Becky Wasserman – A lengthy and entirely personal tribute

Robert Joseph, who worked for Becky Wasserman over two years in the early 1980s adds his reflections to the many tributes that have been paid to this Burgundian pioneer

Becky Wasserman-Hone
Becky Wasserman-Hone

Becky Wasserman, who died on August 20th aged 84, changed the world of wine, for the better.

She also changed my life.

Our paths first crossed in 1980 when I obeyed an instruction from an illustrious vigneron. “If you want to learn about Burgundy, you have to meet Mme Wasserman. She knows more about the region than any of us!”

If I’d waited another year, I could have read almost the same words in an International Herald Tribune article by Jon Winroth. Five years later, the New York Times – whose obituary headline suggested that she had ‘put Burgundy on the US map’, would dub her a ‘folk heroine’.

That recent NYT line is an exaggeration, of course, but the tributes paid to Becky by a long list of luminaries across the world confirm her place as one of the most important wine figures of her generation (a description she would have hated, by the way.)

So how did a wiry-haired, pint-sized harpsichordist, born in 1937 and raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan achieve all this?

Certainly, there was nothing in her early years to suggest that it might happen. Becky’s mother – a Romanian former prima ballerina - and her stockbroker father generally favoured cocktails, punctuated by an occasional Lanson Champagne or sherry. Wine was seen as an affectation.

The Rebellious Francophile

But, as a natural rebel, Becky became, in her own words, “a baby existentialist, in love with all things French”. This included music, literature – she carried a copy of Camus wherever she went – and food and wine, both which were also passions of the man she married, a banker and jet pilot-turned-artist with wealthy parents, called Barton (Bart) Wasserman. (Most recent tributes wrongly state that Bart was her first husband; a previous marriage to Dennis Andrew was short-lived)

In the 1960s, after living in Wasserman’s home state of Pennsylvania, where Becky did various jobs including writing promotional copy for a department store, the couple considered, and then decided against, moving to the frenetic art world of New York. They spent a summer in London and then, on the advice of a French friend did the same in Burgundy. Bart loved the light and the wine and Becky loved France, so in 1968, they, their two small sons, Peter and Paul, and Becky’s mother rented a house in St Romain.

This was a very different time, when televisions were still rare luxuries in rural France and clothes were still washed in cold water in the communal village lavoir.

A few select producers like Armand Rousseau and Henri Gouges were bottling and selling their wine, including to the US, but they were the exceptions to a wine world run by negociants, many of whom took a very relaxed view of appellation controlée rules. Keen to fill his cellar, Bart Wasserman, who had an extraordinarily fine palate, got to know the best estates at a time when making an appointment to taste at DRC was a lot simpler than it is today. Indeed, Aubert de Villaine was a young man with an apartment in Beaune who became a regular dinner guest and a fan of Becky’s cooking. In an interview with Levi Dalton (which has been an invaluable aide-memoire while writing this), she recalls her mother sewing buttons back onto his shirts.

In 1971, de Villaine married his wife Pamela whom he had met in New York and she joined the Wassermans as one of the few Americans in the region. These were, of course, the early days of modern Californian winemaking and Becky and Bart inevitably met some of the producers who were beginning to make fact-finding pilgrimages to the region. One of the subjects that interested these visitors was barrels, about which the Wassermans coincidentally knew a little because one of their friends and neighbours was a tall man called Jean Francois, mayor of their village and owner of a small cooperage.

In 1976, Becky began selling Francois’s barrels in California, but this career shift was not a natural process, and nor was her subsequent evolution into a wine broker. Both almost didn’t happen.

The previous year, Bart behaved in a way that he perhaps imagined to be appropriate for a talented, unconventional artist. Specifically, he installed his New Zealand-born mistress into the family home and asked his wife and children to seek accommodation elsewhere. Becky, Peter and Paul went back to the US, first to California where she visited some of the winemakers she’d met in Burgundy, then to Yellowstone Park in Montana where she got a job cooking, which she found she was good at and enjoyed. She had never previously thought she’d found a role in which she could show her capabilities. When de Villaine had complimented her on her glass-washing skills, the comment had rankled. Was this as far as she could aspire?

So, Yellowstone, she thought, was where she would stay and bring up her sons. First, however, she had to tidy up her affairs in Burgundy.

Barrels of Fun

When she returned to France, however, Francois made a proposition. You know people in California, he said.  Could you sell them my barrels. It was a eureka moment, she recalled. Something she could do and, as it turned out, the “beginning of it all”.

