A seat at Becky Wasserman’s table in Burgundy’s Bouilland, a close 15 kilometers north of Beaune, is stuff of legend for many young chefs, writers, sommeliers and anyone with a vested interest in French wine, really.
“If you have people to your house, you don’t have to drive back at night,” says Wasserman. “You can serve the wines you want to serve with the food you want to cook. It’s easier for me to say, ‘Thank you for the invitation, but why don’t you come for soup?’”
For almost 40 years, Wasserman, an American expat, has been exporting wines from all around France to the United States. Her home and her business have become epicenters for classic wines from multigenerational wine producers, particularly from Burgundy, where she’s been engrained her entire career.
Born in the States to a father who she says “was of a generation that thought wine was vaguely communist; he drank Champagne, served sherry but was a fine malt whiskey,” and a mother who was “Hungarian, but didn’t seem to miss wine very much,” it wasn’t until Wasserman moved to Burgundy with her first husband and two young sons that she started working in wine.
Her point of entry was hand-selling French-made barrels to California winemakers. In the late ’70s, she moved onto offering wines from producers she’d met in various regions. Today, at 81-years-old, with a different husband (the warm Brit, Russell Hone), and those same two sons, Paul and Peter, who work for her company, she remains one of the most influential wine brokers in France. A few producers, including Michel Lafarge and Denis Bachelet, have been with her since the beginning.
There’s plenty that’s changed in the wine business over the last four decades; dozens and dozens more importers sell wines in the States than when Wasserman started, and she’s had to endure the ebbs and flows of commerce, not to mention a rising new generation that she’s committed to fostering. “[They] have made incredible discoveries in the care of the soil, in viticulture,” she says. “And they have impacted [winemaking] in a very positive sense. Live is constantly renewing itself.”
There’s also been a sizable shift in America’s perception of Burgundy—that wine from the region is out of financial bounds for most drinkers. This is something that Wasserman is tired of hearing about.
“Sometimes I think that Burgundy is almost, in an odd way, like Marilyn Monroe. It’s always criticized, ‘too expensive, myeh myeh myeh…’ But you don’t have to have grand crus,” she says, pointing to less pricey producers in Burgundy, such as Dominique Gruhier, just north of Chablis, as well as other noteworthy wines from the Loire, the southwest’s Bergerac and Alsace.
The pull of Burgundy, however, is what has visitors passing through Wasserman’s kitchen every week. The two strategize guest lists and dinner menus, aiming to add guests to existing tastings, thus alleviating demands that are placed on the producers themselves.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like if the crowd scene was present during the impressionist period of painting?” Wasserman asks. “‘Oh, monsieur Monet, can I take a picture of your water lilies?’ ‘Mr. Van Gogh, could you cut off your ear again? I missed it.’”
So what would Wasserman do if she wasn’t trying to change people’s minds about Burgundy? Here, she tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share her plans for the bookstore she’d like to open, her attempts to make ginger beer and her love of Bach. —Megan Krigbaum
Co-director of Becky Wasserman & Co., exporting French wines for 40 years. And director of The Willow Tree, a very small company that organizes intense symposia in and about Burgundy with geologists, historians, MWs, verticals, horizontals, winemaker dinners and good food.
What do want to be when you grow up?
To own a bookshop specializing in memoirs about food and wine, preferably situated in an owl sanctuary.
Best thing you ever drank:
The very first ‘illicit’ chocolate milkshake (mine was a strict childhood based on what was good for you). It was cold; it was creamy; it smelled of chocolate. (My first hit of texture and bouquet?)
Worst thing you ever drank:
My own attempt at making ginger beer. It went terribly wrong.
First time you ever got drunk:
In Burgundy at my first cellar tasting in Saint Romain. Nobody informed me that it was necessary to spit. After ‘tasting’ over twenty appellations I understood that I was drunk and needed to go up the hill to our rented house where my mother and two young sons were waiting. The hill was steep and I could not manage the road but had to hold on to the sides of houses. Yes, Maman was furious.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Dinu Lipatti playing J.S. Bach.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I plead the fifth.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That everything can change in a minute. I stupidly had faith in certain weather patterns, back and forth politics, the reliability of the press.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Internet research on animals, reptiles, insects, imaginary or real.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Peanut butter mixed with a shot of bourbon, soda water, mint, three ice cubes, from a visiting Southerner perhaps, many years ago. The ice cubes were an error.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Bemelmans Bar, Hotel Carlyle, New York, with Bobby Short playing the piano. Ah, the sophistication, the ambiance, the people who drank there…
Best meal you’ve ever had:
An immense pot-au-feu made with three cuts of beef, a hen, calves’ tails, leeks, carrot, onions, celery root, bay leaves, thyme, parsley. Then, in a separate pot, and cooked in the broth, a few potatoes, half a Savoy cabbage, and perhaps a Morteau sausage. The quality of the meat must be stellar. The dishes of a good size. Wines are lined up to be part of the feast. Will I first have a cup of broth alone, or do I want to pour the broth on the meat?
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Depends on the time of day and the city. Bloody Mary at lunch time, a Sazerac in New Orleans, a beautiful hot grog at night when the weather is cold and damp.
Suggestion of the bartender, preferably a white wine.
In a dive bar?
Give me one for my baby, and one more for the road.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
A very cold cloth on the forehead, Coca-Cola with lemon slices, total quiet.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
Are these answers any good?