Last Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of interviewing the multi-faceted wine consultant Peter Wasserman at the Becky Wasserman Selections wine pairing dinner held at New York Vintners. The son of founder Becky Wasserman Hone, Peter Wasserman acts as the company’s global wine consultant and is based between Burgundy, where the company is headquartered, and New York City.
A globe trotting polyglot, Wasserman’s enviable elevage occurred amidst the Burgundian vines. Despite this distinct advantage, Wasserman once lamented his lot in life: “at the time I hated it, living in this little isolated village and having to walk through the mud to school.” However, Wasserman, perhaps intoxicated over time by the ravishing scent of Pinot Noir wafting through the fields, now acknowledges the fact that he is indeed “the luckiest bastard on earth.”
Wasserman’s American mother Becky eschewed the prospect of becoming a hotel receptionist (she had the distinct advantage of speaking fluent English) instead electing to launch her own wine business in 1979, thus becoming one of the first women to start a wine brokerage. Becky had been living in Burgundy since 1968, where she was swiftly infected by the local culture, food, wine and savoir vivre.
Apparently the wine gene runs in the family. According to Wasserman, his brother Paul has an excruciatingly good nose from day one, honing his ability to detect discrete domaines and vintages by the tender age of five. When presented blind with a particularly good wine administered amidst a sea of mediocrity; Paul took one sniff and notoriously remarked: “finally…a good one!”
It seems that a rare combination of genes and upbringing has endowed the Wassermans with their unique talent for unearthing hand crafted hidden jewels. And that sort of talent is critical when it comes to the delicate and notoriously temperamental wines of Burgundy and Champagne, the regions where the Wassermans focus their energy.
Wasserman transitions seamlessly between French, English and Franglais. The mark of a true polyglot is not, after all, how many languages one counts among one’s repertoire, but rather how well one can combine multiple languages within the same sentence, something Wasserman excels at.
Wines He Loves
When it comes to his taste, it’s all about nuance. When asked about his favorite wine, he professes to be in love with the 1984 and 86’ Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses “in an ever replenishing double magnum.” According to Wasserman, the wine exhibits “the indescribable character of a tightrope walker; graceful, but extremely vulnerable. The minerality extends beyond the wine’s composition; it layers on the mid-palate in such a graceful way. It has great length, but not power. It is expressive but not heavy.” Not surprisingly, if he were placed in the uncompromising position of having to drink only one style of wine for the rest of his life, he would choose red Burgundy hands down. Wasserman’s love for Burgundian Pinot is such that he even finds it to be the best match for Sushi and as well as for the musical pairings of Johnny Cash, Delta blues, as well as historical novels and books about an item, such as “Cod”, “Salt” or “Cotton.”
Wasserman continues that the Pinot/Sushi clash isn’t something to feared. If someone goes for a Burg with sushi, they’re already open and advanced enough to rise to the challenge; to fully accept the meeting of these two dissonant forces. “This unique pair is like the greatest of marriages. If the pairing is a success, it’s a marriage. If not, it’s a seriously flawed relationship. In the case of the marriage, the pair meet on a higher ground. It’s transcendental. A more pure expression of the elements comes to the fore. Whereas in a traditional pairing, the sum is greater than its parts, in an oriental pairing, the elements may clash up front but both wine and food meet on a higher plane in a clear way.” Like Foie Gras and Sauternes, many unexpected couples can make a stunning pair.
Outside Burgundy and Champagne, Wasserman particularly enjoys wines from the Northern Rhone and some Barolos. “I like layers and lengthy evolution in the glass. Unlike these monolithic wines, I want a wine to show potential so I’m not looking for big molten blocks that fall short.” Still, he admits that what counts most is what the individual is looking for. Becky Wasserman Imports has carved out an increasingly unique niche within the wine market for high quality, small grower, boutique wines that are renowned for their refinement, sophistication and delicacy.
Wasserman believes that wine is primarily meant to be drunk with food. One notable wine collector present at Tuesday’s dinner remarked that it must be extremely difficult for a critic to judge a wine without food, given that it changes in the palate according to its food partner. However Wasserman’s take on this issue is that tasting can be conducted in several different ways for a multiplicity of purposes.
