Todd Halpern – Merlot and Lab Coats
Todd Halpern is a man of many titles, among them being father, son, president of one of Canada’s biggest wine-importing companies and vice-chair of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation Board of Directors. He sat down with Dolce to reveal how he blends his two passions, using everyone’s favourite elixir as a vessel for making a difference in Canadian health care.
The charmingly rugged corner building in the heart of Chinatown isn’t what I am expecting to see as I arrive at the address of Halpern Enterprises. The only things that assure me I’m in the right place are a nondescript sign tucked above a hidden entrance, and the fact that the building is settled smack-dab in between Toronto Western Hospital and Toronto General Hospital.
If you enjoy a passionate relationship with fine wine, you’re familiar with Halpern Enterprises. It’s one of the biggest wine importers in Canada, with a portfolio that bursts with over 300 of the world’s most sigh-worthy vintages, from Bordeaux to Napa Valley, from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. Which is why I try to snuff my surprise as I enter the company’s aged headquarters. The building has character, and as I scan my surroundings it becomes clear that its president doesn’t waste investments on things like shiny new office buildings. As vice-chair of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation (TGWHF) Board of Directors, Todd Halpern is known to spend his cash on much more important things.
Halpern sits in his office, a modest room that was once his father’s apartment. Surrounded by photos of museum-worthy wine bottles and framed memorabilia from past renditions of his world-renowned annual Toronto fundraiser, the Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival, he looks out his window at the colourful bustle of the neighbourhood he’s watched evolve since his childhood.
“There’s a lot of history here for me — we’ve only been here for 90 years,” he jokes.
Diving into the story behind 400 Spadina Ave., Halpern explains that the space has belonged to his family ever since 1929, when it was his father’s home and pharmaceutical business (the entryway I just came through once housed the medical delivery horses). Eventually his parents bought their family home up at Bathurst and Sheppard, and growing up, Todd would ride his bike down to spend his evenings and weekends stocking the shelves. But it wasn’t Halpern Drug Store that he eventually took the reins of.
Ever the wine connoisseur, Harold Halpern had a passion project: he’d been running his wine-importing business on the side for years — the ongoing joke being that he would medicate his friends by day and get them drunk by night — and in 1976 he decided to close the pharmacy to let his importing company blossom. But not long after, in 1980, Harold fell ill with a subdural hematoma, and Todd stepped in.
“I had just graduated high school, and the company was financially in trouble,” says Halpern. “My mother was going to close the business down, but I told her to let me go to Europe and see what I could do.”
The 19-year-old Halpern spent two weeks in Europe talking the talk with the who’s-who of the industry, and came home having nailed down a selection of very poignant brands, among them being France’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the most famous winery in the world. With a new and improved portfolio, Halpern Enterprises became über-profitable by the end of that year, and Todd was able to expand the company. He found a business partner, Edward Milstein, and the two opened in America with a new brand called the Sorting Table before buying their own vineyards in Burgundy, France.
He pours me a glass of Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot from his own winery, Remoissenet Père et Fils — which is, needless to say, fantastic — as we tour the photos that hang on his office walls. Behind his desk is a framed doctor’s lab coat, a gift to him from the hospital as a thank-you for all he’s done as Board Champion. Many University Health Network (UHN) doctors have signed it: it’s covered with the scrawled well wishes of heart surgeons, the Surgeon-in-Chief, orthopedic surgeons, pancreatic cancer surgeons. One of them even thought to doodle a wine bottle sticking out of the front pocket. This year, like every year, a handful of them will receive a portion of the earnings from Grand Cru.
Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival is one of the many ways that Halpern amplifies the TGWHF every year. There’s a reason why he was recently named one of Toronto’s top 10 “power party” throwers: since it all began 12 years ago, the annual event has become talked about around the world, having raised over $22 million net for UHN. And it’s not your grandmother’s fundraising gala. Last year’s Grand Cru was a complex, three-day event that began with a wine tasting, followed by 30 private dinners. Each dinner brought together a top chef and a UHN scientist with about 24 other guests.
