An American mother figure guides France's young winemakers

wine column
American Becky Wasserman has guided many of France's up-and-coming young winemakers. (Becky Wasserman)
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By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 6:43 PM

"Quick! Open the windows!" Becky Wasserman cried out. The doyenne of Burgundy, revered by wine collectors and writers as a broker of some of the world's best pinot noirs and chardonnays, was worried about sewer gas, a byproduct of seemingly unending utility work along the Passage Ste. Helene in Beaune. Wasserman, a diminutive figure with a thick mop of gray hair, struggled to reach the window handles. Her taller assistant, Carolyn Bennett-Joly, rushed to help.

It was a warm early-spring day, and a fresh breeze through the open windows soon satisfied Wasserman. We sat at a long wooden table, and she told me her story as Bennett-Joly opened wine bottles. Wasserman is in the middle of a year-long celebration of her three decades as a wine broker, a career she created out of a ruined marriage and the need to support her two sons. I had invited myself to her offices to hear her story and meet some of her younger producers.

"I came to Burgundy in 1968 with my then-husband, the artist Bart Wasserman," she explained. "I was an artist's wife, which means a small gray creature who cooks." When their marriage ended in the mid-1970s, she returned to the United States but used her Burgundy connections to help Napa winemakers import French barrels. She then worked with wine importer Kermit Lynch for a few years before returning to France for good.

Wasserman established her company, Le Serbet, in 1979. Today she represents nearly 100 French wine producers and facilitates their sales in the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom. Most of her producers are in Burgundy, but she also represents about two dozen Champagne recoltants manipulants (small growers who are all the rage among wine fanatics), plus a few in Beaujolais and Languedoc-Rousillon in the South of France. She manages that portfolio with five assistants and her husband, Russell Hone, a Brit who serves as culinary muse of the company. (Wasserman, who grew up in New York and Pennsylvania, tends to speak with a British accent in Hone's presence.) Her son Peter acts as a consultant to the company. Her other son, Paul, is a wine retailer in Los Angeles.

A wine labeled "Selection Becky Wasserman" will be from a small producer, most likely family owned. It will express its terroir, or appellation, rather than a standardized concept of what the grape should taste like. That is, a Volnay will be silky in texture and voluptuous on the palate, while a Gevrey-Chambertin will be more earthy and powerful, though both are 100 percent pinot noir.

Wasserman, 73, is charmingly old-fashioned, referring to the European Union as the Common Market. But she does not impose an old-fashioned style of winemaking on her clients. She admits to being increasingly interested in biodynamics, the holistic form of viticulture that involves burying cow horns stuffed with manure throughout the vineyard and other esoteric practices. (Hone says he thinks biodynamics is hooey.) I asked to meet some of her younger winemakers, to get a sense of Burgundy's future as seen by Wasserman, and expressed my own interest in biodynamics.

She introduced me to Benjamin Leroux, who marveled that his wines had shown well at a tasting the previous day even though "it was a very bad day in the moon cycle." Leroux is winemaker at the 16th-century estate Domaine du Comte Armand, but he also makes his own wine under an eponymous label at a facility in Beaune he shares with other winemakers to save money on equipment and space. It's a business model borrowed from California and applied in the heart of traditional Burgundy.

I also met Jean-Yves Devevey, a John Belushi doppelganger who worked for Wasserman for several years before taking over his family's domaine. Today he produces minerally, well-structured chardonnays and pinot noirs from various appellations throughout the Cote d'Or. David Croix, at his own Domaine des Croix winery and at Maison Camille Giroud, produces stunning wines of great finesse and sophistication for someone in his late 20s. He has a great future.

And then there was Olivier Bernstein. A self-styled "micro-negociant," he started with 33 barrels of wine in 2007 and grew his boutique label to 60 barrels with the 2009 vintage. He insists on "no compromise," with severely reduced yields, and fermentation with indigenous yeasts. His wines are big and brash, reflecting his hard-partying persona.

Through these winemakers and their wines, I gained a clearer impression of Wasserman herself. She is a mother figure, guiding and nurturing the young winemakers, protecting tradition while encouraging free expression of the next generation's voice. And that voice is already expressive in a way that speaks of change without abandoning the true nature of Burgundy as it evolved over centuries.

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