For instance, he likes to taste to determine structure, layered mid-palate and potential for aging. This should be done by those wishing to cellar their wines. However, for wines that are to be enjoyed now and that are currently drinking well; the nose and the fruit suddenly step into the equation. It was also pointed out that wine should be judged within its own category: an excellent Pouilly Fume can’t be justly compared to an equivalently high quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; just as a piece of impressionistic art cannot be compared with an equivalent achievement in abstract expressionism. The sauvignon example highlights that these are two distinct geographies, climates, terroirs and winemaking styles, which isn’t to say that everybody has or should have the same taste.
Wasserman suggests that the best way to navigate the wine ratings landscape to find wines YOU will enjoy is to take a selection of wines rated by different critics, and to taste them blind. Then determine, based on your personal favorites, which level of each individual critic’s score most appeals to your individual palate. As wine is a highly subjective experience, an individual taster could simply adore all of Parker’s 87 scores, while going for Clive Coates’s 91’s or Jancis Robinson’s 17’s (the Brits tend to rate out of 20, rather than using the American 100 point scale). The consensus around our table was that people tend to go for the highest scores, as they equate that with personal success in a competitive environment, equating it with (chilling memories of?) school or competitive sports. However, wine, being a far more subtle and complex beast, requires a nuanced and highly individualized rating scale. Everyone tastes differently, and objectively better constructed wines aside, matching your taste with a particular critic’s score range that matches it, offers a serious, personalized and possibly more cost efficient alternative to simply taking the highest ratings as being the monolithic “truth.”
Wines of the Night
At one point over the course of the meal, the entire room compared the Camille Giroud 2006 Volnay Les Taillepieds and the Camille Giroud 1976 Corton Bressandes. While most present showed a slight preference for the 76’, Wasserman attributes this to the stage of the wine’s development. Indeed, its softly complex set of heady aromas abandoned themselves fully when discovered on the velvety palate, chock full of smoky seductive black fruit that almost danced with vibrancy. Much as in 2003, France experienced a heatwave over the summer of 1976. Far from destroying the fruit character of the Corton Bressandes; the influence the sun, and resulting thicker skins of the grapes, has caused this glorious wine to age into its own voluptuous body via a remarkable set of powerful tannins that have mellowed out over time. This wine is like a jazz rhapsody for the palate.
By contrast, the 06’ Volnay, with its layered mid-palate, structured elegance and austere tannins, drinking deliciously now; will also be glorious in 10 or 20 years at later stages of its development. The name taille pieds literally means foot sharpener, an attribute that stems from the gravel size limestone pebbles that constitute the domaine’s topsoil. This name perfectly reflects the wine’s undercurrent of cutting minerality running beneath a core of ruby soft fruit.
But perhaps the most intriguing wines came towards the end of the evening in the form of a bold Brouilly and a wonderfully unusual Syrah, Grenache blend from the Languedoc-Rousillon which, while forming a smashing pair with the Pear Tart we were served for dessert, seemed to me like the perfect match for a great big haunch of Venison on the grill. Wasserman concurred that the Domaine des Grecaux 2004 Montpeyroux Hemera could arguably be the best barbeque wine on earth. While its sumptuousness took on Port-like qualities, bursting with dark black fruit and a hint of chocolate when served with the dessert; this wine is clearly versatile, held up by vibrant acidity and a remarkable freshness. The Brouilly, served with a delectable smorgasbord of artisanal cheeses, proved that Gamay can be a bold and age worthy choice, as is seldom reflected in often disappointing mass market Beaujolais. At our table’s lively debate, the Brouilly was equated with Jennifer Aniston, while the Grecaux was clearly the Angelina Jolie of the evening. In addition, both the Grecaux and the Brouilly are extremely fairly priced at $24 and $29 a bottle respectively.
All in all, the evening proved a heady mix of high and low wit, with Picasso winning the title of “the best Artist of all time in bed” and several celebrity couples being compared to wine and food pairings (everyone from Morante and Moravia to Bill and Monica were mentioned). All in all, the dinner proved to be an educational tour de force for the senses, the mind and, most importantly, the palate.
For those who would like to find out more about the intriguing Wasserman family and their stunningly unique wines, take a look into the Becky Wasserman Selections website at www.leserbet.com. Peter Wasserman recommends Cote d’Or by Clive Coates for the best book on Burgundy and Tom Stevenson’s Champagne books for some excellent bubbly reading.