Feature Story

Queen of the Côte Becky Wasserman

An American in Burgundy—this year marks her 50th year in the Côte d’Or—Becky Wasserman has built a portfolio of legendary domaines. Aubert de Villaine, director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, once described Wasserman as the person “who understands Burgundy better than anyone else.” She arrived in 1968 as an artist’s wife, her time taken up raising two boys and cooking. She later started her wine career by selling French oak barrels to US producers, saving enough from those sales to found a wine-exporting business 11 years later. Today she represents close to 85 domaines, including Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, Sylvain Pataille, Comte Georges de Vogüé and Comte Lafon. Jane Gladstone recently sat down with Wasserman to talk about her half-century in Burgundy. —Ed.

What defines a Becky Wasserman wine? A Becky Wasserman & Co wine? The team spirit is very important to me. When describing our wines, people talk about the “wow” factor, but we talk about the “ahhhhhh” factor. We also always do tastings at our home; I think that lends itself to a more honest and profound appreciation of the wines. I can remember a vertical tasting here of [the wines of Volnay-based Nicolas] Rossignol, where Nico took us all through the strengths and weaknesses of his vinification process year by year. That wouldn’t have been the same inside the four walls of a restaurant.

When we make a decision to add a domaine it is always a team decision—not for a lack of confidence in anyone’s palate but because we have an appreciation for what different points of view bring to the table. Each of us brings a different aspect to the “Would we drink it?” question, which is the fundamental question we ask before adding a domaine.

We choose growers independent of fashion, for their character and seriousness, even if it’s the type of wine that may take a very long time for the rest of the world to appreciate. Lafarge and Frédéric Mugnier were like that.

It’s hard to imagine Mugnier being unappreciated… In the early days people tasted with their eyes, and the light color turned people off; the fashion was so much about extraction and opacity. But there were a few missionaries who began to help convert people. [Wasserman mentioned Peter Stern at Connoisseur Wines in Niles, Illinois; William Abramsky at Crossroads Liquor in New York; and Jon Winroth at the International Herald Tribune.] And California winemakers [like Jim Clendenen] who came to work in the vineyards in Burgundy. Each of them had experienced their own “eureka” moment, usually that single bottle you never forget—that is your undoing.

I can remember that moment when I saw people were starting to understand—when we got a standing ovation after a tasting in Chicago—only a couple years after being pelted with hard rolls at a dinner in Detroit for serving Volnays…de Montille, Lafon, Domaine de la Pousse d’Or and Lafarge. Then, of course, the acclaim followed years later and we had people, again, tasting with their eyes, in a different way. I remember Freddie Mugnier telling me someone had declared a vintage his best ever before even tasting it!

What do you think of the natural-wine movement? I was educated in a Rudolf Steiner school from a very young age and organic is very important. But I don’t believe in fascism of any sort and, in general, I hate labels that pretend to be universal. There are some natural wines in our portfolio…but a natural wine with no tannins and no structure and no ability to age isn’t going to make it into our portfolio just because it has no sulfur.

Speaking of labels: Single mom, part Jewish, American—you didn’t exactly inherit the “queen of Burgundy” title. So, what is the secret to your success? Perseverance. Hard work. And I paid people in bad times even when I had to take out several mortgages to do so. I had strong women on both sides of my family who set a great example for me. They just put one foot in front of the other. We almost went under several times but if you have something you believe in you can surmount a lot of barriers.

As a pioneering female in the wine world, you must have experienced all sorts of sexism. I started out when there were very few women in the industry. There was one female sommelier in Detroit. Until recently, we were an all-women company. From time to time men would say things like “I bet you’ve slept with all your producers.” I would just handle it with humor, saying, “at least three times before I put them in my portfolio.”

With all of the hype around Burgundy, where do you see the opportunities today? All of the excitement is around 20 or 25 domaines. You still have appellations that are very unfashionable. We just added a producer to the portfolio from Auxey-Duresses. Marsannay is coming into its own. I could still put together a cellar of fabulous but unfashionable wines from Burgundy. You can see new, young missionaries are coming. Just the other day David Moreau [in Santenay] had a group of students to taste his experiments with different closures. And look what’s happened to aligoté in the last few years…Pataille, Lafarge, Morey…a group of aligoté producers has banded together to form Les Aligoteurs. I look forward to the day when aligoté or wines from the Côte Chalonnaise get the applause they deserve. At 80, I know the applause is coming.

photo of Becky Wasserman copyright 2018 Michel Joly.

This feature appears in the print edition of the April 2018.
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