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. You can click here if you’d like to start from the beginning of this series.
Monday morning came early – doesn’t it always?… we enjoyed a typical French breakfast of croissants, crusty baguettes, sweet butter and a variety of country preserves (which, in France, almost always includes the ubiquitous Confiture de Pruneaux d’Agen – a wonderful plum preserve from Agen – located midway from Bordeaux to Toulouse in S.W. France) accompanied, of course, by dark, rich, aromatic French coffee.
Jack (my father) and I had a 9:00 AM appointment (early, even by business standards, in wine regions around the world) at the Cave des Cordeliers.
We had planned this trip for almost a year and with the aid of Hugh Johnson’s Wine Atlas of the World we had identified, located and contacted a number of wine producers, who were – to the best of our ability to confirm, not represented in the Ontario market.
My father’s success in business had been, for a large part, based on a rudimentary but effective strategy to always meet with the right people – “decision makers”. First, he did his homework and identified top potential prospects. He then made contact, usually by a letter, with which he qualified those prospects. His professional yet personable approach meant he was often able to arrange appointments with those he most wanted to meet. Through late 1977 and early 1978 he wrote to some of these “qualified” prospects and made appointments to see them in France.
Our meeting was at the Cave des Cordeliers, situated adjacent to the Hospices de Beaune, with cellars connected directly to those of the Hospices. This was a relatively unknown producer (at least in North American markets) but we were extremely interested in a classical sensibility and important historical connection they could bring to what was, effectively, a brand new company.
It was a short walk from the Cep. The old part of Beaune is laid out like a bicycle wheel with the centre “Place” being the hub of the wheel. The Cep was about 100 metres, or so, down one spoke while the entrances to the Hospices and the Caves des Cordeliers were about the same distance down another. Our walk was less than 10 minutes and we arrived a little early early – I was excited … but ready to embark on this lifelong journey with my Dad and this was a wondrous place to start.
I do not recall the name of the gentleman who greeted us – we chatted for about ½ an hour in his office – he detailed their business, explaining the connection between the winery and the Couvent des Caves des Cordelier and also told us a little about the style of wines they produced. He was interested to hear about Ontario – although, as I recall, he had tried to do business in the Monopoly environment of Canada’s provinces and had given up, rather quickly.
Then we rose and made our way to the cellars – it was time to taste! From the very beginning, it became abundantly clear to me that the best quality producers in the world want their wines to speak for themselves. There is always time for business discussions but they can never replace the elemental quality declaration, made by the wine itself. The cellars at the Cave des Cordeliers were breathtaking – an ancient iron gate, at the end of one tunnel separated us from the celebrated cellars of the Hospices, as we made our way through a labyrinth of dark, dank, low tunnels to a small tasting area. As with all great old Burgundian cellars – rich, sweet, earthy, almost truffle aromas of cellar mold permeated everything, including all of the best wines. To me, this is one of the elements that sets Burgundy apart from even the best Pinots and Chardonnays made elsewhere.
The wines at the Cave des Cordeliers, that morning, were indeed classical wines. We tasted both from barrel and from bottle, primarily the 1977 and 1976 vintages. For the most part, these Pinots were wound up tight – in need of time in the cellar. I had no question about the overall quality of the wines which seemed very fine but as we strolled back towards our hotel, that morning, I was left feeling they could be a very tough sell.
In our market, wine collectors and buyers who purchase with the intent of cellaring, were normally connected with (at least familiar with) the domaines and estates from whom they purchased, each year. Trying to establish this producer as a viable alternative, first and then selling their wines would be a formidable challenge. We left the Caves des Cordeliers with an agreement to stay in touch and to review a possible future commercial relationship – but short of a signed commitment to move ahead.
It was an important tasting for me. I thought the wines were very special, but even more; it was the first time we had tasted with the expressed intent of securing a contract to sell wine for a producer. Amongst all of the usual sensory stimulation, remained the constant need to remain as analytical and critical as possible. It was not easy – although I can freely admit, this remains one of my greatest challenges 35 years and hundreds of similar experiences later.
After a light lunch in Beaune, the four of us hopped in the car and headed south towards the great white wine vineyards of Meursault and Montrachet – it was sightseeing and fun tasting time and we were much in the mood. As we wound our way through the tight streets in the village of Meursault, we spied a small sign advertising “degustation” with the familiar family name “Ropiteau Frerers, which was a well-known brand in the Ontario market in those days.
Pam (as it was widely known by friends and family) was particularly fond of Meursault and we dared not miss an opportunity to stop and taste a variety of different expressions of her very favourite wine. In the end, the wines were acceptable – nothing really special, as I recall – but it was enjoyable and the welcome warm and friendly.
For the most part, in 1978, tasting at the property, “degustation”, was usually advertised on simple – often homemade – sandwich boards, placed at the roadside end of each winery’s entranceway. Tasting rooms were modest affairs, sometimes a few tables and chairs in courtyard or often a small room adjacent to the cellars, rustically appointed with odds and ends, antiques or trinkets collected by families over generations of toiling in the vineyards and cellars.
Visiting those cellars and tasting from barrels was undoubtedly a special treat – but one offered frequently by the folk, so generous in spirit and deed, that seem to populate this venerable profession. We always felt obliged to purchase a bottle or two at each stop – there was never a charge for tasting and we fully realized that most of these small, family operations often depended on their cellar door sales, just for survival.
Today, many European wine producers have embraced the North American concept of selling the sizzle as well as the steak! Tasting rooms are large and inviting, wines often priced by the flight, an extra few EURO buys a walk-through of the cellar or, as in the case of the Chateau de Meursault, one price fits all. For a healthy payment, one can take a self-guided tour through much of the original old Chateau – decorated like a museum with family and regional antiques. Afterwards you tour the cellar complex followed by a cleverly designed tasting area – where the currently commercially available vintages and cuvees are open for tasting. The tasting area is staffed by well-trained “sommelier” sales-people, who quietly but effectively encourage the sales of these generally excellent quality wines.
Ian Hanna – John Hanna & Sons Ltd.