People

What Becky Wasserman Taught Us About Burgundy—and Humanity

Icy Liu, of Becky Wasserman & Co., pays tribute to the life and legacy of the late Burgundy champion

Becky Wasserman
Becky Wasserman. Photo by Michel Joly.

Becky Wasserman fought for the little people.

I first heard stories of Becky through Whitney Woodham, an ex-intern of Becky Wasserman & Co. (BW&Co.)—Becky’s namesake export company representing small French wineries—who I met during harvest at Christopher Bates’ Element Winery in the Finger Lakes. As a wine student and Burgundy lover, I remember this vividly because her stories weren’t about Becky frolicking through Burgundy’s Grand Crus, but rather about Becky holding a tasting of wines from Volnay (which is sometimes considered “lesser” for its lack of Grand Cru vineyards). The tasters had a tad too much to drink and started throwing bread rolls at her. One of Becky’s first growers was Michel Lafarge, who she first solicited for his Passe-Tout-Grains, a humble blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay that still only retails for about $30. Today, his wines are coveted by sommeliers and retailers around the world.

I remember thinking: “Wow … this is someone I would love to work for.”

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 championing, supporting, and truly partnering with the growers in your portfolio—like the time Becky took out a mortgage on her house to pay growers when one of her distributors went bankrupt. When Becky passed away on August 20, 2021, tributes poured in from across the wine world, speaking to her life and legacy. But Becky wasn’t just a wine industry legend—she was a model of kindness, perseverance, compassion, and humility.

Becky Wasserman
An American ex-patriot, Becky Wasserman became a champion of small French growers. Photo courtesy of the Wasserman family.

Championing the Small Growers

Becky had a knack for picking out growers before they made it “big,” and I often wondered how. I learned that for her, character and integrity were even more important than the wines. If you have good character and integrity, you will have a better chance at making great wine in the future, she thought. 

It was also about believing in people and not about making a quick buck. She started selling the wines of Frédéric Mugnier—now one of Burgundy’s most sought-after producers—in 1984, and for 20 years people complained they were too light until they finally understood these “quiet” wines. Be still, listen, and they will speak back, she urged.

And if it takes 20 years for someone like Fred Mugnier, so be it. Fred met Becky through his American classmate at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune—Douglas Danielak, now the winemaker for Pont Neuf wines, who was then working for her. Like she did for many others in the wine trade, Becky introduced Fred to other vignerons. Fred often said, “Becky was the reason why I became a vigneron.” Many more of the region’s best-known producers—including Comtes Lafon, Denis Bachelet, and Sylvain Cathiard, along with newer ones like Hubert Lamy, Sylvain Pataille, Bret Brothers, and Chanterêves—are now in the U.S. thanks to Becky.

Becky Wasserman
Becky passed her love of wine to her sons, Paul and Peter. Photo courtesy of the Wasserman family.

For over 40 years, Becky shared her passion for Burgundy through the wonderful dinners she hosted with her husband Russell Hone, her sons Paul and Peter, and the rest of the BW&Co. team, for growers, sommeliers, wine students, and consumers from all over the world. The meals were country food at an old farmhouse, set amongst the magnificent Bouilland cliffs. Wine and conviviality are simple—not grand.

I was very nervous when I met Becky, but she made me feel so welcome and was so open to sharing her knowledge and experience. Someone said that it didn’t matter whether you were the Queen of England or a broke student—Becky gave you the same attention and willingness to help. Over the years, Becky 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.

That went beyond the wine world as well. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Becky suggested someone in the office accompany me to the doctor for my diagnosis. She checked in on me constantly throughout my treatment. She gave me a book on breast cancer. In fact, Becky read widely and often gifted books—both she and Paul gave me a lot of old wine books. We cannot know wine or any other subject intimately without knowing where it came from. This made me even more interested in personal stories, wine geology, and asking, “why?”

Becky Wasserman
Becky Wasserman started her company in 1979, selling wine barrels before she sold wine. Photo courtesy of the Wasserman family.

Becky’s Lasting Legacy

For those out there who may be hard on themselves for not having yet found their paths, remember that Becky founded her company when she was 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 man who disrespected her. Despite this “late start,” she became one of the most respected individuals in wine. 

I loved Becky, but I never told her that. I had just returned to Burgundy from Taiwan a week prior to her passing, and I had brought back some Taiwanese Maqaw pepper to give to Becky and Russell. I was never able to. In Taiwanese families, we don’t say “I love you” often, but I will start today. Do not wait to see your family and friends, and don’t wait to tell them how you feel about them. Don’t bicker or hold grudges. We often forget this, but we really shouldn’t.

Becky was loved by so many, including the beautiful BW&Co. family she created. When I first sent my resume to Paul for a possible position, I thought that I would be called back for a formal interview, but instead he invited me to have lunch at the office. After I started working for the company, I found out that the team takes turns cooking lunch for everyone. We eat lunch together everyday, accompanied by our growers’ wines. I wasn’t used to this after my experience working in finance, where I ate three meals a day in front of my computer. Apart from one other company I worked for, I can’t think of another company who treats their employees with so much respect and attention. After Becky’s passing, we called each other to make sure everyone was okay and that Russell received love.

Becky Wasserman
Becky Wasserman. Photo by Michel Joly.

I wrote that there won’t be anyone like Becky ever again. My friend, California-based sommelier Max Coane, commented that it was a bad attitude, and that when a legend dies, one must pick up the torch and lead as she had. But how can anyone ever match Becky’s contributions? 

While it might be impossible, I have hope. I saw it when Paul told me that they started working with Amélie Berthaut not because of her Vosne-Romanées and Gevrey-Chambertins but rather her beautiful Fixins. I see hope with Les Aligoteurs, a group of Burgundian winegrowers dedicated to promoting the undervalued Aligoté grape. I also see hope when we continue to drink dessert wines during dinners at Becky’s. Dessert wines certainly aren’t fashionable, but it was never about that, was it? 

So keep fighting for the little people, women and minorities, the overlooked vineyards, the Aligotés. Be kind to people. As Becky so often showed, 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 $50k for the ACLU of Texas.  She was voted Wine Enthusiast’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. 

Most Recent