Where It All Began is a five part series written by Ian Hanna – a story of the early days of John Hanna & Sons and his first product hunting trip to Europe.
The steaming, rich, black liquid dispensed a stirring and heavenly aroma into the early morning, autumn air. We rested just long enough to savour the tiny demitasses of strong French Coffee, as the Rue de Faubourg and surrounding streets of Paris’s 10th arrondisement slowly awakened.
We’d arrived moments before at the Gare du Nord, with barely enough time to navigate the two city blocks separating us from the Gare de l’Est and our next train to Dijon, in the north of Burgundy. It was very early on Sunday morning – Marit and I had traveled south from Amsterdam and were scheduled to rendezvous with my parents in Dijon, just before noon.
From there, we would drive south into the famed vineyards of Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits and find a good spot for a typically French, roadside picnic. I didn’t know it, at the time, but this would be the first of many simple feasts (in the years to come) surrounded by the most celebrated vineyards of the world. For me, these casual lunch stops – with fresh baguettes, a basket of local cheeses, meats, pates, cornichons and of course, a big glass of classic local wine – provided intimate introductions to the land, the vines and even the people who worked the vineyards and produced the wines we would come to appreciate so much and incorporate into our own portfolio.
It was 1978 and we were about to take our very first, exciting steps into the fascinating world of wine. What better place to do it than Burgundy – the splendid, historic wine region and home of Pinot Noir! Coffee consumed, our next train located and boarded, we departed the Gare de l’Est on time. Having staked out an otherwise empty compartment, we settled in for the quiet, relaxing 3 ½ hour journey.
Pam and Jack patiently awaited our arrival at the station in Dijon. They had been in Beaune for a few days – well ensconced in their favorite haunt, the charming Hotel le Cep on rue Maufoux, a short walk from the famed Hospices de Beaune and the ever-so-popular Marche aux Vins. To be clear, this was no simple holiday in France. No, this visit had been carefully planned for months, from the corporate environment of my Father’s office at Bloor and Bay Streets in Toronto. We were here to launch our own wine importing business and we had come to the veritable Mecca of wine (at least in my Dad’s considered opinion) to get a “proper” start.
As we pulled into the station in Dijon, Marit and I spied the couple who, from this day forward, would become our frequent travel companions and business partners during the next 5 decades. Till that point, they had simply been my Mom and Dad! I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, departing the Dijon station and driving south into the Cotes de Nuits. We followed the old Route Nationale N74 (now the D974) southwards, taking as many digressions as possible onto tiny vineyard roads and lanes, through these world famous vineyards.
As signs announced each new commune, I was overwhelmed with a real sense of excitement and awe. Chambertin (where we stopped for our picnic lunch – sitting on a rustic stone wall overlooking the Grand Cru vineyard, Le Chambertin, itself), Echezeaux, Vosne Romanee, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vougeot, Chambolle Musigny, and so on…. as though we were driving through the world’s greatest wine list. I suppose I felt much as did the fictional, ghostly character, John Kinsella (in the movie Field of Dreams), when he sheepishly queries his son Ray, “Is this heaven?”
With lunch finished, after a short up close and personal look at the Chambertin grapes, a few feet away, we were off through the great vineyards of the Cotes de Nuits, through the bustling town of Nuits Saint Georges, past the illustrious hill of Corton and into the surrounds of Beaune. This medieval, walled town is the commercial and cultural hub of Burgundy and a must place to visit or stay when in this region. Before taking a walk around the old town we too booked into the Hotel le Cep.
The old world charm and comfort offered by this hotel, only a short distance from the centre of the old town, brought us back time and time again, over the years, on our regular visits to Burgundy. We had dinner at the famous Hotel de la Poste – located on the rocade, a one-way circular drive just outside the ancient town wall and only a few blocks from our hotel. In 1978, the Poste was “the place” to dine in Beaune – home of the infamous Escargots a la Bourguignonne and one of the best customers for the butter industry, anywhere in the world!
The heady aromas of garlic, butter, parsley, and those giant Burgundian snails wafted out through the door as we arrived for our evening meal. The meal was spectacular – accompanied by a couple of bottles of rich, buttery Meursault, and of course, ample quantities of crusty baguette (to soak up the small lake of garlic infused, melted butter).
Following this regal repast, feeling adequately baptized into Burgundian culture and cuisine, we strolled back to the warm comfort of the Hotel le Cep for a nightcap of Fine de Bourgogne (the fiery brandy crafted from the lees of Burgundy wines left in the barrel after bottling) and, in much the way our day had begun in Paris, strong black French coffee.
It was Sunday night – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were fully booked – meeting with a variety of wine producers – one (Maison Prosper Maufoux) would become the first pillar upon which we would build a family business destined to become one of Canada’s most respected, independent wine merchant firms, over the next 5 decades. But for now, we were well and truly immersed in Burgundy.
Ian Hanna – John Hanna & Sons Ltd.