There isn’t much small talk as we first meet on the patio. A hardwood fire adds a whiff of smoke to a crisp morning. Soon there’s coffee, light banter and the realization that we diverse patio dwellers, from Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Montreal and other points afar, share one common purpose. We gather this Sunday, not for brunch – nor to worship – but to toil in the vineyard as grape pickers – and we do this willfully… as volunteers.
Some of us could use the fresh air and exercise – the sunshine and county scenery. But for those who love wine, heeding the call to harvest bears an additional, romantic allure: What better way to experience the elements that conspire to create the magic of a great vintage? How better to engage firsthand, the factors that give a wine its distinct sense of place?
Addressing the ranks, now buttressed by local arrivals, the winemaker makes it clear that today isn’t just some “feel-good” gesture for the public. Timing is critical: He’s counting on us.
“The window of opportunity to get your grapes in is very, very small – especially when it comes to Pinot. We want to get that fruit off in optimum ripeness. When you’ve got 100 bodies going at it, it’s amazing—that expression one hears from one’s grandmother – many hands make light work,” Norm Hardie says.
For the uninitiated, Norman Hardie is one of the trailblazers of this rising wine region. He’s has carved a worldwide market for the wines he conjures from the rugged limestone and clay terra of the western side of Prince Edward County. In addition to the great soils, the challenges of the County’s climate can help to create, what Norman refers to as the “tension, vibrancy and nervousness” of a great Pinot Noir. Here, the winter chill dips down below – 25°C, which necessitates the protective burying of the vines near the end of every fall. But Norman is known for other extreme acts of winemaking: like the burning of 500 bales of hay, throughout the night to protect the vines from the damage of an early season frost or the frequent spraying of water over the tops of the vines instead of using pesticides.
Mr. Hardie is known for being an “extreme” host, as well. Vicki Samaras, the bubbly president at nearby Hinterland Wine Co., has coined a term for his unique brand of hospitality: “I call it ‘the Norm Vortex’. When you enter the property, time ceases to exist and you are swept up in the energy of the place. After tasting through the wines and eating pizza, you realize that a planned one hour visit has turned into three!”
We’re getting a crash course in grape picking from the winery’s Mackenzie Brisbois. Snips in hand, she deftly picks a cluster and with a quick flick – sends some blighted grapes to the ground. We learn how to work each cane from bottom to top, looking for grapes hidden under the canopy and avoiding under-ripe fruit. Eager to give it a go, we disappear into the rolling rows of vineyard lot #170, snips and bins in hand. Picking is definitely a form of agrarian aerobics: Some bend and hunch down – others crouch, squat and reach up – I’m trying the one knee down side shuffle as I hold the bunches with my left hand and reach to snip with the right. It’s not working out so well.
I’m two-knees-down, about a third of the way along row #7 when I finally begin to find a rhythm. After an hour or so – I’ve reached the state of solitary focus that picking is all about: I see nothing but the next luscious cluster. I am at one with the vines. My knees are creaking, my hands are slightly purple, but life is good.
As the day’s harvest begins to wrap up – back at the winery, fruit is flying off the sorting table while Norman’s hands dart through the dozens of the bright yellow bins of freshly picked Pinot. He’s smiling. I ask whether we’ve been of any real help to the harvest.
“It helps to get the fruit off but I would be remiss in not saying that it really helps tie people to the place. They come out with their family and everybody has a great day and Norman Hardie sticks in their mind forever and someday in the future when they see the wine on a wine list – they’ll remember that day.”
It’s late afternoon as we assemble back on the patio – new friends exchanging picking tips n’ tales like old farm hands, as a roaring fire rages in the pizza oven. A hearty dinner of – schnitzel, salad, corn, beets, tomatoes and potatoes is served. The freshest and finest fare of the county, much of it grown right on site, all accompanied by Norman Hardie’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. After dessert, the man of the hour – we’re all calling him ‘Norm’ by now – gets up to make a small toast to the “friends of the house.”
“We’re in a wonderful business – it’s food, wine and play. You know we work like hell but at the same time – hospitality plays a huge part in what we do – making people feel warm and welcome. We all help each other out. If we collaborate, life is a lot better.”
Proud to have played a small part in what could be a great vintage, we clink glasses, swirl, and sip. Savouring the Pinot Noir in the sunset glow, I realize that – It’s already a very good year.