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Published:  23 July, 2008

After leaving the US for the Cte d'Or in the Sixties, Becky Wasserman set up shop first as a cooper and then as a broker, earning a dazzling reputation. Here, she talks to Margaret Rand about the peculiar problems of doing business in Burgundy and her run-in with the Mob.

It was Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner of Domaine de la Romane-Conti, who first sowed the seeds of rebellion in the mind of Becky Wasserman. Aubert had dinner with us a lot,' she says, and he said, "What is so marvellous about you, Becky, is that you wash glasses so beautifully".' The trouble was, it was true. Wasserman had arrived in Burgundy in 1968 with her then husband, Bart, her mother and her two infant sons. Bart was a painter, drawn to Burgundy because someone had said the light was marvellous. Her mother came along because she didn't want to be left alone in the United States; she was Hungarian, had been a prima ballerina in her day and spoke French using only the infinitive. They must have added to the local colour, regardless of the light. Bart was a great collector of Burgundy, but Wasserman herself was only involved peripherally. At my first tasting I got smashed, because I didn't realise you had to spit. My mother was horribly shocked.' But her peripheral involvement certainly extended to washing and drying glasses, and the planting of that seed of rebellion meant that when Jean Franois of coopers Franois Frres - they lived near to each other - suggested to Wasserman that she might consider selling a few barrels, she said yes. I had never sold anything in my life, but the prospect of being financially self-sufficient was an attractive prospect by then.' She wrote letters and the boys, no longer infants, addressed the envelopes, and a few key people, notably Dick Graff at Chalone and Andr Tchelistcheff, proved helpful. Franois made her miniature barrels to show people; the first time she travelled with them she put them in the back of the car and it ended up smelling more of Marlboros than of Nevers or Alliers. Nevertheless, she sold some. The business financed trips, so that she could take round a small list of estate-bottled Burgundies and Champagnes as well. Suddenly, I had a number of little jobs, like selling the Troisgros label in the US, and a list of domaine-bottled wines from France - and because I didn't know what rejection meant, I kept knocking on doors.' It took about five years to get established - not long in retrospect, perhaps, but, she says, it felt like an eternity at the time'. Robert Joseph got to know her at this point, having avoided her for about three years, put off by the eulogies of every American he happened to meet. Becky Wasserman, he was told, in almost every accent from East Coast to West, knew everything there was to know about Burgundy. It was only when a grower told him the same thing that Joseph rang her; and then she was slightly chary of meeting him, because she and her husband had known an artist called Peter Joseph, who in an epileptic fit had attacked one of them with a knife.

Italian gangsters and French truckers Joseph also tells of Becky travelling in the US, and being met at an airport by an assortment of Italianate gentlemen with bulging jackets, who informed her that Big Louis (as it might be) controlled the liquor trade in that town, and that Big Louis didn't much care for her busting in on it. She worked for about five years with broker Christopher Cannan of Europvin, who describes her as very dynamic and very good at PR. She built up a network of contacts, partly through her husband and partly on her own account, and especially in the US. She started something that nobody else was doing in Burgundy - we were doing it in Bordeaux, and we had a very successful partnership, while it lasted.' Economic conditions and the demise of a US customer brought about its end, but it was Cannan who, among other things, taught Wasserman how to group barrels and bottles into the same container: a mundane but vital piece of information. It had been difficult until then, because the paperwork was so enormous,' she says. Nobody wanted 150 barrels: they wanted three, or eight. It was the same thing with small domaines. Learning the mechanics of that was crucial.' So was learning how to deal with truckers. A French trucker is not allowed to load a truck. So if there's only a granny and a four-year-old at the domaine, you've missed the pick-up.' At some point along the way, Becky Wasserman, painter's wife and washer-up-in-chief, had metamorphosed into Becky Wasserman, broker. Now there are six people working at Le Serbet, her house-cum-office in the hills behind the Cte d'Or, with Wasserman and her second husband Russell Hone, and she's working with about 80 growers at the moment, from all over France. I solicited shamelessly,' she says of her early days; now they come to us. People know what we like. We have no fixed style; the joy is the incredible variety. We have a tendency to like old vines and an expression of terroir. It's easy to disguise the origins of wines these days, with too much oak or extraction. I get very disturbed when I can't tell what country a wine comes from. If we don't like it, we can't sell it,' she says. We've turned down some bread-and-butter opportunities - perhaps we've been too strict, but the wines didn't turn us on. What we want from a grower is attention to the vineyards - that's the basis of everything. The cost of getting a neglected vineyard back into shape is enormous. We're not interventionist: I would not pretend to know enough about how to vinify. It's best if things are pretty much in hand. And we're drawn to honesty. We get along better if we don't feel you're doing it just for monetary reasons. It's not a purely financial thing to do.'

Men are like trains' If Wasserman herself had put monetary reasons more to the forefront, she might not now have what she describes as the financial worries of a 30-year-old'. She's stood by growers when some of her customers have gone bust, which as a broker she didn't need to do,' says Joseph. She's had to recapitalise the business twice, after bankruptcies and non-payment in the US. (Turnover is around FF20 million a year; FF28 million was the most, at the height of the boom. Sixty per cent of her market is in the US.) Now we're more ruthless if we sense anything going wrong,' she says. When we met, she was in litigation with one of her newer producers, who sold us poor wine. So we stopped all sales, and informed everybody.' In 25 years she says she's had to go to law seven times. One source also suggests that growers have occasionally been less loyal to her than she has been to them, once they have made their name with her help. She is cautious on this subject: sometimes there can just be a seven-year-itch'. But then, she says, men - and, one might infer, growers - are like trains: there's always another one behind. And there are people I've had for over 20 years, like Denis Bachelet. We started to work with him when he was 16 years old.' Now, however, Wasserman has a new job - as well as, rather than instead of, her existing one. She has become MD of Camille Giroud, and will divide her time half and half between the two. Camille Giroud is a merchant company with about one hectare of biodynamic vineyard, and Wasserman had sold its wines for 11 years. It was about to disappear, not least through apathy, and Wasserman's task is to turn it around: We don't expect to make huge profits right away, but we don't expect to lose money, either,' she says. It's one of the last two shipping companies that make traditional vins de garde: there are stocks for sale back to 1937. The management of that cellar is fascinating. And the people who bought it have invested in new equipment, so it's become efficient and not hampered by 20- or 30-year-old equipment.' The new owners are all from Goldman Sachs and are all Burgundy collectors. Wasserman intends to sell the wines more aggressively than they were sold in the past, but there are only 4,000 cases a year to be aggressive with. We're beginning to get good enough grapes,' she says, and a new team is being put together. The structure will, it seems, be modelled on Le Serbet, where there's a decent kitchen and everyone eats in every day, everyone gets on and we profit-share when we can. When I worked in the US I was so badly treated by employers that I was determined to run my own company differently.' And there is, one might infer, a glass-washing machine.