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Q&A: Becky Wasserman-Hone

Becky Wasserman-Hone catches up with Maryse and Sylvain Pataille
© Le Serbet | Becky Wasserman-Hone catches up with Maryse and Sylvain Pataille
Legendary Burgundy personality Becky Wasserman-Hone has been exporting great wines from small French domaines for 35 years through her Le Serbet brokerage.

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Manhattan, where I went to the Rudolph Steiner School. My family did not generally drink wine – it was the cocktail and highball era – but the Champagne was Lanson’s and, for women, a dry sherry. Wines were considered "European".

How did you end up in Burgundy?

My former husband, Bart Wasserman, was an artist. We lived in Philadelphia but rather than move to New York, the center of the art world in 1968, he decided we should move to France. He had a fine cellar. As the artist’s wife, I kept the wine glasses sparkling and had the pleasure of getting to know certain winemakers quite well. People regarded us with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.

What drew you to wine?

I loved everything French – art, music, literature, food, wine. I was a baby existentialist who had wandered around New York dressed in black and carrying a Camus novel, hoping someone would notice. When my marriage was unraveling in the mid-1970s, I needed to find work. The world of wine was an obvious idea, as a job as a bilingual night receptionist in a Beaune hotel was not appealing.

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How did you get into the wine business?

My first job was selling oak barrels to wineries in the U.S. for François Frères. I arrived in California with a small barrel to show and my first sale was to Bob and Nonie Travers, owners of Mayacamas. Later I also became a broker for Taransaud. I sold Kistler their first barrels – that put me in touch with viticulture and vinification. My first list of wines came out in 1977 – I worked with Kermit Lynch and the Troisgros brothers, then started Le Serbet in 1979 with wines from domaines who were willing to have a go with an unknown American expatriate. Now we sell wines from more than 80 [domaines].

What was your first big break?

An article in the International Herald Tribune in 1981 [in which Jon Winroth wrote that Wasserman knew more about the wines of Burgundy than any other American] provided premature credibility, but there was no demand for Burgundy in the U.S. One knocked on doors.

How much has Burgundy changed since you moved there in 1968?

Hugely. We now have supermarkets, household appliances, television is universal, women can drive and open bank accounts without their husbands’ consent.

Le Serbet’s motto is "We don't sell what we don't drink." What kinds of wines do you like to drink?

I personally like quiet wines rather than noisy wines; those that have bouquets and bodies that continue to entice long after first being poured.

Le Serbet Angels, the team at the Beaune office
© Michel Joly | Le Serbet Angels, the team at the Beaune office

What were the biggest challenges of selling Burgundy to Americans?

In the beginning, everyone thought Pinot Noir was a fragile and temperamental grape. At one tasting, I was pelted with hard rolls for presenting Volnays. And there were the difficulties of gathering together a number of small producers for shipments.

Which winemaker has been the biggest influence on you in your career?

Michel Lafarge. His domaine was organic before it was fashionable. He’s one of the most reflective men I know – my son Paul, who handles sales in the U.S., calls him Gandalf. Lafarge made me think about all sorts of things I hadn’t thought about, like the importance of whether you press gently or not in a particular vintage. He once said that perhaps Burgundians shouldn’t have exported the 1984s because every bottle that leaves Burgundy speaks for Burgundy. He’s a man of great rectitude.

What has been your proudest moment?

Le Serbet’s 35th anniversary. With the ups and downs of international commerce and changes in fashion, it wasn’t always clear we’d survive. The high points are all moments of sharing wines. Burt Williams [co-founder of Williams-Selyem winery in Sonoma] visited recently and we found out he loves Corton-Charlemagne. We introduced him to Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière of Bonneau du Martray, who was delighted to meet him and pour some. The low points were when we needed to recapitalize due to U.S. client bankruptcies. My biggest regret is that I was not really versed in how to be forceful in business.

Burgundy is a hot auction item now – is that good for the region?

It brings attention to Burgundy, which is good. But auctions concentrate on the most expensive grand cru appellations and certain "star" domaines. That gives the false impression that all Burgundies cost astronomic prices, which they don’t.

What do you think people are overlooking in Burgundy?

They don’t see the diversity of its wines. There’s a Burgundy for every pocketbook, every occasion, every season.

What producers are most exciting to you now?

The younger generation. People like David Croix, Benjamin Leroux, and David Moreau are making wonderful wines.

Your annual Bouilland symposia are immersion courses in Burgundy. How did they start?

In the 1980s, there had been a bankruptcy in the States and we had to mortgage our farm. At the same time, interest in the region was increasing, and the symposia were a program to help people understand the complexity here, as well as a way to pay the mortgage.

Haven’t you also played matchmaker in local winery sales?

When I learned Maison Camille Giroud was for sale, I called investment banker Joe Wender, who’d attended the symposia. After he and Ann Colgin and their partners bought it, I helped out and hired David Croix as winemaker. He was only 24 years old.

Becky and husband Russell Hone, flanked by her sons Paul (L) and Peter
© Michel Joly/Le Serbet | Becky and husband Russell Hone, flanked by her sons Paul (L) and Peter

Do you think of yourself as a deal maker or as a talent nurturer?

Neither. I am a fan; fans want other folks to know.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Well, I see a mass of grey curly hair that I don’t try to tame. Maybe I see rebellion.

What would be a perfect dinner?

It all depends on the season, so for an autumn dinner cooked by my husband Russell Hone, perhaps a Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre with a pumpkin soup. After that, a lamb stew with Sylvain Pataille’s Cuvée Ancestrale Marsannay rouge. And a tarte tatin to finish with a sweet Saussignac.

What about the future?

Should I fall into a fermentation vat, Le Serbet will be in many good hands. My A-team, the Serbet Angels and sons Peter and Paul. Peter is the geologist, a fan of alluvial fans, schists, and all the mother rocks. Paul, the writer, is both searcher and sourcer [of wines].

What gives you the greatest happiness?

When a wine is wonderful, to look at someone else who has also found beauty in their glass and there is no need for words or discussion.

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Write Comment

  • Comments

    Richard Bampfield wrote:
    19-Jul-2014 at 02:17:16 (GMT)

    That's just the most lovely interview. Would love to meet Becky and share a glass with her.

  • John Drady wrote:
    16-Jul-2014 at 23:39:41 (GMT)

    It is the Becky's of the wine world that have made so much possible for the rest of us. A pioneer and visionary born of necessity.

  • Jon Sherard wrote:
    16-Jul-2014 at 21:00:55 (GMT)

    Wonderful piece - really enjoyed it. Great start to the day. I'd not actually heard of her before. What a fascinating lady! I can just picture the Camus placed ostentatiously on a street-side coffee table...

  • Mandy Chan wrote:
    16-Jul-2014 at 03:06:41 (GMT)

    She's an inspiration. Thanks for the story brought some sunshine into my morning.

  • Mr. Paul Jaouen wrote:
    15-Jul-2014 at 14:55:16 (GMT)

    Really great story.

  • Michael Belardo wrote:
    14-Jul-2014 at 15:23:39 (GMT)

    Thank You, Makes me happy to read such a delightful story!

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