They call him the “King of the County.”
In his nearly three decades in the wine business – first as a sommelier at Toronto’s Four Seasons and more recently running his namesake winery in Ontario’s Prince Edward County – Norman Hardie, 52, has risen to the very top of Canada’s food industry, and emerged a superstar in the world of wine. Prince Charles and wife Camilla stopped at the winery during an official royal tour last year. So did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie. Even Barack Obama sampled Mr. Hardie’s wines, during a dinner with Mr. Trudeau in Montreal.
An investigation by The Globe and Mail, however, including interviews with more than 50 people (most of them in the wine and food industry), reveals a troubling picture of Mr. Hardie’s behaviour. Many of those interviewed allege gross misconduct took place both within his business and outside of it.
Three women described unwanted sexual contact by the winemaker – instances of groping or kissing while they were working at the winery or at restaurant-industry events.
Eighteen additional people described behaviour that could be characterized as sexual harassment. In interviews, they described requests for sex, lewd comments about sex acts or remarks about their bodies and clothing. Several of them described being deliberately exposed to pornography. A few of the women said it was Mr. Hardie’s behaviour that ultimately led them to leave the winery.
In a letter, Mr. Hardie denied many of the allegations.
In regards to the accusations of groping or sexual contact, he wrote, “I do not physically grab people or touch them against their will.” (In a later letter, he admitted to one of the claims, from a former employee who told The Globe he tried to kiss her on her first day of work).
He also acknowledged that he may have acted unprofessionally: “I have been made aware [in recent years] that our workplace was not as professional as it should have been, and I realize that it made some people uncomfortable.”
He apologized “to those who my behaviour negatively impacted.”
‘Who can I say anything to?’
Heather Bruce first met Mr. Hardie in 2011 while working at a downtown Toronto restaurant.
She was responsible for buying the restaurant’s wine at the time, and the winemaker would pay regular visits and strike up conversation. She knew of his experience as a sommelier, of his time spent studying in France and of the buzz he was beginning to receive from international wine critics. She began to view him as a sort of mentor.
By 2015, he’d recruited her to move out to Prince Edward County, about two hours east of Toronto, to work as a manager at the winery’s busy pizza restaurant.
Even before she officially began working at the winery, she had volunteered during harvest. On those occasions, Ms. Bruce said, the winemaker made comments asking her to have sex with him. She laughed off those requests.
Once she began working at the pizza restaurant, however, she said, his behavior worsened.
On one occasion in October, 2016, she said she accidentally spilled some wine, and apologized to the winemaker. He responded, she said, by saying, “I’ll forgive you if you let me grab your boobs.” Then, she said, he reached out and grabbed one of her breasts.
Related: Restaurants sever ties with vintner Norman Hardie
And at a party at the winery last summer, she said she was in the midst of greeting the winemaker.
“I was like, ‘Hey Norm,’ and gave him a hug. And he grabbed my ass.”
In his statement, Mr. Hardie said he did not recall the incidents. He called the allegations untrue.
A friend of Ms. Bruce told The Globe that Ms. Bruce told him Mr. Hardie had touched her inappropriately at the time.
But she never reported Mr. Hardie to anyone at the company. She kept the incidents to herself and eventually left the winery.
Sarah Reid stayed quiet about her run-in with Mr. Hardie, too.
Ms. Reid was just 18 years old when she began working at Joe Beef restaurant in Montreal. She considered herself lucky to land a job so young, and at such a celebrated restaurant. Joe Beef is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best restaurants. Its owners, David McMillan and Fred Morin, are celebrities in their own right.
So in January of 2016, when the then-20-year-old found herself face-to-face with Mr. Hardie at a tasting event for his wines in Montreal, she was excited. She understood the constellation of influence – the network of Toronto and Montreal restaurateurs – that had Mr. Hardie at its centre. By then, Mr. Hardie’s winery had become a clubhouse for celebrity chefs and food-industry power players. Even her boss, Mr. McMillan, who was at the event but on the other side of the room, was a well-known friend of Mr. Hardie’s.
She jumped at the chance to talk to the winemaker. “I was young, and trying to soak up as much information as possible,” she said.
As they sat talking at a table, Ms. Reid said, the winemaker put his arm around her. A few moments later, she said, he untucked her shirt, and put his hand up her shirt. After that, she said, he slipped his hand down the back of her pants.
