This is a BRING IT. Success Story. To learn more about the
Bay of Quinte Region visit http://bayofquinte.ca
“The reality is, I fell into wine because I likely spent too much time in the pub in my first year of university.”
It may seem like a humorously flippant and throwaway statement, but the remarkable truth for Norman Hardie is that if he hadn’t imbibed a little too much in that freshman year, he may not be the proprietor of one of the most renowned, respected and successful wineries in the Bay of Quinte Region.
Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard has been operation in The County since 2003. That year, 12,000 Pinot Noir vines were planted, followed by 3,000 Chardonnay and 2,000 Pinot Gris vines the following year. Today, the winery looks after 75,000 vines in the region. The Wellington-based winery, which also works with Niagara-grown fruit thanks to long term partnerships with growers in the Niagara Peninsula, has been producing world-class wines for discriminating palates throughout Ontario and is growing in appreciation not just locally but also in international markets such as New York, London and Tokyo.
And it all started with a somewhat wayward first year at The University of Western Ontario (now Western University) in London.
“When I finished at Western I had a dangling first year credit that I dropped because I guess I spent too much time in the pub. So once I was done, I needed to finish that credit in order to get my degree. I decided to take this lovely French course in the middle of France, which Western would accept. I was really just biding my time and thinking about taking a night course to earn the credit, but I then I thought I would go to Europe and travel. The university in Dijon had this French course, and the city is located right in the middle of France, so it was great for travelling around. The French course was pretty simple and I nailed it easily, but they then offered me this wine tasting course, and that’s really what got me into it,” Hardie said, as he took a break from the intense fall grape harvest for this interview.
“I did grow up in a family where most nights we had wine with dinner, but the conversation never got more detailed than was it dry, was it sweet, was it red, was it white. But that course really piqued my interest and I just feel in love with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There’s something very ethereal about great Chardonnays from Burgundy and the great Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. And it has so much to do with the soil and the climate – the terroir (which also includes the unique terrain). But really, it’s just one of those things when you fall in love with something at a young age, it’s something that is always going to stick with you.”
What he learned in Dijon helped earn him a position, while still in his early 20s, as a sommelier with the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, where he soon rose to being the one ordering the wine for the top restaurant in the hotel … and in fact considered to be one of, if not THE top restaurant in Canada at the time, Truffles.
“I got to the apex of being a sommelier. I was the lead sommelier for the Four Seasons Hotel, I was 29 and I had been working for them for seven years and they had given me their five diamond restaurant, Truffles and said make it work. And for three years we were tops in the country. But I felt I had sort of run my course and I didn’t know where there was to go from there. They offered me the chance to be the food and beverage director but that was going to take me away from wine,” Hardie explained.
“I was at a place in my life where I didn’t have anything holding me back, no family of my own, and I could go and do whatever I wanted. I felt very strongly that I loved wine and I felt strongly that I had never made wine before. I want to know how wine was made because I felt it was really important that if I was going to be this important knowledgeable wine expert, I needed to learn how to make it. So I took a year off and went to work for an independent restaurant, and then I spent some time at wineries in Oregon and South Africa. After spending time in South Africa, I let the Four Seasons know I wasn’t coming back. I was sufficiently on the path to learning how to make good wine. I went and spent seven years working for what I felt was the very best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers not just in Oregon and South Africa but also in Burgundy, New Zealand and California. It’s like working for the top chefs in the top kitchens, you learn from the best. And working in colder climate areas, which is where the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays come from, prepared me really well to come back here and work in Canada.”
So once the decision was made to plant some grapes and begin a winery, Hardie said he had always had his eye on Prince Edward County, which at the start of the new millennium was not nearly as much of a haven for wineries, breweries and other artisanal and artistic endeavours as it is now.
“When I bought in The County it was quite a different place then it is today. People looked at me as if I was mad planting grapes. But I knew there was something special. I knew these soils and this climate and I knew if we could get through the winters and we could find a way to protect our plants in the winter we would be in a very good position,” he said, realizing the logic of the location in Wellington as being convenient for travellers along the Highway 401 corridor.
“In those days, not as many people knew about The County. But it was still close to Toronto, three hours from Ottawa, four hours from Montreal, and I thought if we do something special, it’s close enough for people to come visit. And we have done something and with that we have a lot of visitors – a lot more now that The County has really blossomed. Listen, if everything were the same: the soil, the climate, the views, everything, except it was in the middle of Saskatchewan where there are no large cities around, I would never had done it.”
The most well-regarded brands for Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard is the County Pinot Noir and the County Chardonnay, which have done well in international competitions.
“Matt Kramer, who is arguably the top wine journalist in North America, at the New York Wine Experience last year his subject was the three most exciting white wine’s he’s tasted in the 21st century so far, and mine was one of them [the 2013 vintage County Chardonnay. The other two were from South Africa and Portugal]. Our Pinots are, I think, equally well recognized and then we also make some really nice proprietary blends that are price sensitive to the larger market, like our blended Calcaire.”
Two of the biggest challenges throughout the successful Norman Hardie Winery story have been the same challenges faced by all wineries, and indeed most agricultural operations – labour and weather.
“The weather has become less predictable, and that’s the biggest thing. But in terms of it being a challenge, being a farmer the weather is always a challenge. Overall, the economics of putting up a winery are challenging. You really need to know your stuff, and I did a lot of homework I the past and learned a lot before I even started,” he said.
“As for labour, we thought we had great access to temporary foreign workers, which makes a world of difference, but some of the rules around that are changing. We tried very, very hard to hire locals for our field work and we found some great people, but most don’t have the skill sets of the foreign workers, who have been doing this for much of their lives. So we have had to bring in labour, which is great, but it also presents a challenge with Canadian immigration officials. But we’re always lucky to get great people. And like weather, in so many areas of agriculture, labour will always be a challenging issue.”
Hardie’s wines are sold through the LCBO and at many restaurants in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. There is also a great demand during the busier tourist seasons for products at the winery’s retail operation, which also serves artisanal wood-fired pizza in the summer. As well the wines are sold in England, Denmark, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and in the U.S. in the states of Oregon, Illinois and New York.
While the product goes international, Hardie said he is content with being a local, Bay of Quinte/Prince Edward County operation.
“There is a real authenticity in The County. It’s still very much a rural farming community. I love the pace; I love the quiet and the natural beauty. If you asked me where else in the world would I be interested in making wine I would say nowhere else in the world. When I stand on my patio and watch the sun go down, yep, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be,” he said, commenting that part of the allure is also the collegial atmosphere that exists between wine makers in the area.
“I think we have a very good group of people and whenever us winemakers get together we taste, we exchange ideas, so we realized if we all help each other, as the expression goes, a rising tide will lift all ships. It’s amazing, because people come to me and ask, ‘well, who is your competition?’ And none of us consider each other to be competition.”
For more information, visit the winery at 1152 Greer Rd., in Wellington, or visit www.normanhardie.com.