The new job didn’t start well. Francois made her a small sample barrique to take around Napa and Sonoma in the back of her car. Unfortunately, neither of them had factored in the effect her chain-smoking would have on the wood. “The winemakers would ask about the origin of the oak – Alliers, Nevers or Limousin – and then they’d take a deep sniff at the wood, and turn up their noses…”

Even so, with the helpful encouragement of luminaries Andre Tchelistcheff and Richard Graff of Chalone – a pioneer of barrel fermentation in California - and a lot of letter-writing - Becky managed to make her first sale of 15 casks to Mayacamas, one of Napa’s top wineries. Working with her US-based business partner Mel Knox, she rapidly built up an illustrious list of customers and even made substantial sales to Gallo. Soon, despite the expansion of the Francois operation, growing demand meant that she was also representing Taransaud, one of the biggest coopers in France. Just as she would subsequently visit every corner of the Côte d’Or, she made a tour of the forests with Jean Taransaud and saw how the trees were felled.

By now Becky and Bart had had a reconciliation and bought and converted a 15th century farmhouse in Bouilland, close to Savigny-les-Beaune. Having a business of her own was doubly welcome to Becky. At a time when women were still a rarity in the business world and more especially in wine, it gave her independence, and money of her own. Bart was a very generous man when it came to hospitality, but with cash, he was spectacularly mean. In their early days in St Romain, Francois even went as far as to take him aside to tell him to give Becky more money for clothes. Later when she was able to purchase them without his help, Bart still perversely resented the expenditure. So she invented a code word to describe the process: if Bart asked where she was, he’d be told that she’d gone to buy potatoes – patates.

One of the challenges of barrel-selling lay in the logistics of getting 12 casks to one winery and eight to another and so on. Containerisation was still relatively novel, but it was already a game-changer. Working with the transport company Hillebrand, Becky started to put different wineries’ orders together in the same shipments in the process that would become known as groupage. She wasn’t the first to adapt this concept for wine, but she  but she was certainly a pioneer, especially in Burgundy, where it was key to the distribution of single-estate wines.

Falling Into Wine

The shift in 1979 from selling barrels to launching a new wine broking company called le Serbet was a reaction to the mood of the times. A decade earlier Burgundy had begun to go through a revolution that had begun in 1969, when an entrepreneurial Russian-American called Alexis Lichine – whose son Sacha would go on to create Whispering Angel in Provence – realised that being able to sell wine as ‘domaine-bottled’ would add to its value in the US. So he contracted a mobile bottler to visit the estates from which he was buying. Thanks to Lichine and other US importers like Frederick Wildman, demand for single-estate Burgundy began to grow, albeit from a low base.

Then came the 1973-1975 recession which coincided with a series of less than fine red wine vintages. The negociants’ cellars were full, so they stopped buying from the vignerons who, for the first time, had to think about selling their wine themselves.

When a recovering economy coincided with the release of well-regarded 1976s and 1978s there was a gap to be filled between American importers who wanted single-estate Burgundies and the vignerons who made them. And Becky, was perfectly placed to help fill it. Her first contact was with a San Francisco lawyer-turned-wine-importer called Phil Diamond. Later, she worked as an agent for Kermit Lynch, the extraordinary Californian wine figure in who unusually, given the US three-tier-system, was able to both import and retail.

For a while barrel- and wine-selling overlapped, with barrels and pallets of wine sharing space in the same container but the two activities soon began to conflict. The style of lightly-oaked wine Becky favoured had little to do with the more heavily-toasted casks favoured by many of her Californian customers and more specifically by the US critics they sought to impress. It made more sense to leave that business to Knox who made a success of it.

Joining Forces

In the early 1980s, a meeting with Christopher Cannan, an Englishman with a brokerage business called Europvin in Bordeaux led to a joint venture in the US called Cannan & Wasserman. Both businesses worked, state-by-state to find distributors for their portfolio.

To understand the impact this had at that time, it is important to remember that in the US, unlike other import markets, bottles carried labels naming the importer. Cannan & Wasserman became a name that critics referred to and enthusiasts noticed.

When setting out to sell Burgundy, from the outset, she was able to find buyers for established domaines like Lafon, Roumier, de Montille, Pousse d’Or and Michelot-Buisson, but she was also constantly on the lookout for new producers. Which is where I came in. At the time, I was a young man, living in another Hautes Cotes village a few miles further south, scraping a living by translating and giving English lessons while trying to write on a book about Burgundy and its wines.*

Like Becky, I’d been smitten by France and, in an attempt to immerse myself, was avoiding encounters with Anglophones, but the prompt from that vigneron finally made me call her. She explained her less than enthusiastic initial response to that fact that an artist called Peter Joseph had once tried to stab Bart.

