ArticlesDestinationsFood & Wine

Jens and Bruno – The Wine Warriors of Prince Edward

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

The Old Third’s Fields of Victory

Bruno speaks through clenched teeth as he recounts a tale of a fight he didn’t start. Jens, no less furious, retains a soft voice and outward calm. Bruno says with admiration, “Jens is the nice one.” Bruno is the talkative one, and together they have quite the story to tell. A story of survival, literally and figuratively, a tale of triumph, and a journey of terror, terroir, compassion, and commitment.

Bruno François, born to French parents, was raised in Ottawa. He ran his software firm in Toronto and lived in the city’s Annex. He was comfortable in a city of 2.5 million people at the turn of the millennium. He thrived on the excitement of his industry, on the energy of the neighbourhood.

Jens Korberg, born to an accountant and teacher, lived in Herrljunga, in southwest Sweden, one of about 3,000 citizens of his hometown, fewer than 100 kilometres from the better-known Gothenburg. A small-town boy about to embark on a life-changing adventure, taking him to Canada’s largest city, and then to its newest wine region.

One evening, Jens was on ICQ, an early Internet chat platform. He clicked on the random chat button, and there was Bruno. A chat turned into conversations, and in 2000, Jens left his charming birthplace for Canada’s largest city. “It was a bit of a shock,” he said softly in his perfect English. An interior designer to Bruno’s software architect, they had diverse skills.

Successful in their careers, settled in their relationship, surrounded by friends, they enjoyed the good life for half a decade. Bruno’s business was highly stressful and was taking its toll. Bruno doesn’t do things halfway. It’s all or nothing, full speed, total commitment. It was time to reassess. They thought about a truffle shop, researching, experimenting, gathering equipment, looking at designs.

They considered buying the neighbouring basement bar when it came up for sale. They thought about starting a vineyard.

One evening, during blind tastings of pinot noir in the wine club they started, someone asked if they had heard of Prince Edward County, Canada’s up and coming wine region. They had not. Now, the very name symbolizes victory for the couple.

They fell in love with Prince Edward County on the first visit, appreciating the history and countryside, eventually finding a small property with good soil, drainage, and a steep southern exposure ideal for pinot noir and cabernet franc. As a bonus, 99 per cent was suitable for planting.

By 2005, they were owners of an old barn and a lovely piece of property in Hillier on Closson Road, calling it The Old Third. They wanted the circa 1840 Greek Revival Crandall House across the road, but it wasn’t for sale for another year. In the meantime, they had vines to plant and a barn to restore. Gone was the stress of the software business, enter so much work, so many uncertainties of agriculture, the newness of the community, and that shared vision and drive.

Bruno’s grandfather made Calvados in Normandy, so it was a bit of a family tradition, this pursuit.

In 2006, the Crandall House was theirs, and despite the grand name and a mention in The Settler’s Dream, all claims to splendour dissolved upon closer inspection. “We loved the idea of a Greek Revival style home,” recalls Bruno. “They are more prevalent in early American architecture, and to see one in Loyalist country was interesting. We wondered what the builder was thinking. The American Revolution was still a recent memory, the County was populated with those loyal to the Crown, and someone built a home reflective of American independence. We wondered what the neighbours thought, and it intrigued us. Was it poor form, an insult, or daring?”

The romance of the home ended when they saw the splayed foundation, the sagging supports, the layers of panelling and wallpaper, and renovations over the years Jens in kindness could only call rough. They saw the potential, though, and dove in. At one point, with the basement once again sturdy, they turned to the sagging ceiling, installing a large beam. It was a struggle, a fight, a chance to use inappropriate words in several languages, and when they were done, they stood back in admiration. Bruno turned to Jens and said, “We shall not be defeated.”

That became their mantra, and became a battle cry a decade later.

The first Old Third harvest was 2008 and the wine released in 2010 to great acclaim. “We believe in the supremacy of terroir. Single vineyard wines and single orchard cider. We don’t blend. We’re here because we want to see what our vineyards will produce.”

They sell only from the winery, wanting the personal connection with customers, seeing the reaction to their small-batch vintages with very limited availability. “To us, small equals independence.”

They sold out every year from 2010 to 2016, when the bottom fell out of their world.

The first strike was an email from the Vintners Quality Alliance Ontario (VQA). It instructed them to cease and desist using the names Prince Edward County and Ontario on their banner, which innocuously read, “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County.” Given that’s what they did and where they did it, the logic was unclear.

Jens, the nice one, the guy who doesn’t use social media as a political platform, posted a screen grab on the winery’s Facebook page. “It went viral,” Jens noted. They didn’t respond to the VQA email and a month later received a letter ordering them to comply or they would be subject to a $10,000 fine.

Membership in VQA is voluntary and there is a fee. There is a requirement to submit wines for approval. Bruno is not a fan of tasting panels, preferring direct feedback from his friends and visitors to The Old Third. “Our customers know who we are and where we are. We sell out every year; our customers aren’t looking for VQA approval; they’re looking for The Old Third.”

One of Bruno’s favourite parts of being a winemaker is the people they meet, the friends they make. He called one of them. A lawyer. A former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor of Legal Affairs and Policy to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and currently Principal Secretary to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. To Bruno, he was a friend with expertise.

The letter kept referring to the VQA Act, which they examined in minute detail. Lawyer Anglin pointed them in the right direction, and there were many heated discussions, no doubt with Bruno’s teeth clenched and Jens desperately trying to remain the voice of reason, but this was trying even his good nature.

