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Where It All Began – Part 3

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.

Tuesday morning was dull and raining but we were up early and finished breakfast in time to depart for our 10:00 AM meeting in Aloxe-Corton, a few kilometers north of Beaune.

Caves de la Reine Pedauque was a commercial negociant firm owned by Pierre Andre. Their offices were in the magnificent Chateau Corton-Andre with its stunning tiled roof reminiscent of the Hospices de Beaune. Located in centre of the village of Aloxe Corton, it offered a spectacular vista over the great vineyards of Charlemagne, Corton and the northern end of Beaune.

Mom and Marit joined us this morning – we had decided to drive north into the Cotes de Nuits and to visit Nuits St Georges following our meeting and they were also keen to see the Chateau Corton Andre and to take part in these formative discussions, given their shared interest in the development of our new business.

We were greeted at the Chateau by the man with whom my father had originally communicated by letter (perhaps this is the time to mention the fact that in 1978, email was still a futuristic dream of science fiction screenplay writers. Fax, for the most part, was a few years away (as yet to become mainstream, at least) especially in the small business world. We used telex when extremely important, rapid communication was necessary and there were companies that offered a service of bulking messages – shipping them overseas at high speed by telephone line; subsequently breaking them back down and delivering them by telex, to the receiver. This was a great cost savings over traditional telex charges which, based on extremely high long distance telephone rates an painfully slow transmission capacity of telex machines – were prohibitively expensive. At this time, letters were still, by far, the most used form of long distance, written communication)

As we quickly stepped inside the front doors of Chateau Corton Andre – my father mentioned that we had come up from Beaune and that Pam and Marit were with us – we hoped it would not be a bother to be four at the meeting. Our host immediately suggested that the “ladies” could wait in the car or go for a walk around the village, while we “talked business”! My father looked at me with that telling look on his face that clearly said “I’m not telling them they can walk around Aloxe-Corton in the rain!” so it was left to me to break this news to them that they were being excluded from this meeting by our host.

This kicked things off on a difficult note and to be honest, I seriously considered joining “the ladies” for the duration of this meeting – but, since my father had gone to a great deal of trouble to get things set-up in the first place, I joined him back in the Chateau.

We listened for about half an hour as our host explained to us just exactly what working with Caves de la Reine Pedauque entailed. He obviously had no idea of the various Canadian monopoly markets – as he carefully detailed how we would distribute, monitor and stock point of sale displays in all retail outlets – how we would ensure distribution of a requisite number of products in the market, at all times. He boldly defined how many cases of each we would sell, every year…….and so on.

At one point, he left the office, for a moment, to speak with a colleague – I looked my father in the eye and quietly said, “I didn’t realize we were meeting with the Coca Cola Company of France”. His look quickly confirmed he shared my thoughts – we were now in a position of having to put an end to this without seeming rude.

He returned and immediately changed the subject – seemingly satisfied he had clearly directed us how to handle these products, should we come to an agreement – it was now time to taste. My father, still agitated by the request that they be excluded from our meeting, immediately suggested Marit and Pam be invited to join us in the cellars and, without waiting for a reaction, dispatched me to get them.

The cellars were magnificent. A very large wine cask had been crafted into a tasting table, in the centre. It was replete with glasses, unopened bottles (unlabeled, of course) and a cork screw. Our host immediately removed the corks from a half a dozen bottles and poured small samples into a glass for each of us. Starting with a range of whites (only a couple) and then moving to reds, we tasted and quietly discussed our impressions of each wine.

Now, I don’t know if pure, youthful enthusiasm translates in French to cockiness or overt self-assuredness. What I do know is, at the age of 24 and in the midst of such magnificent, historic surroundings as the cellars of the Chateau Corton Andre, I likely oozed much of the former – but, it seemed that our host misinterpreted my passion for the place and the wine as some sort of swagger or arrogance.

He disappeared for a few moments (as it turned out, to requisition a bottle from deep in the cellars) and a minute or two after his return, one of the cellar-hands showed up with an unmarked bottle for tasting. The bottle was opened and poured into glasses – our host slowly turned to me and sardonically quipped, “O.K. hotshot – tell me what this one is!”

Daunted but desperately wanting to look reasonable, given my dire lack of experience and now confronted by this impossible task (as was the hope of our host, I’m sure), I engaged the only type of reasoning I had at my disposal – deductive. A properly educated, experienced taster might have easily induced by colour, depth, bouquet, taste, balance, flavour and length just what was in that glass. But I had to work a little backwards – eliminate the few things with which I was familiar enough to recognize as not being there, embrace good luck and guess!

It was, I suggested, a Rhone wine…something in the late 1960’s or early 70’s… a Northern Rhone and likely a 1971 Cote Rotie.

It would be unfair to say his jaw actually dropped – but there was an evident look of real surprise on his face as he begrudgingly admitted (much to my complete amazement) that the wine, in fact, was a 1969 Cote Rotie. Sometime later, I actually realized how close my guess had really been – 1969 was a superb vintage in the Northern Rhone, producing powerful and long-lived wines especially in Cote Rotie and Hermitage. 1971 was likewise a great vintage for these same wines and mistaking one for the other, especially given the power and richness of the 69’s was a minor miscalculation.