Over lunch, however, we immediately formed a bond, and she offered me occasional work that soon became regular, prospecting for new producers and escorting her customers around existing ones.

The exploring part of the exercise was fascinating, but very different to anything one might imagine today. As Becky recalled, cellars reeking of vinegar and dead rodents in cellars were far from unusual. Some vignerons still seemed to imagine that malolactic fermentation was ‘the wine reacting in sympathy to the sap rising in the vines’, while more than one banned women from his cellars for fear that, at the ‘wrong time’ their presence might spoil the wine. Failure to respect AOC regulations was also, I discovered not limited to the merchants.

Tour Guide

Being paid to taste with the customers at some of the best domaines in Burgundy was an extraordinary opportunity for any young wine lover, but the visitors were not always quite such fun. I recall one I’d taken to Domaine Lafon and Pierre Morey before parking, nearly an hour late, outside our third Meursault appointment of the day, an unprepossessing modern house.

“Why are we here?”, the Chicago importer asked.

Because Becky thinks this guy is worth seeing, I replied.

“Never heard of him. I’m hungry. Maybe we should skip it and go straight to lunch”

I persuaded the reluctant American to come into the house, but his grumpiness was not improved by the fact that the first wines were a set of humble Bourgogne Blancs.

Eventually, as we drove away, he conceded that the tall, shy winemaker was actually “pretty good”, but he still seemed to resent being sent to see an ‘unknown’ producer.

I’ve occasionally wondered if that man has ever looked back on the time he was taken to Coche-Dury, and the opportunity he had to be an early buyer of his wines.

Becky was unfailingly patient with, and hospitable to, all of her customers, despite occasional provocations.

On one occasion, a UK regional merchant asked to taste a range of what she had to offer. Could the wines be available to sample on Saturday morning? I spent three days driving up and down the Cote, picking up bottles that ended up being laid out in two long lines on the oak table at the house in Bouilland.

The merchant arrived on time, with an associate, and after the bare minimum of small talk, set to silently tasting the 50 or so wines. Becky, of course, knew the background to the vineyards, growers and vintages of each of them and, to break the tension, volunteered a piece of information about one of the whites.

“Oh, please spare me the anecdotes” came the bored response, from a man who evidently didn’t agree that ‘wines need stories’.

That night a blend of the leftovers - great red Burgundy whose value today I cannot even imagine – ended up in a big cauldron of the best meat sauce I’ve ever tasted.

Another far more gentlemanly Briton called Johnny Goedhuis enquired if Becky could supply any good old Burgundy. After asking around, I had an answer from a bank manager who suggested that a Mme Duchet, might still have some that her late husband, the former mayor of Beaune, had produced. I met this charming frail old lady who took me to a cellar in the heart of the town, full of hundreds of bottles going back to the 1960s.

I bought a few Beaune Premier Crus and we tasted them with a good steak in Bouilland. Some were past their best, but the best, including a Cent Vignes ’61 were ethereally wonderful.

Goedhuis was unsurprisingly excited and ready to discuss buying all of the bottles. At this point, Mme Duchet’s son, a Parisian property developer, I think, arrived. Becky, who noticed clothes, remarked that his leather jacket was probably the most chic, and probably the priciest, she’d ever seen.

M. Duchet explained that to avoid the emotional impact on his mother of seeing the cellar being emptied – and for tax reasons - he only wanted to sell it over the space of a few years.  Becky and Goedhuis agreed that an abrupt sale would be devastating for the old lady and turned to discussing how to sort which vintages would be best sold first.

A week later, Becky had a call from Paris. The Duchets had accepted a generous offer from an American buyer for all of the wine: generous enough, it seemed, to compensate for any parental distress.

Independence Days

Becky certainly didn’t get everything right. She could be pig-headed about producers and customers in whom she believed and on occasion this had consequences. I spent time – including a seemingly interminable tasting deep into the night in Gevrey – with Barry Bassin, the big US importer whose bankruptcy almost brought an end to her endeavours as an independent business. Let’s just say that her confidence in him had outlasted others’.

When Bassin’s business collapsed, she was not bound to reimburse the growers, but morally she felt she had to do so, despite not having anything like the reserves this would require. One solution was offered by Cannan who offered to take over le Serbet. The proposal certainly made commercial sense, but at the time Becky saw it as opportunistic and the five year relationship between the two businesses came to an end.