Ms. Reid was stunned. “I’m looking around like, ‘Who can I say anything to?’” she said. “‘What am I supposed to do?’” She didn’t want to cause a scene.
After Mr. Hardie excused himself to use the restroom, she scrambled out with a friend.
“We ended up leaving the bar, and then I cried to my dad on the phone for, like, an hour.”
Her father confirmed details of her account with The Globe. Another friend whom Ms. Reid confided in a few months later also confirmed the details.
In his letter, Mr. Hardie acknowledged attending the event, but denied the rest of Ms. Reid’s account. “I do not recall the person you refer to, but I did not do what is alleged,” he wrote.
Like Ms. Bruce, Ms. Reid never reported the incident to Mr. McMillan or to her managers. She no longer works at the restaurant.
“He’s a man. He’s much older than I am. He’s in a position of power,” she said. “It felt and still feels like I have no power in that situation. It doesn’t feel at all like my voice would be recognized.”
She worried that speaking out against a well-loved figure such as Mr. Hardie would get her blacklisted within the restaurant world.
Ms. Bruce felt the same. She recalled how a friend told her it would be “career suicide” to come forward.
“That’s kind of the understanding,” she said. “If you go against Norm, you’re kind of going against your entire industry.”
If you go against Norm, you’re kind of going against your entire industry
Of the dozens of people interviewed by The Globe – most of them food and beverage industry insiders, who described a range of experiences – the vast majority requested anonymity, citing similar fears as Ms. Bruce and Ms. Reid.
Both women, and the dozens of others interviewed for this story, said Mr. Hardie’s behaviour was notable even for an industry in which harassment and abuse is frequent and normalized. Such abuse is tolerated, they said, because employees feel they’re replaceable. Many of them are young. Others depend on the jobs for their livelihoods, or to put them through school.
In an interview, Mr. McMillan said it was “gutting” to hear the allegation by one of his former employees. Mr. McMillan said that he only began hearing stories of misconduct surrounding Mr. Hardie earlier this year – around the time The Globe began its investigation.
Since then, he’s cut all business ties. His restaurants have removed the wines from their menus. The wine agency that Mr. McMillan has a stake in, Vin Dame-Jeanne, until earlier this year was the importer and distributor of Mr. Hardie’s wines in Quebec. It no longer represents Norman Hardie.
“I’m horrified and disappointed in Norman,” he said. “I’m just really deeply saddened.”
He said he’s never witnessed the type of behaviour described by Ms. Reid. But he acknowledged that he has heard Mr. Hardie make inappropriate comments directed at winery staff. He said he rolled his eyes at such comments.
Now, he regrets not having done more.
Back in 2002, when Mr. Hardie and his business partner, mining executive Oliver Lennox-King, bought the properties, “the County” was relatively unknown to outsiders – an untouched rural headland dotted with lavender farms and weathered barns decorated with folk art. The combined price of the two properties was just more than $130,000.
In the years since, they’ve planted acre after acre of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines. They’ve also built a busy pizza restaurant on the property.
The prestige of Mr. Hardie’s business is largely credited for attracting other wineries and businesses to the area, and helping to turn the County’s wine industry into what it is today: the cool young upstart next to the established but staid Niagara. The boutique hotels that dot the summer playground these days offer yoga classes and rotating art exhibitions between rosé tastings and $16 bourbon cocktails.
For employees who landed at Mr. Hardie’s winery each season, it seemed the ideal summer job: a free place to stay in Mr. Hardie’s home in a room filled with bunk beds, dubbed the “Normitorium” – set amongst rolling vineyards and dusty country roads. Most of the employees were in their 20s. Many had been hand-picked by Mr. Hardie from Toronto and Montreal restaurants.
They were expected to work hard, but were rewarded with free food and drinks. After the business shut down at night, they enjoyed extravagant meals cooked by Mr. Hardie or his celebrity chef friends. The drinks were free-flowing. Mr. Hardie would sit at the head of the table, pouring wine.
Other times, he would invite restaurant workers to the winery for elaborate parties. Many nights, the party would continue with a school bus taking them to a “secret beach” nearby. The guests who couldn’t find space in the “Normitorium” set up tents and slept outdoors on the property.
Jenny Smith paid her first visit in 2013 with hopes of a career in winemaking. By then, she was already a veteran of the restaurant industry, and had seen her share of raucous behaviour. But the scene at the winery surprised even her.
