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Norman Hardie (October 13, 2009)

He could be making wine in Burgundy, or South Africa, or New Zealand, California, or Oregon, wherever the siren call of Pinot Noir took him. But Norman John Hardie chose the County. He chose it over Niagara and he chose it for a very special reason. There was nothing chauvinist about his decision to stay in Canada and build his winery in Wellington; after all, he was born in South Africa and he has lived and worked in more countries than you can shake a corkscrew at. It all came down to dirt.

Some winemakers are poets, some are intellectuals, some are farmers with an instinctive feeling for the land. Forty-three-year-old Norman Hardie, who looks as if he could have played second row for the Springboks, is an amalgam of all three. Reflecting on his decision to grow his wines in the County, he told me, "I think ultimately the soil for me was the defining entity, combined with the climate. Finding calcareous limestone and clay at the same time was the key... Someone said you should have a look at Prince Edward County. I said 'The northern side of the lake, forget it.' However, I'd been around the world six times at this point so driving 200 kilometers isn't going to kill me. So I drove into the County. At the first cutaway where the road had been excavated I saw the combination of limestone and clay." Limestone and clay, the perfect soil for Pinot Noir.

There is something obsessive about Pinot Noir producers. Theirs is a latter-day quest for the Holy Grail. For Norman Hardie the journey began the University of Western Ontario, where he studied Economics. Unable to graduate in 1988 because of a missing half credit ("I spent too much time in the pub"), he decided to make it up by taking a course in French at the University of Dijon. While there he signed up for a second-year sommelier course. "What helped me to pass was my job at night washing pots and pans in the kitchen of a two-star Michelin restaurant with Jean-Pierre Billoux in the Hotel de la Cloche. At the end of the night the sommelier would bring down all the bottles that hadn't been finished and he gave me a great education."

When Hardie returned to Canada in 1989 he joined The Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The economy was rather as it is now. The only job they offered him was second-in-charge of the dishwashers. "We were doing banquet dinners for 2,500 a night around Christmas. And eventually I convinced Klaus Tenter, the GM, that it would be a good idea to put me into the dining room." While working as a dishwasher he had been studying successfully for the sommelier exam at George Brown; on the strength of this accomplishment Hardie was moved up to the dining room. After two years he was transferred to the Four Seasons' flagship property on Avenue Road where he opened the Studio Café as manager/sommelier. After the resident sommelier, Christophe Le Chatton, moved to the Royal York Hotel, Hardie took over Truffles restaurant as sommelier and manager. "I did this for almost three years. They were going to make me a Food & Beverage Director in Tokyo or Turkey but I didn't know if I wanted to be an F&B Director. I loved wine so much. The second you become an F&B director it pulls you away so I decided I'd take a year off and learn how to make wine and see if I enjoyed that side of it."

In 1996 Norman Hardie drove out to Oregon for the vintage at Evesham Wood in Salem and really loved it. Then he wrote to Peter Finlayson, Bouchard-Finlayson's winemaker in South Africa, who invited him out. Finlayson was so impressed with his young cellar rat that he offered him a job. "You're sitting on Bouchard-Finlayson's porch overlooking the ocean and its 22 degrees at five o'clock in the afternoon," Hardie reminisces, "the sun is soft, it's an easy decision to make. But I said I'm not going to give you an answer today. I'm going to go back to Canada and make a decision when I get home."

He decided to take the job but he told Peter Finlayson, "I'm here to learn. The day I stop learning is when I move on." And he added one other condition: he wanted to go to Burgundy to do the vintage there when it was downtime for southern hemisphere wineries. Finlayson agreed and Hardie ended up doing four vintages at Bouchard-Finlayson interspersed with three in Burgundy – at Domaine de la Pousse d'Or in Volnay, Domaine de la Vougeraie in Premeaux Prissey and with the negociant Nicolas Potel in Nuits St. Georges. "The three were all very different and a really good opportunity to learn."

There is a fraternity of Pinot Noir winemakers around the world who have run into each other while working a vintage in another part of the globe. Many of Norman Hardie's contacts have come from working shoulder to shoulder in the cellar, contacts that have led to invitations to work at their wineries. By the time Hardie had learned all he could at Bouchard-Finlayson, New Zealander Dean Shaw, with whom he had worked the '99 vintage there, invited him to work a vintage at the Central Otago Wine Company, a custom crush facility on the south island. "We made wines for about ten different labels," Hardie recalls. "We ended up making 72 different wines. A great learning experience. In whites, a little bit of Chardonnay, mainly Pinot Gris, a little bit of Riesling and almost no Sauvignon Blanc, which I was quite happy not to do. And obviously Pinot Noir is the big thing there."

The next vintage Hardie worked with the legendary Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara as a result of a chance meeting at Bouchard-Finlayson. After day four on the job Clendenen told his young protégé, "You're in charge of the reds." Harvest started in mid-August with Pinot Noir and the team did not get a day off until American Thanksgiving.

With all this accumulated experience it would only natural that Norman Hardie would be thinking of opening his own winery. "I was always set on it right from the beginning," he confesses, "but I didn't want to do anything, particularly with Pinot Noir because that's what I wanted to do, until I was feeling very, very comfortable. After the vintage at Bouchard-Finlayson in 1997 that was my decision. Right from the beginning it was Pinot Noir that I wanted to do. It goes back to my Burgundy days. There is something so enticing about it when it's done well. It's rich but it's not heavy. It's loaded with flavours when it's done well but you never tire of the glass. Of the reds it's the most food-friendly for a table of four. Like a runner's high, when you get a great one there's some endorphin that gets set off in the brain. When I decided I was going to learn how to make wine it was going to be Pinot or that was it."