Becky and le Serbet weathered that storm and maintained their independence. If they hadn’t, would the office in Bouilland and then its successor in Beaune have welcomed and nurtured quite so many people on their way into the wine trade? As Jancis Robinson detailed in a 2019 piece, among what she called Becky’s ‘alumni’ were Dominic Lafon, Bertie Eden, creator of Chateau Maris in Minervois and Alex Gambol one of a new wave of small negociants.

Just as importantly in the 1980s, Becky brought together Burgundians who, despite living a few miles from each other, rarely met. These were still the days when growers were frightened of their neighbours ‘learning their secrets’. In this, she was fortunate in working at a time when a younger, more open-minded generation was beginning to take over, and it came naturally for some of them to ask her for help when planning visits to California and elsewhere. Through Becky, they also had the chance to taste wines from outside their region. I was with Becky and other guests at a Paulée de Meursault when Burgundians discovered that our party had brought a mixture of local and overseas wines. At first the intruders were treated with suspicion and annoyance: “What are they doing at our party?” But then, as the bottles were passed around and the impressed reactions became clear, hands began to reach out for them.

Becky’s barrel-broker partner Knox remembers thinking of Becky as the “host of a salon, where all kinds of folks meet and exchange ideas. She was great….I met so many terrific people through her.”

High Noons

Thinking of all these encounters prompts another memory: lunch. Whatever was happening, however busy everyone was, there had to be a properly cooked midday meal for everyone in the office, Serge who looked after the fruit and vegetables growing close to the house, the family and anyone else who happened to be around. This noisy convivial moment (with various bottles to taste) was the best part of the day, and quite unlike the many lunches Becky experienced on what she called her ‘ping pong’ sales trips to the US. Often working at a rate of a city a day, she would often eat three brief meals in succession with actual or potential customers.

In the early days, fine wine distribution was still pretty basic in some US states, as Becky discovered when she was met unexpectedly at an airport by some large men in suits who firmly suggested that she get into their car.

Their message was clear: “get off our turf”.

After a little discussion, it became clear that they controlled liquor distribution in the area and imagined that this small woman was trying to compete with them: a prospect they did not appreciate.

Eventually, she persuaded them that single-estate Bourgogne Blanc and Volnay were not going to jeopardise their bourbon and vodka sales, and the encounter ended amicably.

By the time I headed back to the UK to start WINE magazine with Charles Metcalfe in 1983, thanks to Becky, I’d travelled across the region, from the most obscure corners of Chablis to their counterparts in the Mâconnais and Beaujolais. I’d met and tasted with some of the most illustrious names, and I’d learned to appreciate the importance of balance in wine. I may have gone on to develop greater tolerance of some New World examples than she might have had, but I’ve retained her mistrust of wines that are, in her words ‘too loud’ – or fail to live up to the promise of their label. Stated simply, I learned to appreciate what the Volnay grower Michel Lafarge – one of Beck’s absolute favourites- could achieve with a Bourgogne Rouge – his humblest wine, and to value that over a wide range of supposedly starrier efforts.

Coda

A year or so after my leaving Burgundy, Metcalfe and I inadvertently did more to change Becky’s life than she had mine. We were running a tasting of Burgundy for the magazine and invited Becky and a good friend of mine and more particularly Metcalfe’s, a wine merchant called Russell Hone, to taste. Becky, who was approximately half of Hone’s size in every direction, admired his shirt. The next day he appeared at her London hotel with one in the same material but cut to her size. Soon after, he moved to Bouilland (Bart and Becky having divorced some time previously) and married Becky, changing her name to Wasserman-Hone.

The wine industry has changed almost beyond recognition since Becky launched le Serbet. In the early 1980s, the notion that Napa Cabernet would command higher prices than Bordeaux, and that Burgundy might become pricier still, would have been unthinkable. Today, there are many claimants to the crown of ‘knowing all about Burgundy’, but it is perhaps no accident that a person many would see as deserving that honour is Jasper Morris MW, a very good friend of Becky’s and Russell’s, and their neighbour in Bouilland.

Some people are remembered for the tangible things they created, the books or music they wrote, the houses they built or the artworks they wrought. Becky Wasserman-Hone’s legacy lives on in the effect she had on an innumerable number of people – like me - across the world.

*The new edition of Morris’s book, Inside Burgundy is about to be published and will be essential reading for anyone interested in the region. In case you were wondering what happened to the book I set out to write in the late 1970s, I gave up on the project when Anthony Hanson pipped me to the post by publishing his ground-breaking Burgundy in 1982.

Robert Joseph

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