How Norman Hardie stole the hearts of wine lovers everywhere
That includes visitors to Prince Edward County, plus two world leaders, nbd
It is difficult to imagine an Ontario wine industry without Norm Hardie. These days Norm's name is the one most likely to be enthusiastically brought up when the topic of local wine or pizza ovens are whispered, which they are, in any good interaction. What follows is a conversation not just about electric wines, but invariably about salty oysters by his "secret beach"* (*that is no secret to anyone who has visited!), some wild generosity and other life-affirming personal gesture. Welcome to the world of Norm.
Norm was born in South Africa, moved to Toronto as a teen and fell in love with wine while completing his sommelier certification in Dijon, home to mustard, vinous and other culinary delights. He came back to Toronto and worked as the sommelier at the Four Seasons - a funny thing to imagine to all those who have only seen a tanned Hardie in work boots, a dirty t-shirt and a mischievous grin - before spending 6 years and 12 vintages making wine around the world. Eventually, he found his perfect vineyard site in the then bucolic and calm Hillier, Prince Edward County.
This weekend marked his 10th anniversary making transformative wines in Prince Edward County, and a good opportunity to salute everything he's done and made for food and wine in Canada - on the eve of Obama and Trudeau cheersing their bromance to his County Cabernet Franc, of course.
Here, an insider's guide to why Norm Hardie has stolen our hearts.
On Canadian wine industry trailblazing
It is easy to forget how recently Ontarians have embraced our local wine scene. Ten years ago wine lists were classic and international. Consumers with any knowledge looked to California, Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, anywhere but Canada.
It wasn't an easy road. "People thought I was insane", says Hardie. "I could have made wine anywhere in the world and I chose Prince Edward County which, at that point, was far from a proven ground and by no means a guarantee. Everything took time and needed to be built from the ground up."
And build he did. Now his wines - and other trailblazing Canadian wineries - are the stars of wine publications like Decanter and Fine Wine and on top wine lists in New York, London, Tokyo and finally, Toronto too. Whereas BC was always faithful to their local growers, international Torontonians wanted the best, wary of something too close to home. Thankfully that has shifted. "The greatest thing I have seen is a tremendous acceptance of how great Ontario wine is and witnessing people embrace our wines."
Norm's incredibly precise wines in Southern Ontario have shown the world that Canada makes way more than ice wine; limestone and clay soils making firecracker wines enviable the world over.
Bringing people together and fostering future stars
There is a lot of great wine in the world. This is not to discount the evocativeness of pure flavour, the challenge of making low-intervention, terroir-driven wines that speak to their place not their commercial yeast strain, but to point out that the best wineries have something more. Sure, Norm has an incredible talent for making precise, pretty, drinkable, but intellectual wines (savoury, perfectly reductive fun!), but it is the community he has created that is the most special.
"Community and wine education have always been a huge part of what I do. I was once myself a sommelier who wanted to learn and people gave me that opportunity. With that I felt it was important that others be given the opportunity."
Any given weekend around the pizza oven at Norm's - which you should absolutely go to - are industry veterans, wine lovers from around the world and regular people discovering the county for the first time. He has welcomed young sommeliers and winemakers with such warmth that many sommeliers and servers from around Canada - and increasingly the world - have given up their tiny bachelor pads and packed city social-calendars for a bunk bed at the Normatory** (a dormitory at Norm's!). The list of incredible people that have worked late nights and early mornings for Norm are a who's who of some of food and hospitality's brightest stars and a testament to the incredible impact and positive ripples he's had on the industry. Norm alumni include Mackenzie Brisbois, winemaker at Trail Estates, Madeleine Bushuk winemaker at Mission Hill, Chris Campbell now at east coast star Benjamin Bridge and many more.
On creating unforgettable experiences
My last trip to Norm's, a week ago, was with a bus full of South African winemakers. Norm took a full day to show them his winery, cook them a feast with Honest Weight star, John Bil, and make them the most epic fire I've seen in some time. It was incredible.
Most nights at Norms feel like this. There is always a feast that comes late, but is extraordinary. There are incredible wines from around the world to complement his own and a crew of top service workers working diligently in the back with such casual grace that you can almost forget they are filling your glass and shooing you out of the kitchen whenever you try to help. There is an intensity and electricity to these nights. A feeling that you are witnessing something special. I have yet to see another winery so often double as one of Canada's best all night, full-service restaurants. This hospitality is not unnoticed; it is why people flock to Norm and why he has collaborated on projects for some of Canada's top restaurateurs, like Dave McMillan at Joe Beef and Anthony Rose at Rose & Sons.
Putting "The County" on the map
If you don't know "The County", it is Niagara's scruffy, charming cousin, less manicured lawns and instragramable-weddings-for-posh-thirty-somethings and more oyster shucking in the back of a pickup truck, sleeping in tents and instagramable-weddings-for-cool-millenials. The County is a cooler climate (they need to bury their wines in the winter to protect from winter freeze) with special limestone, clay soils, a unique micro climate, plus the kind of grit you often feel in underdog places doing something great. Though Norm makes some wine in Niagara as well, it is his County project that has truly transformed a region.
Whatever wine you pick up from Norm you will be rewarded with perfectly food-pleasing acidity and low-intervention winemaking that is both delicious and feels decidedly good for you. With trailblazing creation comes the next generation. Now the County is a buzzing place with lots of great wineries and hospitality, like sparkling specialist Hinterland and the ultra cool Drake Devonshire.
For all these reasons we are so happy Norm took a chance on Prince Edward County and you should really, truly, probably go. Come thirsty and hungry and tell him we sent you. Happy anniversary, Norm. We can't wait to see what the next decade brings.
Nicole Campbell has a WSET diploma, runs La Petite, a boutique wine agency from Lifford, as well as a witchy wine party the first Monday of every month at Superpoint in Toronto. She is usually wearing cool pants and screaming about something she loves; she tells us it's charming! Follow her on Instagram at @grapewitches or on her website grapewitches.com