When it came to finding land to buy, Norman Hardie initially looked at the Niagara Peninsula. He identified certain sites that he thought were incredible ("it's where I get my Pinot and Chardonnay and Riesling now"). But the County won out because of the terroir factor. What held him back from starting was the challenge of putting in 6 acres of high density plantings and having to hill up 12,000 vines against the likelihood of minus 25° in winter, and then having to un-hill them in the spring. When looking for land he wanted to be close to the lake but not too close. Another imperative: sloping terrain not too far inland because of frost problems. Eventually he found two sites and couldn't decide on which one to purchase – one was going to be better for Chardonnay and other was better for Pinot Noir. In the end he took a partner, Oliver Lennox-King, and bought both – 86 acres in total, 50 acres plantable.

In 2003 Norman Hardie began planting for himself while working as winemaker for Carmela, the winery adjacent to his own site. His own facility would have to wait until next year. The design was by Ian Starkey, a specialist in rural Ontario architecture. How Hardie found his architect is another instance of a chance meeting and the winemaker's sense of the unconventional. "When I was managing Truffles we had a night where we had Desmond Tutu, the Rolling Stones, the Chairman of the Bank of Montreal, and the Chairman of the Bank of Nova Scotia all in the restaurant on the same night. We were absolutely packed to the gills and up the stairs came a foursome of late-twenty-somethings. One was dressed as Elvis, one was dressed as Marilyn Monroe, one looked like she'd just stepped out of Woodstock and the other looked as if he'd just got off a surf board at Long Beach. I didn't have a table but I looked at these guys and thought this looks like way too much fun. I'm not going to lose them. So we put a table in the foyer and gave them hors d'oeuvres until we could get them in. They ended up coming quite often and Elvis turned out to be Ian Starkey the architect. We kept contact over the years and I called him up and said I'd like you to design my building."

The two men spent a day and half travelling around the County looking at the local architecture and then they sat down at the site and looked north. There were four barns on the horizon and Starkey said "We're going to build a modern barn."

On April 1st, 2004, the contractor who had been hired to build the winery came to Hardie and said he couldn't do it. He just dropped all the plans and walked out. "So now we're going to be producing wines mainly in five months from now and we have a hole in the ground," recalls Hardie. "I was luckily enough when they were building Huff their general contractor came to me when I was working at Carmela and I gave him advice on electrical panels and water points, finishes on floors, etc. I called him up and asked his advice. He and his crew where building an old age home in Picton at the time. They finished at 4 pm every afternoon and they came Tuesday through Saturday. The only deal was if they were going to be there I had to be there. So I got all the lackey jobs. But we got the building to the point we could make wine."

Now with five PEC vintages under his belt Norman Hardie has established an enviable reputation, not only for his Pinot Noir but for his Chardonnay, Riesling and Melon de Bourgogne as well. He is not above blending grapes from Niagara's Beamsville Bench with his County fruit, and to those die-hard critics who believe a PEC winery should only use local grapes, he says, "There's always going to be some negative reaction when you do something that's out of the box. What I've found is the majority of people who have come and tasted (my wine), they've said wow!"

The wine he is referring to is his Cuvée L Pinot Noir 2007, which is 60% Beamsville fruit and 40% County. The wine is a homage to his late sister Lisa, who was drowned in a flash flood in Costa Rica in 2002. My notes on this wine read:

  • Norman Hardie Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007 (60% Beamsville fruit, 40% PEC – hence its VQA Ontario designation): Deep ruby colour; minerally, black cherry bouquet; elegant, well balanced, firmly structured and bursting with youthful charm. Tastes like a Pommard in a warm year. A lovely glass of wine. (91+).

Hardie believes this is the finest wine he has yet made (it comes closes to his Aristotelian model: Georges Roumier Chambolle-Musigny) and it's the source of his proudest moment: "We were in Joe Beef Restaurant in Montreal and there was a group of Quebecois sommeliers with very Old World palates. They tasted through the portfolio and they said we'd never guess this is from Canada. The Pinots taste Burgundian, the Chardonnays taste Burgundian, the Melon tastes like good Muscadet and the Pinot Gris – we can't place it in Europe but it's somewhere between the Alto Adige and Alsace. It really confirmed what I wanted to do."

Norman Hardie's arrival in the County, according to wine writer David Lawrason, "has injected even more confidence into the local winegrowing community." Praise for his accomplishments in a few short years has been lavished upon him by his fellow Pinot-obsessed winemakers. I asked Thomas Bachelder, Le Clos Jordanne's celebrated vintner, what impact Norman Hardie has had on the Ontario wine scene. This is what he told me: "Norman Hardie has galvanised the wine industry in Ontario, but more specifically in Prince Edward County in the short time he has been here. He is also making single-vineyard wines from choice sites here on the bench in Niagara that rival anyone's. His wines are at once cerebral and sensuous: Norm thinks deeply about everything he does, and I believe he feels his wines as much as he makes them. He not only brings unbridled, unlimited passion to his job, but also a wealth of experience earned by sweat in virtually every top Pinot region in the world. Currently, he – happily – works for Norman Hardie Wines and Ontario should be well-pleased that this great winemaker – no – great vigneron has decided to alight here. May his roots grow deeply and quickly, so that he stays."




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