They learned new phrases, like ‘petty bureaucratic tyranny’ and the ‘doctrine of absurdity,’ a colloquial term leading the pair to believe it could not possibly be the intent of the legislature to create a law that produces absurdity. “We were being told the law prevented us from saying where we lived, where we grew our grapes, where we did business, and where we paid taxes.” Living in a home reflective of architecture originating in the birthplace of democracy, the irony was not lost on the lads.

They combed the Act and discovered it was well written. “There are good reasons for some wineries to join the VQA, depending on their business model. A lot of wineries count on restaurant sales for a large portion of their income, so VQA membership is beneficial to them. We don’t sell anywhere other than from our winery, so it affords us zero benefits. The VQA was overly optimistic in their benefits from it.”

They went to court, with an army of moral support behind them. Speaking with CTV News, Bruno said, “When we got that order, it was insulting, and it was wrong, and that’s why we fought it. How can we operate if we can’t say where we’re located? We didn’t come out here to be fighting these kinds of trivial and ridiculous and petty bureaucratic battles.” The Old Third prevailed. They would not be defeated.

“The Appellant is describing, factually, the location of its vineyard,” the Ontario Licence Appeal Tribunal wrote in its decision. “If one accepts the VQA’s position, the Appellant could not say Hillier in Prince Edward County, nor even Hillier, Ontario, because ‘Ontario’ too is a controlled term.” That, the tribunal said, “is indeed an unreasonable if not an absurd consequence.”

Bruno and Jens were vindicated. “It was the most wonderful feeling when the order was quashed. It was a huge expense to defend something we should never have had to defend. We should never have had that fight. Now it’s a precedent in Ontario and guideline for other jurisdictions.”

The pre-hearing and post-decision support were overwhelming. Although they are now somewhat legends in the industry, it was not their intent. “We did it from outrage,” said Jens. The order was wrong morally and technically.”

The Old Third has always had great responses to its wines on an international level and amazing support from people around the world. “This was a whole different animal,” said Bruno, still a bit in awe. “We’d get people detouring on a trip from Montreal to Toronto who had never been here before because they saw the little guy win against such a huge machine. We had emails from people who had never been to Prince Edward County or tasted our wines sending support.”

The Old Third resumed, but another foe was on the horizon – one not so easily tamed. As the VQA fight was ongoing, Bruno’s health continued to decline. He’d had high fevers and weakness for several years, but they’d come and go. He was young and healthy, living the charmed life of a winemaker. Or so he thought. Doctors were unable to diagnose it, and he grew increasingly frustrated. Again, he turned to a friend he made through the business. Alan Bernstein, inaugural president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, saw Bruno’s decline, and said, “Let me help you.”

As Bruno sees it, he owes his life to Dr. Bernstein, a fellow County resident. “He got me in front of the right people, and we learned I had lymphoma – stage four. He literally saved my life. He and JoAnn offered us their Toronto home during my chemotherapy. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. We cannot begin to express our level of gratitude.”

Bruno became the centre, the priority, Jens recalls. “We had to close the winery many days and the vineyard went to ruin. In 2017 we bought chardonnay and in 2018 we bought Riesling. We had no crop of our own those years and only a small yield in 2016. Other than a few batches those two years, we are an estate winery by decision and the wines are from our vineyards. It humbled us. There are a lot of reasons people buy grapes and it made us a lot more understanding.”

In 2019, The Old Third enjoyed a small harvest, although the road ahead will not be easy. “We realized we were almost back to the beginning. The vines are still there, but those two years where the vineyards were abandoned will affect us for years.”

Thankfully, there was a safety net in the form of a silent partner. A Canadian diplomat approached Bruno and Jens about 10 years ago, offering to invest in both the winery and their potential. After the diagnosis, they shared the dire news and offered to return the investment. “He told me to get better,” said Bruno. “That’s all he said. He is in it for the long run and realized it was just going to grow. He’s a wonderful addition to The Old Third family.”

When asked why they stay, after the battering of the last few years, neither hesitates. “Because we love it,” says Jens. “What else could we do that we love so much,” echoed Bruno. “We make a living, although the last few years have been hard, and we’ll struggle for a while. We get respect. We’re on the cusp of something great.”

This is their community. “The people we’ve met are by far the greatest riches. When we were going through the battle with VQA and with cancer, we’d have down days. We’d be depressed and looking at a pile of bills and our friends would lift us. We’d fill our home with the joy of friends or go to their place. I’d go through it all again just to meet these people and understand on such a personal level the goodness in people.”

They see a trend in the younger crowd, laughing as they now remove themselves from that demographic. “Millennials get a bad rap, but they’re aware of the good things in life. When I was that age, I drank cheap beer and ate crappy pizza. Now people in their 20s appreciate the finer things. Someone in their early 20s could be a lifelong customer. We’ve sold tens of thousands of bottles and people open those at their tables with loved ones and celebrate special occasions. That’s lovely. They think of us for a moment and often will send a message. That helped us through this. We need to be there for them, for their celebrations.”

To assure that can happen, they will bring the vineyard back to full production, rejoice in Bruno’s good health, and continue to build the business. They will grow on their events and pop-up dinners with well-known chefs, host weddings and corporate events, and share their love of winemaking.

Jens wants to return to his popular although neglected food blog and is working on a cookbook showcasing traditional Swedish recipes. Bruno is thinking about teaching, says he needs to teach, to share the craft, and he wants to build a walled English garden.

They know none of this will happen overnight, but as they agree, “we’re in this for life.”

“Everything has a lot of good,” notes Jens. “This is our home. I don’t picture us anywhere else. Life will take you where you’re supposed to be.”

They’re meant to be in Prince Edward County, Ontario, and no one can keep them from shouting that to the world.