“Everyone got way too drunk, way too fast” – including, she said, herself. “It seemed like hedonism,” she said. “Like, what happens in the County, stays in the County.”
She was invited to return the following weekend to work at the pizza kitchen.
After her first shift, she said, Mr. Hardie invited her out to the vineyards. She was excited, thinking he was singling her out for her restaurant experience.
But once outside, he tried to kiss her. She resisted, and he kept trying. Eventually, she said, she pushed him off.
Ms. Smith continued to work casually throughout that summer, hoping to prove to the winemaker that she should be taken seriously.
But instead, she said, he made constantly degrading comments. Once, when she was a guest at the winery, he noticed she had scratches on her knees and asked loudly in front of others whether it was from giving oral sex all night. Another time, he made a comment suggesting she have sex with dogs belonging to a colleague.
Months after she vowed never to return, she wrote him an e-mail.
“Despite my knowledge and experience and my eagerness to be part of your team, I have never felt as though I was respected,” she wrote. “Instead, I am consistently objectified, you always only say things about my body … It is pretty awful, crippling even, especially when it is connected to a field in which you hope to find employment and is someone you look up to.”
About an hour and a half later, he e-mailed back: “What tel number can i reach you at”.
When they spoke over the phone, she said, he dismissed her concerns and told her “I’m a nice guy.”
The Globe reviewed copies of the e-mail exchange, and spoke with one of Ms. Smith’s friends who witnessed some of these incidents and corroborated her version of events.
In a letter to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Hardie described the accounts as “not true.” He did not say which details were untrue.
In a second letter a month later through his lawyer, he acknowledged trying to kiss the former employee. “I incorrectly believed she was interested in me,” he said. “She quickly and clearly informed me she was not, and that was the end of the matter.” He also acknowledged receiving her e-mail all those years ago, and said he’d apologized to the woman at the time.
Many other former staffers – 18 additional people – described similar treatment
A number said they were subjected to comments about their bodies and clothing – in several cases, about his thoughts on their undergarments. Others said he asked repeated questions about their sex lives.
He also spoke at length about his own sex life, they said – about whether the women around the winery might be willing to date or sleep with him.
“Norm couldn’t have a conversation without bringing up sex,” said Ms. Smith, the former winery staffer.
A former frequent winery guest described a game she would play with an employee. Each time Mr. Hardie began speaking, they would count the seconds before he made a comment about sex – usually a remark about “banging” someone. The average, she said, was 10 seconds.
Such behaviour served as a further deterrent for women entering the already traditionally male-dominated industry of winemaking, the employees said.
Several restaurant employees recalled an incident the morning after a party at the winery in 2013. As they sat on the winery’s patio, they said, Mr. Hardie walked over to a couple and deliberately dropped a pornographic magazine on their table in front of them.
The woman, who was white, and her boyfriend, who was black, looked at the magazine in front of them. It was opened to an image of a black man and a white woman having intercourse.
“‘Look familiar?’” they said the winemaker said to them.
In his statement, Mr. Hardie said he believes that the “overwhelming majority of our staff and employees” would attest to an “open, respectful, equal and inclusive” environment.
Still, he acknowledges that he might have crossed the line.
A few years ago, “I was approached by some of my trusted colleagues, who raised concerns that the work environment was becoming too familiar, and that the socializing needed to be more clearly separated from work,” he said.
“I deeply regret if my behaviour at any time has made anyone uncomfortable, and I am truly sorry to those who my behaviour negatively impacted.”
But he was adamant that all of this was in the past.
He said he has “worked hard” to change his behaviour, but did not specify what behaviour, or what changes he has made, beyond reducing the number of parties thrown at the winery. After The Globe began its investigation, he said, the winery had hired an independent auditor to review the workplace environment.
Despite this, several former employees said they witnessed inappropriate or lewd behaviour as recently as this past summer.
And, they said, there wasn’t much they could do.
Johannes Braun, the winery’s operations manager, was in charge of human resources. He told The Globe he’s never witnessed any inappropriate behaviour or received any complaints of harassment.
Several former managers drew attention to the business’s sexual-harassment policy, which they said has been in place since 2009. But of the dozens of former employees interviewed, only a handful said they were aware of it.
