An American in Burgundy

The soaring demand for its finest wines and the peripatetic travels of its leading producers have done little to alter Burgundy’s basic character: It remains a rural, tightknit region with an internal dynamic that doesn’t easily reveal itself to outsiders. In Bordeaux, the political squabbles and personal rivalries tend to play out much more openly. But then, the Bordeaux wine trade has traditionally been driven as much by outsiders (Brits in particular) as by locals. Not so in Burgundy, where wine has always been a homegrown product, in every sense of the word. For this reason, it helps to know people in Burgundy who know people.

For me, there is no greater source of wisdom, dirt, and humor in Burgundy than Becky Wasserman-Hone. She is not, as you may have guessed, native to the region: Wasserman-Hone is a 69-year-old transplanted New Yorker who arrived in Burgundy in 1968 with her then-husband and two young sons. When her marriage began to unravel, Wasserman-Hone, determined to remain in Burgundy, went into the wine business, first selling barrels, later selling wine itself. Today, her export firm, Le Serbet, headquartered in what is said to be a former chancellery (she can’t verify the claim) just off the Place Carnot (ideally situated directly across the cobbled walkway from Ma Cuisine), represents more than 100 wineries throughout France, including several of Burgundy’s most esteemed estates (Mugnier, Lafarge, and Lafon). Among Burgundy aficionados, she is a sainted figure and invariably the first person they wish to see whenever they are in town.

We met up at her office for a quick lunch, after which we headed over to her latest and perhaps most ambitious project. In 2002, a consortium led by American investment banker Joe Wender and his wife, Ann Colgin (proprietor of Napa’s celebrated Colgin Cellars), acquired Maison Camille Giroud, a boutique négociant headquartered in Beaune. The winery badly needed revitalization, and Wender and Colgin, based in California, needed someone who could keep a close watch on the project—especially since the winemaker they hired, David Croix, was just 23 at the time. Inevitably, they turned to Wasserman-Hone, and she has helped stage a rather dramatic turnaround at Camille Giroud. The wines are now suppler and more approachable, and the critics appear to like what they’ve tasted thus far from the new regime.

As we walked through the cellar with Croix, Wasserman-Hone said that reviving Camille Giroud’s fortunes was harder than it perhaps looked. She explained that the competition for quality grapes has turned especially brutal in recent years. With the run-up in land values in Burgundy, it has become nearly impossible for individual wineries to expand their businesses by adding to their vineyard holdings; the only avenue available to them has been to set up négociant firms on the side and to purchase grapes to supplement the ones grown in their own vineyards. Thus, Camille Giroud, a relatively small outfit, has found itself competing for grapes not just with larger négociants, such as Louis Jadot, but with an increasing number of prominent grower-producers. Nonetheless, the early reviews seem to suggest that Croix and Wasserman-Hone have had little trouble getting first-rate grapes, and the domaine’s terrific 2005s, currently aging in barrels, certainly indicated as much.

We spent around an hour in the cellar, sipping, spitting, and re-pouring. (Because the wines in Burgundy are generally made in such small quantities, etiquette dictates that one not drain one’s glass when tasting in a Burgundian cellar—the custom is to take one good swig and to return the leftovers to the winemaker, who will then pour the excess juice back into the barrel; it may not be all that hygienic, but it conserves lots of precious wine.) Wasserman-Hone said that what she most enjoyed about her work for Camille Giroud was that it had brought her closer to the winemaking process than she’d ever been. As an importer, she said, she has always maintained a strict Chinese wall, never offering winemaking advice to clients. In this case, she had no choice but to spend a lot of time in the cellar, even though it was clear from the start that Croix was a very talented vigneron. Having now been immersed in production, Wasserman-Hone has concluded that she is probably better off sticking with the business end.

Establishing herself in Burgundy was not easy. Wasserman-Hone entered the wine business in 1976, becoming a barrel merchant. Spending long periods on the road taxed her energy and occasionally taxed her in other ways. Closing a deal in California, she found herself obliged to disrobe and share a hot tub with eight naked, pot-smoking, champagne-quaffing strangers. (The host was buying several dozen barrels from her, and she didn’t wish to insult him by rebuffing his invitation to hop in and join the party.) In 1981, Wasserman-Hone stopped selling barrels and began exporting wine to the United States full-time.

She got her big break from an unexpected source: Legendary chefs Pierre and Jean Troisgros, owners of the eponymous Michelin three-star in Roanne, a few hours south of Beaune, had their own line of wines, and they retained her as their U.S. agent. “They thought they would give the girl a chance,” she says. Their vote of confidence opened doors for her back in Burgundy, where the Troisgros name was gold. She got help, as well, from friends she’d made in Burgundy, such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine, and in time she built an impressive roster of clients and established herself as one of the most knowledgeable and connected figures on the local wine scene.

Today, Le Serbet has 37 shareholders and employs a total of seven people. Her second husband, Russell Hone, a veteran of the British wine trade who is as popular a figure in Burgundy as she is, works for the firm and is also one of the shareholders. They make a striking pair: Wasserman-Hone barely clears 5 feet, while Hone stands 6 feet 6 inches and is as broad as he is tall. The couple shares a 15th-century farmhouse in the village of Bouilland, about 10 miles from Beaune. With one of her sons now handling the company’s sales, Wasserman-Hone rarely travels to the United States, and she seems to miss it even less. “I adore being in Beaune; it’s just a wonderful small town. And living in France, we don’t have to worry about health care, which is a consideration as one gets older. I feel like an alien when I visit America now. Burgundy is home.” And the Burgundians have embraced her as one of their own.