Becky Wasserman, founder of Le Serbet and Becky Wasserman & Co., died Aug. 20 of a respiratory illness. She had suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for several years, according to her family. She was 84.
An innovator and entrepreneur, Wasserman championed small growers from around France, but particularly Burgundy, where she lived beginning in 1968. She was a major advocate and supporter for many young vignerons, but also importers, distributors, retailers, wine writers and wine lovers around the world. If not for the efforts of this American woman and her company, Le Serbet, many of France's greatest wineries might have remained unknown in the United States.
"She created Burgundy as we know it today," said Alex Gambal, a négociant who learned the trade while working for Wasserman. "That can't be underestimated. So many people owe so much to her. She gave a lot more than she got back."
Frédéric Mugnier, owner of Domaine Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier in Chambolle-Musigny, remembers Wasserman's impact on him when he returned to his family’s estate in 1985 after a career as an engineer. “In 1985 I was discovering wine, about which I knew absolutely nothing,” he told Wine Spectator. “Becky forged my vision of this profession without ever giving me any advice, just by opening her door to me and introducing me to her friends, who in common, sought above all, in wine and in life, sincerity.”
Wasserman arrived in Burgundy in 1968, with her artist husband, Bart. The couple purchased a farm in Bouilland, a tiny village 10 miles from Beaune. Despite its proximity to the capital of the Côte d'Or, Bouilland produces neither grapes nor wine.
The marriage failed, but the move didn't. She stayed, and in 1976, with the encouragement of Bruce Neyers of Joseph Phelps and others, Wasserman started a barrel brokering business, representing the Burgundy cooperage François Frères. Wasserman also struck up a friendship with an attorney named Philip Diamond who was setting up a wine importing company. She began selecting Burgundy producers for his business. In 1979, she brought the two businesses under the umbrella of Le Serbet, named after one of the fields on the Bouilland farm.
As Wasserman compiled a roster of producers and matched them with importers to get them to the U.S. market, she solved some logistical problems to help make small Burgundy domaines accessible to American palates. One big hassle was that small estates didn't export enough wine to fill a shipping container. Wasserman was also working as an agent for Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch and she began consolidating containers, loading one with wine from her and Lynch's producers.
"Mom had a very real impact on the business here in the States, being that she was one of the very early evangelists of small, family-owned domaines," her eldest son, Peter, who has been with Le Serbet since 2003, told Wine Spectator. "She liked to say that she actually had a hand in creating the container consolidation system. Once that happened, it opened up the world to the potential of working with small producers."
In addition to her tireless work promoting small estates from Burgundy and other parts of France, Wasserman and her second husband, Russell Hone, were gracious hosts and selfless supporters of many in the wine business, giving advice, opening bottles and making introductions.
"As soon as Becky Wasserman founded her company, Domaine Michel Lafarge started working with her to distribute wines in the U.S.A. We bonded over our Bourgogne Passetoutgrain that she loved. What convinced my dad and I was her passion for the terroir," said Frédéric Lafarge. "She’s always been captivating when talking about wine and the relation with the terroir. She would do so with simplicity and enthusiasm. She made it simple and accessible how the winemaker must work in association with his terroir so it can be revealed in his wine."
Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and owner of Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, met Wasserman shortly after her arrival in France.
"Becky was one of my oldest and best friends in Burgundy," he shared with Wine Spectator. "It is common knowledge in Burgundy that Becky was an enlightened ambassador for our region, a legend even. It is less known that she was a brilliant harpsichord player, a very fine gourmet cook and one of the most culturally refined Francophile Americans living in France. She will be deeply missed, not only by our community of vignerons who owe her so much, but also by her innumerable friends and admirers from all over the world, especially by all these people who shared her table, great wines and wonderful food prepared by Russell."
Many in the wine business got their start as stagiaires at Le Serbet. Dominique Lafon began in 1982, after a year in California. American Alex Gambal worked for Wasserman from 1993 to 1996. "If it wasn't for Becky and, of course, Russell, I would never have known anything about Burgundy," said Gambal. "I learned about Burgundy, about the business, the growers, how to taste. She was my entry into Burgundy."
Before Dominique Lafon took over his family's estate and then started his own winery, he got a wine business education working for Wasserman. "I worked at Le Serbet from '82 to '86, a great time of my life," he told Wine Spectator. "I still remember when she took me to a clothing shop before my first trip for her in the U.S. She told me, 'You cannot go and sell wines dressed like a hippie,' and bought me a jacket. I think of her as my mother in wine."
Lanny Lancaster created his wine import company, C'est Vin, after several years of hospitality at Wasserman's dinner table and the cellars of her growers. "In late 1997, a friend and I were discussing the deplorable situation in [Washington] D.C. restaurants: Becky's wines were not represented! After several telephone calls and faxes, she agreed that we could handle her portfolio for D.C.—thus began the journey we continue to travel today.”
"Without the careful tutoring by Becky and, later, Russell Hone, we doubtlessly would have had great difficulty grasping the many fine points of not only the Burgundy wine trade but, more particularly, the Côte d'Or itself," Lancaster added.
The business will continue to be run by the current CEO, Dominique Tard Roux, likely with Wasserman's son Paul as the co-CEO, as it was under Becky. Peter will remain a brand ambassador covering a number of states in the U.S. "The next generation is already in place, mom made sure of that," Peter told Wine Spectator.
Wasserman is survived by Hone and her sons Peter and Paul.