wine was more satisfying than a flashy grand cru from young vines.
“Russell and I soldier on,” she closed, “amusing the young sommeliers with tales from the past and refusing to tweet.”
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