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Sadness, hope, resiliency and a final good-bye in The County

Prince Edward County wine

By Rick VanSickle

HILLIER, Prince Edward County — There was plenty of sadness in the air during a recent trip to Prince Edward County wine country, but also resiliency, hope and a connected community that rallies around those in need of comfort and help in trying times.

One of my first stops (after tastings at Hinterland, Trail Estate and Lacey … see Part II of PEC adventures Friday) was a cautious visit to The Old Third, a winery that is under a dark cloud with co-owner, Bruno Francois (top photo), of the wonderful boutique winery with some of finest Pinot Noirs in the country, undergoing treatment for T-Cell Lymphoma as well as dealing with Lyme Disease.

The recent cancer diagnosis prompted a gofundme campaign a few weeks ago that raised the initial goal of $10,000 within hours through a Facebook campaign and $22,760 of a further goal of $18,000.

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The cost of cancer treatment is covered in Canada, but the area where help is needed is in covering costs to keep the winery afloat while Francois undergoes treatment and recovery. Bruno and his partner, Jens Korberg (both above), have been managing their beautiful vineyard and winery on their own for years now, but Francois is simply too ill to deal with the physical demands of a vineyard, and it is impossible for Korberg to handle the workload on his own.

With the money raised they have been able to hire help for the vineyard. That, along with generous help from the entire Prince Edward County wine community through assistance in the vineyard, retail store and several fund-raisers, has made the ordeal of Francois’s serious illness a little easier to manage.

Said Korberg in a Facebook posting:

“Both Bruno and I find it difficult—if not impossible—to put into words the gratitude we feel for the overwhelming waves of love that have washed over us from so many of you.

“From Sweden to here in Canada, as well as other parts of the globe, your love and support have given us tremendous strength. Love is extremely powerful. It humbles us. Warms our soul. Most importantly, though, it gives us hope.

“In the darkest of times, love breaks through the most daunting of obstacles.

“There was a time that Bruno and I would prefer not to ask for help. We were steadfast in our desire to stay independent and manage all our tasks as a solitary unit. That said, the past six months brought us to our breaking point. Bruno has been more or less bedridden. There have been endless trips to the hospital trying to decipher what is causing him to be so sick. We’ve had to make many difficult decisions like putting the business on the back burner while we await Bruno’s diagnosis and treatment plan. “There have also been many tears shed — both out of fear and frustration.

“But lately, our tears are spilling out of overwhelming gratitude to all of you.

“We are so lucky be surrounded by true friendship. Whether by email or text, asking how things are or stopping by with food, popping in for a visit, helping in the vineyard or winery or helping out financially—you’ve made it possible for us to keep fighting.

“It will be a long, tough and scary fight. But we are going into this strong. We’ll beat this and come out on the other side stronger and humbler than ever before.

“The strength we feel is all thanks to all of you.

“We hope that one day we will be able to return the favour.

“From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.”

— Bruno and Jens

I asked Korberg how he was coping when I visited the winery. He strained to be upbeat in the face of a serious medical situation, but was emotional when he brought up how the community has rallied behind them.

Best Ontario Pinot Noir

On a day that should have been bustling with customers clamouring for the new vintage of The Old Third Pinot Noir 2015 (now released as of last Saturday), Korberg was presiding over the retail store and selling what he had in stock — mainly the last of the 2014 cider Old Third makes.

“The outpouring of support has been tremendous,” Korberg said. “It’s hard to express how grateful we are.”

Good-bye, old pal

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A large crowd of family, friends and colleagues gathered on the front lawn of the County Cider Company to say good-bye to Grant Howes.

On Saturday, after visiting The Old Third and a few other wineries on Friday, it was time to say a final good-bye to an old friend and someone who has meant so much to Prince Edward County and the modern Ontario craft cider industry.

Grant Howes, founder and owner of the County Cider Company, was feted and remembered by friends, family and colleagues on the front lawn of the cidery for a celebration of a life cut far too short. Grant died suddenly in his sleep on Jan. 21 at 60 years old. He had no previous health problems and his death shocked us all to our very core.

Yes, there were tears, especially when his family members, including his wife and partner Jenifer Dean, his sister Liz, and son Alastair, took the mic to talk to the large crowd that gathered to say a final farewell.

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Grant enjoying a cold one after Round II of the annual Father’s Day Golf Weekend last summer.
Ontario craft cider
Can’t recall where this was taken, but it must have been a business meeting.
Prince Edward County
This was the last time I saw Grant just before we attended a high school reunion in Etobicoke at the Old Mill last December.

But there was also great joy and reminiscence for a life well lived, a life well shared. Friends who grew up with Grant in Etobicoke (including myself, along with Robert Chant, a senior VP at Loblaw) and remained life-long friends, spoke of Grant’s passion for life both personally and in business.

Grant was larger than life — both in stature and resolve — and expressed that through his never-ending battle to make and sell cider from 100% Ontario apples against the impossible odds of endless red tape and big mass produced foreign companies put in front of him by a bureaucracy not about to make his dreams come true easily. He never gave up the fight and will always remain the architect of the modern cider industry in Ontario. That tasty Ontario cider you are drinking now, raise a glass to Grant.

Grant talks about growing apples unconventionally — his favourite topic.

It was a good day. Grant would have smiled from ear to ear to see the number people gathered at what he believed was the best view in the world looking down over Lake Ontario from his front lawn.

When the speeches were over, the people didn’t stop remembering him. In small groups, large groups, hugs and stories were given and told of a man that had a profound affect on all of those who had gathered.

He will forever be remembered not only for his cider exploits but also for his booming smile, firm handshake and his friendship that spanned decades.

A Grant Howes Memorial Scholarship Fund has been established at Niagara College in Niagara-on-the-Lake to support students in the winery and viticulture technician, brewmaster and brewery operations management programs. To donate, go here.

There will be a big hole in this group photo when we gather for our annual boys’ golf weekend in June.
Grant may have lacked perfect style on the golf course, but he brought a smile to everyone’s face. Photo by Don Haris

A giant-sized toast of Waupoos Cider will be enjoyed this Father’s Day when 15 of Grant’s high school buddies gather like they have for decades for their annual weekend of golf and debauchery, a weekend that Grant was a part of and loved so much.

Cheers to you, Grant.

Note: Part II of tasting in Prince Edward County Friday.