It was on the way home from a camping trip in 1996 that Sacha and John Squair first laid eyes on Prince Edward County. Driving west along Highway 33, they took in the sweeping shorelines of Lake Ontario, the faded barns and the old Loyalist villages and their red-brick cottages. They were instantly charmed.
Within two years, the Squairs had moved to the county, among a wave of families giving up lives in Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa to chase “the county dream.” They were artists and restaurateurs and white-collar workers, starting over and building businesses: planting organic vegetable farms, opening gourmet restaurants and restoring old inns. Many, such as the Squairs, planted grape vines and created wineries.
They loved their small community; how neighbours took care of one another. It seemed like a quieter, kinder place.
That image was turned upside down this week, with news that one of the county’s giants − its most celebrated wine maker, Norman Hardie − was facing allegations of sexual misconduct. A Globe and Mail investigation detailed allegations from more than 20 former employees and restaurant workers outlining a pattern of sexual misconduct and harassment. (Mr. Hardie has said that “some of the allegations made against me are not true, but many are.”)
In a studio overlooking her vineyards, Ms. Squair, who owns Three Dog Winery, shook her head slowly. She and her husband have known Mr. Hardie for years.
“As a community member, I’m ashamed that he had such notoriety,” she said. “I’m ashamed that we had Prince Charles and Camilla there. I’m ashamed that he was touted as this model citizen and representative of Prince Edward County.”
In the days since the news, she and her neighbours have grappled with a range of emotions. They are saddened for the alleged victims, many of whom they know. Some are angry and disappointed in Mr. Hardie. Others blame themselves for having supported him.
“It’s a betrayal,” Ms. Squair said, describing it as a “black mark” against the community that so many have spent so long building.
“You had it all, Norm,” she said, her voice slowly rising. “And then you blew it. You didn’t just blow it for yourself. You’ve had a negative impact on a lot of people’s lives.”
‘Everybody is being polite’
Prince Edward County Mayor Robert Quaiff had just woken up on Wednesday morning when he heard the news.
He was in Gananoque, Ont., at a caucus meeting with mayors and officials from nearby regions when others began filling him in on the details about Mr. Hardie. He was shocked, and called up his staff immediately. “I said, ‘We’ve got some problems.’”
He knew the effect the news would have on the entire county. Many people there have worked at the winery. Many have received support from Mr. Hardie, or benefited from his success. The critical acclaim of Mr. Hardie’s wines brought a renewed interest in the county − and investment from a new wave of young people chasing their own version of the “county dream.”
The next night, the board of directors at the Prince Edward County Winegrowers Association met at Karlo Estates, a winery in Wellington. The conversation was difficult, according to the group’s executive director, Duarte Da Silva. They all knew Mr. Hardie. Still, the decision was unanimous. They voted to suspend his membership in the group.
They turned their focus toward what the organization might do to prevent future abuses. They got in touch with the Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce. Together, they are looking at existing safety and harassment policies across various industries, making sure businesses know about the resources both organizations offer, and seeking ways to make systems more practical.
“While we had a pretty comprehensive document, the ‘holes’ in it were suddenly obvious,” the chamber’s executive director, Emily Cowan, said.
They are also considering a third-party reporting mechanism to which employees can confidentially take allegations of harassment or abuse.
Others said that cultural changes should also be addressed.
Since the news broke, many have said the allegations against Mr. Hardie do not represent the county, or the industry as a whole.
And while that may be true in general, Mary Wood, who runs a catering business in the county, said the community needs to have open conversations about the fact that harassment happens everywhere, and especially in the food and hospitality industries.
“We would be very naïve to say it’s not happening in our precious little small town,” she said.
More urgently, Ms. Wood said some in the community appear reluctant to discuss the news at all, especially some of the county’s most prominent wine makers.
“I feel like everybody is being polite,” she said. “And I don’t think this is a polite conversation. I don’t think that anything that happened [to Mr. Hardie’s alleged victims] is polite.”
From the outside, reaction came quickly and relatively decisively. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, SAQ in Quebec and the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation have all said they will not restock Mr. Hardie’s wines in their stores.
But on the first official Saturday of the summer, just three days after the news about Mr. Hardie surfaced, reactions among the tourists pouring into the county was mixed.
Many said they had changed their plans because of the news.
In the parking lot of Hinterland Wine Company, Stephanie Medeiros said her party of nine had cancelled its reservation for a birthday celebration at Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard. Duy Lam, visiting from Montreal, said that although it is one of his friends’ favourite wineries, they would skip it this time.
And Terry Villemaire, on a ladies’ trip from Orillia, Ont., said her tour bus had stopped at Norman Hardie’s, but she chose not to participate.
“I did not have any tastings. I did not buy any wine,” she said. “I refused.”
By Saturday afternoon, however, Mr. Hardie’s winery looked nearly as busy as usual − the tasting bar crowded with groups of middle-aged women and bachelorette parties. The pizza kitchen looked full.
Laurence Dauphinais, visiting from Quebec, said she was there to support the employees at the winery.
And Michael Brookes of Ottawa said he and his wife wanted to see the winery at the centre of the scandal. They visited, but did not buy anything.
But others, such as the large groups delivered one after another in tour buses, appeared unaware of the storm cloud hanging over the winery.
Taken together, locals are left with mixed signals about the future of Mr. Hardie’s winery, and the future of the region in general.
“Will there be a short-term downside? Yes,” said Paul DeCampo, a wine industry veteran. “But I think there’s a long-term benefit.”
He said that for so long, the attention on Mr. Hardie overshadowed other local wine producers.
“He was such a big personality, that it just sucked some of the life out of the room.”
He hopes now some of that spotlight will be shared more evenly.
The Squairs hope so too.
For many years, Ms. Squair said, local wine makers have watched, somewhat puzzled, the adulation focused on Mr. Hardie. Long before Mr. Hardie, there were wineries such as Waupoos Winery, Rosehall Run and Long Dog Winery, she said. These were the “pioneers,” she said, the first to fall in love with the County as a wine region.
“The county was great before Norm,” she said. “And we will be great after Norm.”