“Every year it changes up. I believe in giving to everybody in the hospital, not just to one specific area,” he says. Last year the money went to stem cell research at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. This year, $250,000 will go to heart research for Dr. Phyllis Billia, $250,000 will go to orthopedic surgery for Dr. Raja Rampersaud, and another $250,000 will go to Dr. Shaf Keshavjee for lung repair and regeneration research. The remainder raised will go to research infrastructure.
Throughout our conversation, I discover that Todd Halpern is a champion of numbers — a skill I suppose comes with the jobs of being the vice-chairman of a hospital network and president of one of the biggest wine-importing companies in the country. Without pause, the man lists the years that some of his grandparents arrived in Canada from Austria and Poland; he reveals six-figure donations from various international business moguls; he indulges me in the list of his all-time favourite wines (’47 Cheval Blanc, ’29 Romanée-Conti, ’45 Mouton Rothschild and 1864 Château Latour); and he fires off the exact dates he and his wife Ellen have spent exploring Europe with their good friends Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson.
But there are two dates he hesitates on, and I know it’s not because he’s having trouble remembering. In fact, he remembers too well. I ask him when his parents passed. Laminated beneath the glass of his conference table is a series of old photographs and newspaper articles, one of which is a snap of Harold and Esther Halpern at a gala in support of Toronto Western Hospital, in the Oct. 9, 1968, edition of The Mirror.
“My mother died on Aug. 23, 2013, my dad on Oct. 5, 2013,” he says as we both take in the photo of his parents, frozen in time and mid-laughter. “Forty days apart.”
They are the reason why Todd Halpern got involved in the hospital in the first place. He was 20 years old — a year after his father’s brain surgery — when he decided to start supporting the local hospitals at some capacity, and it was in 2005 that he became a member of the Board of Directors of TGWHF. Eventually it was brain cancer that took his mother and a heart problem that claimed his father, and while their deaths changed Halpern’s life completely, he took his sadness and made something good out of it: on April 14, 2014, the Esther and Harold Halpern Health Research Centre at TGWHF was named in their honour, and in December 2014, so was the Harold and Esther Halpern Chair in Neurosurgical Stroke Research at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre.
“Health is everything. I found out how important it is at a young age, because my dad took sick when I was 19,” he says. “People don’t realize it until they’re in their late 50s, 60s, because they’re losing a parent, or they’re sick themselves. When you get sick, you realize, ‘Oh my god.’”
Halpern has taken it upon himself to prevent those “Oh my god” moments for other people. He’s become a model for vice-chairmen everywhere, making the absolute most out of his title at the TGWHF by getting involved in any way he can. Aside from chairing Grand Cru, he’s also the co-chair of the Brain Campaign, which aims to raise $200 million to provide the world’s best scientists, clinicians, neurologists and neurosurgeons at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre with the tools and support needed to continue their paradigm work on diseases of the brain, and he’s also a campaign cabinet member of the Campaign to Cure Arthritis. And when he can’t pencil in his time, he sends his wine — a happy second-best option.
In an age where family values are losing their sheen and philanthropy is often synonymous with “phony,” Todd Halpern drives Halpern Enterprises in a way that stays true to the goodness with which his father founded it. His brother Colin joined the company in 1991, and together they have watched it ripen into one of international prestige. His son Adam also just entered the family business, and both his children share their father’s commitment to continuing the Halpern legacy of giving back.
And then there are his friends in high places, who Halpern talks about as though they’re his extended family — and who come in handy when the TGWHF launches new fundraising campaigns.
“The connections I’ve met through this business have made everything else possible for me in my life,” says Halpern. “When you have the golden vinegar, everyone comes to you.”
While it’s true that the richest and most famous of wine nuts flock to this family-run company for its esteemed elixirs, the opposite is also true: Todd Halpern, the man who Robert Parker himself once called the “Canuck wine king,” shares his wealth, his time, his golden vinegar with the world to make it a better place. And that’s the way Harold Halpern always intended it to be.
2016 Grand Cru Culinary Wine Festival
This year’s edition will take place in Toronto from Friday, Oct. 28 to Saturday, Oct. 29
Approximately $1 million is expected to be raised from this year’s event. Of the proceeds, $250,000 will go to heart research, $250,000 will go to orthopedic surgery and $250,000 will go to lung repair and regeneration research.
Those interested in attending can enquire to Irene Salvani, email@example.com or 416-340-4800 ext. 6279
Photo by Jesse Milns