A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
One of the most important villages on the Côte d’Or, in terms of its influence on the recent history of Burgundy, has no vineyards at all. With a population of 210 people at last count, Bouilland is a sleepy hamlet at the head of a little green valley west of Burgundy’s wine capital Beaune that is too cool and shady to ripen grapes reliably.
Its once-celebrated hotel and restaurant Le Vieux Moulin is now shuttered. There are no shops. But for the world’s swelling band of burgundy enthusiasts, the hamlet is a mecca. This is all thanks to a youthful 82-year-old American harpsichordist-turned-wine-broker Becky Wasserman-Hone, who has been broking fine burgundy from her base in Bouilland since offering the 1976 vintage.
She and her artist husband moved to Burgundy in 1968. By the mid 1970s she found herself a single parent desperate for work. A neighbour, Jean François, was a cooper. Hoping to profit from American winemakers’ reverence for French oak, he suggested she use her English on behalf of François Frères. She set off round the States with a small demonstration barrel and built a business that she eventually gave up when she realised she was more interested in what the barrels contained, and was no fan of over-oaked wines.
Since then, she has become the best-known exporter of a range of domaine-bottled burgundies, including some of the greatest names, to the United States. She also sells to the UK, Scandinavia and Russia. Her local knowledge and address book are unrivalled. She used to feed Aubert de Villaine, now co-owner of the world-famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, when he was a young bachelor living in Beaune. He told Decanter magazine, when they elevated Wasserman-Hone to their Hall of Fame (sic) this month, that ‘no-one knows how to talk about Burgundy with so much talent and nobody likes their wines with as much sincerity and deep knowledge as Becky'.
In her early married life in the US, Wasserman-Hone worked in a department store. As she put it to Levi Dalton on his popular wine podcast I'll Drink To That, ‘I learnt it was wonderful to be part of a group of working people’. Perhaps it was that experience which inspired her to create what sounds like the perfect working environment – all set within her cluster of ancient stone buildings in Bouilland, once even complete with farm animals. The administration has generally been done by efficient Frenchwomen working alongside an ever-changing roster of interns, mainly male. They meet daily for lunch cooked by Wasserman-Hone’s current husband Russell Hone (described as ‘an honorary woman’ by Wasserman-Hone, who is approximately half his height). He arrived in Bouilland from the London wine trade in 1985 and never went back. Possible new wines are considered, communally, at the table. ‘We follow a simple rule: “If we won't drink it, we won't sell it.”'
To judge from recollections, interns are made to feel like members of a particularly blessed family. One of the first recruits was Dominique Lafon, now considered the king, or at least prince, of Meursault at his family domaine. He says his four years in Bouilland in the early 1980s never really felt like work, and taught him ‘to speak English, to taste and evaluate wine, and to learn about vineyards and winemaking from guys like Gérard Potel [the late owner of Domaine de la Pousse d’Or] and Michel Lafarge’. (At one time, Potel and Lafarge were two of the most respected vignerons in Volnay.)
Languedoc wine producer Bertie Eden (seen below with a youthful Patrice Rion) overlapped with Lafon, and their joint responsibilities included wrestling each of the 40 sheep Wasserman-Hone then had, in order to administer hoof medication. Eden describes what he learnt there as ‘a sort of souped-up MBA’; it was ‘exciting, delicious, beautiful, lots of harpsichord'.
Lafon was succeeded by Jean-Yves Devevey, who says, ‘without Becky I would never have become the man I am today ... With her export broking business she brought something quite new to Burgundy ... I’ve always been fascinated by how she tastes and describes wine, in her own language that has nothing to do with technical stuff but is based on her sensations and emotions.’
Wasserman-Hone’s effect on a generation (or two) of wine professionals has been remarkable. Robert Joseph was not an official intern but he did odd jobs for Wasserman-Hone in the early 1980s and went on to found the International Wine Challenge. A Brit in Burgundy, he initially avoided Anglophones like the plague, but was intrigued when a celebrated grower told him that Wasserman-Hone knew more about burgundy than he ever would. Joseph describes her as ‘one of the straightest people I have ever met’. He recalls that when her business very nearly collapsed – when an American customer went bust – she still insisted on paying all her growers. According to Joseph, it was thanks to Wasserman-Hone that many growers met each other for the first time. (Côte d’Or villages used to be notoriously parochial.) She also introduced them to their customers from both sides of the Atlantic and to wines not just from Burgundy but from all over the world.
Wasserman-Hone and Russell (pictured top right) effectively run an open house. The last time I ate at their long, ultra-hospitable table, the late baseball player Rusty Staub was in residence. They host regular symposia focused on top-quality tastings, visits, eating and drinking. These were led initially by Master of Wine Clive Coates, and then America’s best-known Burgundy specialist Allen Meadows, or Burghound, who used Wasserman-Hone’s cottage as his Côte d’Or base for 12 years. Meadows recently handed the baton to Jasper Morris MW. He and his wife bought Wasserman-Hone’s converted barn in 1991 and Morris dedicated his book Inside Burgundy to her. In the old photograph below, Becky listens to François Millet of de Vogüé lecturing a table full of burgundy lovers.
For Jo Thornton, now running Moët Hennessy Europe, the couple were like second parents, except that they also introduced him to a dazzling array of international wine luminaries and taught him how to cook and speak French. ‘I certainly learnt far more during my 12 months with Becky and Russell than I did during my three years at Warwick [university]', he says now. One of his many special memories was of a magnum of Camille Giroud’s 1964 Bâtard-Montrachet shared round the Bouilland fireside ‘with everyone in tears’.
Although with escalating prices, burgundy is increasingly viewed as a rich man’s plaything, Wasserman-Hone sees it as her current task to remind people that grands crus, and even premiers crus, are just a small, over-publicised part of the picture. ‘If you can’t afford Michel Lafarge’s Clos des Chênes, then buy his Bourgogne Rouge. It’s delicious.’ She’s right. Of course.
Dominique Lafon, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Meursault
Robert (Bertie) Eden, Château Maris, Minervois
Robert Joseph, wine industry analyst and wine producer
Jean-Yves Devevey, Domaine Jean-Yves Devevey, Rully
Jim Clendenen Au Bon Climat
Jo Thornton, managing director of Moët Hennessy Europe
Eléanore Lafarge, Domaine Lafarge, Volnay
André Ostertag, Domaine André Ostertag, Alsace
Silvia Altare, Elio Altare, Barolo
Todd Stanfield, Tonnellerie Remond, US
Gilles Francez, wine merchant, Lyon
Patrick Allen, importer of Languedoc wine, US
Jean-Philippe Bret, Bret Brothers and La Soufrandière, Mâconnais
Michael Dhillon, Bindi Wines, Victoria, Australia
Alex Gambal, eponymous wine producer, Beaune
Scott Levy, wine broker, New Orleans
Cristina Otel, Burgundy Wine School, Beaune