In the end, a little reasoning narrowed the field to the point that a lucky guess saved the day. First, the wine was in a Burgundy shaped bottle and we were in a Burgundy cellar. Since the wine did not resemble any Pinot Noir (or Gamay, which is unique in smell and taste), it occurred to me that it must be a red wine from some other appellation common to Burgundian producers. The colour was deep and the immediate thought was Rhone. Since many Burgundian shippers also shipped Rhone wines, I almost immediately decided it must be a Rhone of some description. The nose was quite complex and well developed and it displayed ample peppery, meaty tones. My exposure to Syrah, by this point in time was restricted to the wines I had purchased for sale in the two restaurants I ran in Toronto through late 1977 and early 1978. That meant, primarily Bouchard Pere & Fils Cote Rotie – I am not sure if I had ever tasted Hermitage yet – a few very basic Cote du Rhones, and CDR Villages wines and one or two Chateauneuf du Papes defined my understanding of Rhone wine. It was certainly the extent of my experience with the grand Syrah wines of the northern Rhone.

Never one to wander too far from home, I stuck with my instincts and my limited experience and guessed Cote Rotie. I had recently read that the Rhone valley – especially the northern Rhone had not had a really good vintage since 1971. Before that 1970 was very good and 1969 also outstanding and although our host might certainly have tried something from a less successful year, he seemed to me to have an ego large enough to militate against that possibility. So, there I was, blurting out my guess – arrived at by eliminating various options of what I thought it wasn’t!

It remains to this day, one of my few fond memories of blind tasting – something I have religiously avoided, ever since….but that is another story.

Our afternoon appointment was one to which we had been looking forward for many months.

Our examination of Hugh Johnson’s Wine Atlas of the World had led to a few very interesting contacts including this one in the Southern Cote d’Or village of Santenay. Maison Prosper Maufoux was identified as a superior producer by Johnson. Indeed, their label was boldy displayed as well, something we felt only added to the regard in which this negociant was held by the author.

I had worked for about a year with Freddy Locicero, a great friend in Toronto and the Chef at the Vineyard on Hayden. Although Fred was widely recognized as a talented chef, many were not aware of his encyclopaedic knowledge of wine. Freddy not only enjoyed his full share of the stuff but he was as informed on the subject as anyone I knew in the Toronto wine scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He bought great wines for his restaurants and he was a master of creating dishes to accompany the finest of them.

Freddy was impressed when he heard that we had contacted Prosper Maufoux and were meeting with this respected company during our initial visit to France. At the time, Maufoux wines were very well known in New York. Their long-time American distributor, House of Burgundy, had established these wines as market leaders in the top hotels and restaurants in New York City, where Fred and a number of other top Toronto restaurateurs had seen them and we were pretty excited to be meeting to discuss launching their wines in Ontario.

We arrived in Santenay, a pretty village, just around the very southern tip of the Cote d’Or. The southeast and south facing slopes of Santenay, nestled up against those of Chassagne-Montrachet, mark the end of the Cote de d’Or and the Cote de Beaune appellation. At the top of the village centre square of Santenay – Place du Jet d’Eau (Santenay was also famous for it’s thermal hot springs), was La Grande Maison – the home of Maison Prosper Maufoux.

The Maufoux company was founded in 1860 by a local notary of the same name. His son, Cyprien forged important relationships and established major export markets in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States of America. Pierre Maufoux, the next generation was responsible for acquiring the mansion in the centre of town which had been built in 1835 by Jacques Marie Duvault-Blochet, the owner of the Domaine la Romanee Conti at that time.

Pierre Maufoux greeted us with a warm welcome. We sat with him for about an hour in his office on the main floor of this magnificent mansion and discussed the various aspects of working in a monopoly environment. After about an hour, Pierre rose from his desk, stepped out of the room for a moment and then returned with 5 glasses and a bottle of chilled Chablis. He continued to chat with my father as he pulled the cork and poured a generous splash into each glass. The toast that followed celebrated the foundation of a new business relationship between our family companies – the first for John Hanna & Sons, marking an exciting new time in our lives which we have continued to celebrate ever since.

Pierre Maufoux and my father were the same age and over the next 20 years they would form a close friendship. We continued to work with the Maufoux family and their company through the eventual takeover of the business by their American distributor in 1994.

The Maufoux agency remained our most important through the formative years of our business. Fenton’s restaurant in Toronto, an outstanding quality and trendsetting eatery located at Yonge and Gloucester became the most important customer for Maufoux wines, here. Co-owner and wine buyer, David Barrett was extremely fond of Maufoux wines (once again, having been exposed to them in the trendiest places of New York City) and he purchased and stocked many Maufoux wines, over the years. This included his private label house wine, a delicious non-AOC French Vins de Table which Maufoux produced – at a very reasonable price.

I well remember delivering large orders of this house wine to Fenton’s cellars on Gloucester Street; often 50 – 100 cases at a time. We made very little on these orders (about 10.00 Francs a case, as I recall – which translated to about $2.50 per case) but the overall business and the tremendous exposure for the brand, resulting from being so widely available on the Fenton’s Wine List, in those days, was unparalleled.

It took a few years before the LCBO Vintages department purchases anything from Maufoux for resale in their stores – so in the early years, we focused solely on private imports of their wines. Single case orders from private customers were common – often the same non-AOC that was used for the Fenton’s house wine. It was called Maufoux Cuvee Rouge and at the same $2.50 per case – we struggled along trying to make ends meet.

Finally, our first break-through with Vintages was the Santenay Blanc 1er Cru “Les Gravieres” – an uncannily Chassagne Montrachet like white from Maufoux. It was a rare wine as almost all of Santenay is planted to Pinot Noir (especially the 1er Cru vineyards) but this specialty of the Maufoux family made a wonderful addition to the LCBO Vintages selection. I have very, very fond memories of this wine and, without a doubt, even fonder memories of our dear friends, Pierre, Vincent, Danielle and Marion Maufoux. Without the continued support and friendship of this remarkable Burgundian family, John Hanna & Sons Ltd., would surely not exist today.

Ian Hanna – John Hanna & Sons Ltd.

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