What Becky Wasserman taught us about Burgundy and humanity
Becky Wasserman fought for the common people.
I heard stories of Becky for the first time from Whitney Woodham, a former intern at Becky Wasserman & Co. (BW & Co.) – Becky’s namesake export company representing small French wineries â€” whom I met during the harvest at Christopher Bates Element Winery in the Finger Lakes. As a wine student and lover of Burgundy, I remember it very well because her stories were not about Becky frolicking around the Grands Crus of Burgundy, but rather Becky hosting a Volnay wine tasting (which is sometimes considered “less” for its lack of Grand Cru vineyards). The tasters had drunk a little too much and started tossing buns at him. One of Becky’s first producers was Michel Lafarge, whom she first solicited for her Passe-Tout-Grains, a humble blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay that still only costs around $ 30. Today, its wines are coveted by sommeliers and retailers around the world.
I remember thinking, â€œWowâ€¦ this is someone I would like to work for. “
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Over the years, I learned more about Becky and what she meant to Burgundy and humanity. I also learned what it means to be an importer. It means standing up for, supporting and really working with the producers in your portfolio, like the time Becky took out a mortgage on her house to pay the producers when one of her distributors went bankrupt. When Becky passed away on August 20, 2021, tributes poured in from the wine world, speaking of her life and legacy. But Becky was not only a legend in the wine industry, she was a model of kindness, perseverance, compassion and humility.
Defend small producers
Becky had a knack for picking growers before they got ‘fat’, and I often wondered how. I learned that for her character and integrity were even more important than wines. If you have good character and integrity, you will have a better chance of making good wine in the future, she thought.
It was also about believing in people, not making a quick buck. She started selling the wines of FrÃ©dÃ©ric mugnierâ€”One of Burgundy’s most sought-after producers today â€” in 1984, and for 20 years people complained about being too light until they finally understood these â€œstillâ€ wines. Keep calm, listen, and they will respond, she urged.
And if it takes 20 years for someone like Fred Mugnier, so be it. Fred met Becky through her American classmate at the LycÃ©e Viticole de Beaune â€” Douglas Danielak, now a Pont Neuf wine grower, who was working for her at the time. As she has done with many others in the wine business, Becky introduced Fred to other winemakers. Fred often said, â€œBecky was the reason I became a winemaker. Many other of the region’s best-known producers, including Comtes Lafon, Denis Bachelet and Sylvain Cathiard, as well as more recent ones like Hubert Lamy, Sylvain Pataille and ChanterÃªves, are now in the United States thanks to Becky.
For over 40 years, Becky has shared her passion for Burgundy through the wonderful dinners she has hosted with husband Russell Hone, sons Paul and Peter and the rest of BW & Co. for wine growers, sommeliers, wine students and consumers around the world. The meals were local dishes in an old farmhouse, located in the middle of the magnificent cliffs of Bouilland. The wine and the conviviality are simple, not grandiose.
I was very nervous when I first met Becky, but she made me feel so welcome and was so open to sharing her knowledge and experience. Someone once said that it doesn’t matter if you are the Queen of England or a broke student: Becky has given you the same attention and willingness to help. Over the years, Becky has mentored and influenced the lives of countless young sommeliers and wine writers, winemakers and distributors, and she was a particularly fierce champion of women in the industry.
It also went beyond the world of wine. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Becky suggested that someone in the office accompany me to the doctor for my diagnosis. She constantly monitored me throughout my treatment. She gave me a book on breast cancer. In fact, Becky read gifted books a lot and often – she and Paul gave me a lot of old wine books. One cannot intimately know wine or any other subject without knowing where it comes from. It made me even more interested in personal stories, the geology of wine and the question, “why? “
Becky’s Enduring Legacy
For those who may be hard on themselves for not yet having found their way, remember that Becky founded her company at age 42, in 1979. She had to be accompanied by a man to open a bank account . She started selling wine barrels, then wine, after a failed marriage to a disrespectful man. Despite this “late start”, she has grown into one of the most respected people in the wine business.
I loved Becky, but I never told her that. I had just returned from Taiwan to Burgundy a week before he passed away, and had brought Taiwanese pepper Maqaw back to give to Becky and Russell. I never could. In Taiwanese families, we don’t often say â€œI love youâ€, but I’ll start today. Don’t wait to see your family and friends, and don’t wait to tell them how you feel about them. Don’t bicker or hold a grudge. We often forget it, but we really shouldn’t.
Becky was loved by so many people, including the beautiful BW & Co. family she created. When I sent my resume to Paul for a possible position, I thought I would be called back for a formal interview, but instead he invited me to lunch at the office. After I started working for the company, I discovered that the team took turns cooking lunch for everyone. We have lunch together every day, accompanied by wines from our winegrowers. I wasn’t used to it after my background in finance, where I ate three meals a day in front of my computer. Other than another company I worked for, I can’t think of another company that treats its employees with such respect and care. After Becky passed away, we called each other to make sure everyone was okay and Russell was getting love.
I wrote that there would never be someone like Becky again. My friend, Californian sommelier Max Coane, said it was a bad attitude and when a legend dies you have to take up the torch and lead like she did. But how can you match Becky’s contributions?
Although it may be impossible, I have hope. I saw it when Paul told me they had started working with Amelia Berthaut not because of its Vosne-RomanÃ©es and Gevrey-Chambertin but rather its beautiful Fixins. I see hope with Les Aligoteurs, a group of Burgundy winegrowers dedicated to promoting the undervalued AligotÃ© grape. I also see hope when we continue to drink dessert wines during dinners at Becky’s. Dessert wines are certainly not all the rage, but that was never discussed, right?
So continue to fight for the common people, women and minorities, the little-known vineyards, the AligotÃ©s. Be nice to people. As Becky has so often shown, wine and humanity go hand in hand.
Icy Liu is the founder of Ungrafted, a podcast about wine, humanity and the planet, and Asian wine professionals. She co-founded Vines for Votes, a wine auction that raised over $ 50,000 for the Texas ACLU. she was voted Wine lover‘s 40 Under 40 and nominated as Emerging Talent in Wine by the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). She works for Becky Wasserman & Co.