Rebecca Wasserman-Hone, Who Put Burgundy on the U.S. Map, Dies at 84
Rebecca Wasserman-Hone, the American-born wine exporter who championed the wines and the small artisanal producers of Burgundy, her adopted home …
Rebecca Wasserman-Hone, the American-born wine exporter who championed the wines and the small artisanal producers of Burgundy, her adopted home, died on Aug. 20 in Beaune, France. She was 84.
The cause was heart failure, her son Peter Wasserman said
Ms. Wasserman-Hone, known as Becky, and her husband at the time, Bart Wasserman, an artist, moved to Burgundy with their two young sons in 1968. The light was splendid, Ms. Wasserman-Hone often explained, and her husband liked wine. They bought a farm that dated to the 14th century in the tiny town of Bouilland, population about 150.
When the marriage faltered, Ms. Wasserman-Hone needed work, fast. A neighbor owned a renowned cooperage firm and asked her to help him sell his oak barrels in the United States. She had never sold anything in her life, but she hit the road alone, hawking barrels from a rental car through California wine country.
Because of where she lived, as she traveled she was often asked her advice about the lesser-known Burgundy wine producers, the small-batch vignerons — the people who grow and make wine on their ancient family farms. Soon she was out of the cooperage business, working first as a wine agent for the Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch and then on her own.
Of her transition from selling barrels to selling wine, she often said, “The content of the barrel was in the end more enticing than the barrel.”
Alice Feiring, the wine writer and journalist, said in an interview: “Becky was the godmother to generations of Burgundy growers, introducing the smaller domaine wines of Burgundy to Americans and the rest of the world when all they knew were the big producers.”
In the mid-1970s, when she got her start, she and the head of Hillebrand Beaune, a shipping company, came up with an innovation: consolidating the wines of many producers to fit into a standard shipping container, which took about 1,200 cases. This allowed the explosion, as her son Peter put it, of “small production exports.”
She was the rare woman — often the only woman — in a male-dominated business. At a tasting in Detroit, she was pelted with bread rolls; at another, in New Jersey, half the audience walked out.
Ms. Feiring recalled her once saying that for a woman to sell Burgundy in America in the ’70s “required the zeal of a missionary, the stubbornness of a mule and the ability to change clothes in a telephone booth.”
In 1987, The New York Times called Ms. Wasserman-Hone a “folk heroine,” citing her reputation as a “first-class judge of wine and a tireless promoter, especially in the United States, of the lesser-known estate-bottled vintages of the region.”
She was a champion of what she called sincere wines, as she told The Los Angeles Times in 2004 — “wines made by people doing their level best to be true to what they are, winemakers who are interpreters of the terroir, not stylists imposing their ideas on the terroir.”
Rebecca Louisa Rand was born on Jan. 18, 1937, in Manhattan. Her mother, Yolanda Dragos, was a prima ballerina originally from Romania. Her father, Louis Rand, was a stockbroker with his own firm who sold railroad bonds.
Becky graduated from Hunter College High School, at the time a public school in New York for gifted girls (boys were admitted in 1974), and then attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania for a year. An early marriage to Dennis Andrew, a student at Harvard, ended in divorce.
Trained as a harpsichordist, she hoped for a time to become a classical performer, but never did. She met her second husband, Mr. Wasserman, in a composition and harmony class. Among other jobs, she worked as a copy writer for a department store.
In Burgundy, Ms. Wasserman-Hone got drunk at her first wine tasting, because as an American she thought spitting was bad manners. (She recalled staggering home, using the houses on her street as handholds.) But she was a quick study.
She had poor eyesight, which she often said strengthened her other senses, particularly those of smell and taste. A grower taught her about soil — one aspect of the different terroirs, or microclimates, that mark a grape — by handing her a spoon. One can taste the difference from parcel to parcel, her son Peter said of the land: “Every single one has its own personality, just like people.”
Ms. Wasserman-Hone was no wine snob; she said she’d rather drink a simple red Burgundy on its old vines than a grand cru on its fourth leaf, which, Peter Wasserman pointed out, “is a baby; it can barely translate its place.”
And she had no patience with the flowery language of contemporary wine descriptors, the jam, fruit and spice adjectives employed by some connoisseurs. She might say, rather, that a young Corton made her think of Mick Jagger, because it had a strut.
But she felt it was important for people to talk about wine in their own ways. “We have too many words today to describe something that’s fairly simple,” she told Levi Dalton on his wine podcast, “I’ll Drink to That!,” in 2017.
She met her third husband, Russell Hone, a British wine representative, at a wine tasting in London. She was so flustered, she later recalled, that all she could think of to say was “I like your shirt.” When they met the next day at another event, he had bought her an identical shirt as a gift. They married in 1989, and he joined her company, Becky Wasserman & Company. His job title is “aubergiste,” which means “innkeeper,” and he is often the company chef.
Dinner at the Wasserman-Hone household, Ms. Feiring said, was one of the most coveted invitations in Burgundy. The restaurateur Michel Troisgros, the wine arbiter Robert Parker and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have all made the pilgrimage.
Tasting wines during a meal was one of the many ways that Ms. Wasserman-Hone and her colleagues, who included her sons, Peter and Paul, nurtured their growers, asking wine to be sent to their office so they could sample it at lunchtime. “Sounds of appreciation are weightier than words,” she once told The Los Angeles Times. “We grade by ‘oohs’ and ‘mmms,’ six being the ultimate accolade.”
In addition to her sons and her husband, Ms. Wasserman-Hone is survived by three stepchildren, Alexandra Chivers, Jasper Hone and Andrew Hone, and six step-grandchildren.
Ms. Wasserman-Hone’s business motto was “Non vendimus quod non bibimus” — “We won’t sell what we won’t drink.” As she told Mr. Dalton, “A wine is not to be discussed, it is to be drunk and give happiness and joy and a nice feeling to people; that is the point of it all.”