Many said Mr. Hardie’s behaviour was common knowledge. But if wine buyers and restaurant owners had heard the stories, the knowledge didn’t appear to sway them, even with Mr. Hardie’s name scrawled across each and every label.
Jacob Wharton-Shukster, the owner of Toronto’s Chantecler, is one of the only restaurateurs approached by The Globe who stopped carrying the wine years ago because of the behaviour. At a winery party years ago, Mr. Hardie told Mr. Wharton-Shukster’s then-girlfriend to remove her shirt in exchange for wine, he said. After that incident, he said, he encountered many other stories like it.
“I’ve realized where I want to send my money, and the kinds of things and people I want to support,” he said.
In addition to Mr. Hardie’s behavior, many of the former employees – 12 in total – also voiced concerns about their wages. Rather than each server keeping their tips, as is the practice in most restaurants, under Mr. Hardie, tips were collected and redistributed as “bonuses” at the end of the year. But many employees had serious concerns over the accounting.
This became the focus of a complaint at the Ontario Ministry of Labour last year, launched by former employee Trish Pitman. The complaint was investigated, and ultimately dismissed. As an employee, Ms. Pitman didn’t have access to full financial records to make her case. And since then, an additional 11 employees – two of them former managers of the pizza kitchen – told The Globe they, too, had concerns.
(In his statement, Mr. Hardie called the tip pool system “a fair and equitable system.”)
Others said that, across the County, talk of inappropriate behaviour was widespread. But many appeared to turn a blind eye.
Thanks to Mr. Hardie’s influence, Prince Edward County was attracting attention from the likes of wine critic Jancis Robinson and Vogue magazine.
No one wanted to mess with that, said a former frequent guest of the winery. “Everyone wanted the County to succeed because it’s so precarious and it’s such a short season. And so many people’s livelihoods relied on his reputation.”
’An atmosphere of inclusiveness’
Not everybody’s experiences were negative. Of the more than 50 people interviewed, 14 said they had only good things to say about their time at the winery. Even some of those who said they were subject to inappropriate behavior by Mr. Hardie were hesitant to come forward, saying that they’d also experienced generosity from him.
Many men spoke glowingly of their experiences. Many women, too, said they never witnessed inappropriate behaviour. They added that Mr. Hardie was genuinely supportive of their careers.
“I have worked in many wineries, in many countries over the past seven years since I worked for Norm, but none of my past experiences had an atmosphere of inclusiveness, generosity, enthusiasm and intellect like his winery provided,” said Mara Ambrose, who now works in California.
Another friend and former employee, Sheila Flaherty, said to The Globe in an e-mail that, in her “hundreds of occasions” of visiting the winery, she never witnessed any behaviour of concern.
“Year after year, devoted staff return to work at Norman Hardie’s winery, which is a true testament to the business and its leadership,” she said.
Several others spoke of jobs in far-flung countries at prestigious wineries that Mr. Hardie helped to line up for employees. “He’ll be sure the people who work for him get jobs somewhere else,” said a former employee.
But it’s this same influence – his ability to make or break a young person’s career with a single phone call – that many of the women cited as the reason they stayed quiet for so long.
If not for the #MeToo movement and the related continuing public discussions, many of the women interviewed by The Globe said they likely would have continued to remain silent about Mr. Hardie.
Some said they hoped to prevent others from being mistreated by Mr. Hardie. Others said that, by speaking out, they hoped it might give strength to other women to speak out about their own abusers.
Ms. Reid, the former Joe Beef worker who said she was groped by Mr. Hardie, said she weighed the potential risks of being blacklisted from the restaurant industry before coming forward.
“I could maybe get some heat,” she said. “But I don’t want to be working with people that would blacklist me because I was abused by someone.”
For years, she said, the attitude has been to tolerate the abuse and harassment that she said happens almost on a daily basis – “you know it’s something that’s going to happen, and you don’t say anything about it, and you just live with it,” she said.
“It’s like no other business that I know. And it’s accepted like no other business I know,” she said.
“The fact that someone’s bringing it up? Thank God. It’s about time.”
With a report from Rick Cash
Ivy Knight is a freelance journalist and long-time food-industry professional. Several of the people interviewed in the reporting of this story were friends or acquaintances of Ms. Knight’s. These relationships were disclosed to The Globe from the outset. In those instances, it was Ann Hui, The Globe and Mail’s national food reporter, who conducted the interviews.