Hardie and the hype machine
The disgraced Ontario vintner certainly worked hard to earn his incomparable cult following. It's just a shame he stole the spotlight away from other, equally deserving Canadian wineries
By BEPPI CROSARIOL
Saturday, July 21, 2018 Print Edition, Page P7
A journalist colleague who works for this paper's business section stopped me in the newsroom the other week to seek advice on an ethical dilemma.
What should he do with his remaining bottles of Norman Hardie wine?
Should he drink them, or pour them down the drain?
It was a rhetorical question, a way to engage me in a conversation about the multiple sexual-misconduct allegations levelled against the famed Ontario winemaker that were published in this newspaper in June. Over the course of our chat, my newsroom friend revealed that he would, in fact, consume the remaining stock while attempting to reclaim happy memories of a visit to the Prince Edward County, Ont., winery. But he added that he would cease buying more in the future because the allegations had created a bad taste in his mouth.
Good for you, I thought. And good for the Canadian wine industry.
Not that I want to see Hardie's, or anybody else's, business go under.
Nor was I passing judgment on the allegations, some of which Hardie has admitted to and many of which he denies. It's just that I had grown painfully tired of the runaway hype associated with Hardie's wines for so long.
I've always wondered why his fans would fork out $45 and, in some cases, $80 a bottle when they could be exploring so many other good, less expensive and, in my opinion, often more interesting Canadian wines. I hope my friend gets to discover a few with the money he'll be saving.
Maybe I was closer to the rock-star hype than most people. In my life, Hardie's name and wines would crop up with annoying frequency - at friends' homes, in professional conversations, yes, even in my contact with casual wine drinkers in the newsroom.
Two weeks ago, I stopped in at a bustling Italian bakery-restaurant on Toronto's King Street West. There, prominently displayed by the cash register, sat a bottle of Norman Hardie wine along with one from Niagara's trendy Pearl Morissette, the only two Ontario wines offered by the glass. (I wouldn't recommend any of Hardie's wines with the pizza they were serving, but whatever.) At a family Christmas drop-in, a Prince Edward County resident I'd not met before had asked me: "What do you think of Norman Hardie?" Two years ago, an editor asked if I would profile the celebrated vintner as one of Canada's influential foodies. (I declined.) On past visits to British Columbia, a couple of producers there told me they were looking forward to visiting Ontario to sample Hardie's wines and tasting what all the fuss was about. (They made no mention of other Ontario estates.)
And so on, ad nauseam.
Forget terroir or limestone-rich soil. I'm inclined to believe Hardie grows his vines on fairy dust.
I can't list every other great Canadian estate, but here are a few low-key examples from Prince Edward County that deserve wider recognition: the amazing Exultet, the Old Third, Closson Chase, Hinterland and Long Dog. In Niagara, responsible for 87 per cent of the province's vineyard acreage compared with just 4 per cent for Prince Edward County, there are Tawse and Queylus, as well as several producers bottling juice from the Lowrey Vineyard that excel in Burgundian-style pinot noir, one of Hardie's signature varieties along with chardonnay. And I could talk all day about British Columbia, whose boutique wineries are, of course, mainly out of sight and mind of the huge Toronto and Montreal markets. Some great producers there of either pinot noir or chardonnay or both: Meyer Family Vineyards, Foxtrot, Haywire, Blue Mountain, Howling Bluff, JoieFarm, Liquidity and Tantalus.
And that doesn't include superb estates that are distinguished for other varieties or styles, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
That Hardie loomed so large on the Canadian landscape says, I think, more about his formidable salesmanship than his wines. I've heard him speak on several occasions. Each time, he gave me the impression that he considered his cuvées to be a divine gift to the world, or at least a gift from his genius to those with the higher power to truly "get" great wine.
It's true, Hardie has garnered a parade of flattering reviews over the years, including some from international wine critics, such as Richard Hemming (writing for JancisRobinson.com), Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator and, most recently, Eric Asimov of The New York Times, who briefly visited Ontario for his food section's Canada Issue in January. But foreign journalists can be forgiven for lacking the time, resources or desire to better familiarize themselves with the broader Canadian landscape, and in particular with wineries not as adept at self-promotion.
One thing's certain.
Hardie knows how to get his wines into influential hands, whether they're those of professional critics, sommeliers working at au courant restaurants or - best of all - people who tend to be stalked by packs of photojournalists.
Last year, the barn-like winery hosted visits by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. In Montreal last June, a Hardie chardonnay was served - as recounted in many news reports - to Trudeau and former U.S. president Barack Obama as the pair dined at Montreal's Liverpool House, a restaurant associated with internationally renowned chef and Hardie friend David McMillan of Joe Beef fame. McMillan, who has reaped a trickle of symbiotic publicity over the years from Hardie's fondness for wearing "Joe Beef" T-shirts, recently cut business ties with the vintner, who stands accused of, among other things, slipping his hands down the back of a former Joe Beef waitress's trousers. The winemaker has denied that allegation.
I would argue there may be one other factor that Hardie had working in his favour, publicity-wise. This may sound inconsequential or frivolous, but he wisely named the winery after himself. Not just with his last name, but with the full signature. If you want to build a cult of personality, that's one of the fastest and surest routes, as evidenced, I think, by the late, great modern pioneer of California wine, Robert Mondavi. If nothing else, it's a way to stand out from today's fog of easily-forgettable winery names based on geology, geographical formations and zoology. With apologies to some truly great producers in Canada and beyond, I'm talking about the benches, brooks, stones and creeks, the stags, foxes, owls and coyotes.
I wonder, for example, how many of Hardie's current (or suddenly former) devotees would have fallen under his spell had he called the place Turkey's Run, County Creek Winery or Limestone Bench Family Estate. On that topic, I think it's interesting that the only wines that appeared to be actually reviewed in The New York Times article in January were from brands named after people: Hardie, Pearl Morissette, Tawse and Thomas Bachelder. There wasn't a brook, pond or ravine in sight.
Before I'm accused of not "getting" Hardie's self-described "Burgundian" winemaking, let me say that I've liked many of his wines. Over the years, I've awarded scores of up to 92 out of 100 in my notebooks, enjoying the wines' trademark svelte form, crisp balance and occasionally reductive, matchstick prickle - when it was all done right. But come on. It certainly hasn't all been velvet. I found a few of his wines to be disjointed and positively undrinkable and recently tasted a Hardie pinot that, for a moment, made me think it could almost be a practical joke played by somebody who had added tap water to the bottle. Yes, it was a shiraz-backlash, antifruit-bomb wine par excellence, with three key qualities that self-described Burgundian-pinot connoisseurs like to tick off: low alcohol (how impressive and sensible!), high acidity (so food friendly!) and shockingly light pigmentation (colour doesn't equal flavour!). Unfortunately, at least for me, there wasn't much else to admire.
But I'll say this. I have never been skimpy in my scores for Hardie's salesmanship. He always got the full 100.
Closson Chase Winery, based in Prince Edward County, Ont., is just one of a few examples of wineries that have operated in Norman Hardie's shadow.
KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL