A small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment…
The Ontario Government announced this week that it will begin to allow sales of VQA Ontario wines at farmers’ markets across the province. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Premier and Minister of Agriculture and Food, has been the impetus behind the move. “I’m committed to supporting this innovative industry and I encourage consumers to choose Ontario wines first. They’re local, they’re good for our economy, and they support good jobs”, says Wynne.
While the details of when and exactly how wine sales will be integrated into markets have yet to be determined, “anything that expands distribution is good” says Wine Council of Ontario president Hilary Dawson in a phone interview. “We don’t know the details yet”, said Dawson, “but this is happening. The Wine Council has received an official letter from the government to attend a meeting in January with responsibility stakeholders like the Attorney General’s Office and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario”.
Essentially, what is being proposed is an add-on endorsement to an existing winery license. Wineries are permitted to sell their wines from their own premises, and in some cases from satellite outlets. The endorsement would simply expand a winery’s retail channels to include farmers’ markets. Any concerns that this move may lead to illegal trading are thus largely unfounded. As Dawson points out, “I think most wineries will be diligent in following the rules since their full winery license is at stake.”
Most local wineries have welcomed the news. “We’re farmers after all”, says winemaker Norman Hardie. “Having local wines sold alongside local foods will only serve to reinforce the connection to our land. Besides, it makes perfect economic sense. The sale of local wines puts many times more money back into the local economy relative to the sale of imports”.
Michele Bosc, Director of Marketing for Château des Charmes agrees: “Any opportunity to have our wines more readily available to consumers is a good thing. We are especially keen on linking local food to local wine and farmers’ markets are an ideal setting to do so. The local food movement has become mainstream so now we have to work to have VQA wines also to be mainstream in the minds of Ontario consumers.”
Doug Whitty, owner of both a private farm market and 13th Street winery, has some experience in the matter and has likewise greeted the news positively. “At our own winery and farm market, we experience many more customers, especially young people, who seek to make this connection as they include Ontario VQA wines and local food as part of a lifestyle that is fun, healthy, educational and promotes sustainability”, says Whitty.
Other local wineries are more skeptical, however. “In my humble opinion this is a bone being thrown to small wineries who are having difficulty getting shelf space in the LCBO/Vintages stores and to appease the LCBO privatization lobby”, writes Harald Thiel, owner of Hidden Bench, via email.
Thiel would like to see a more significant change to the VQA retailing landscape, suggesting instead to reserve shelf space in the LCBO for “100% Ontario wines”, and restricting the sales of all non-VQA Cellared in Canada wines (or “CICs”, wines made from a blend of local and imported wines), “to only the dedicated channels of those wineries that benefit from that license [to produce import blends]”, a reference to winery-owned stores such as The Wine Rack, owned by Constellation Brands. “That was the original plan under the 1993 free trade agreement. 2003 was to be last year when both channels were to be available to CIC wineries”, reminds Thiel.
Even those who support the Wynne government’s announcement question the viability of selling their wines at farmers’ markets. “It’s hard to say if this is a good opportunity or not as there is so much regulatory work that needs to be worked out by the government. And we are such a highly regulated industry it is never a straight line,” says Paul Speck, President of Henry of Pelham Winery.
Doug Whitty agrees that it will be logistically challenging and echoes Thiel’s concerns: “there are significant costs to selling at farmers markets and these costs, coupled with limited days and hours available for retail operations within them, may limit participation. This announcement is welcome but it certainly does not address the continuing need for increased retail market access for Ontario VQA producers in the province.”
Among the many questions to be answered include which farmers’ markets will be eligible. “Obviously the government wants to avoid someone throwing up a fruit stand at the end of their driveway in order to sell wine”, Dawson tells me. There’s also the question of how space will be allocated at highly coveted markets like St. Lawrence, the Brickworks, or St Jacobs, which are already at capacity in any case.
Another hurdle is the fact that most markets open long before alcohol can legally be sold or sampled in Ontario. Will wine sales be prohibited until after 10am, and sampling until after 11am?
And even if sampling is permitted, Thiel for one doubts that farmers’ markets provide any real opportunity for premium wines, considering the sampling costs in relation to projected sales. There’s also a high risk of “depremiumization” of a brand. Most winery principals agree that offering samples of premium Ontario wine in plastic or other disposable cup on a hot, busy summer outdoor market day, for example, is far from ideal. And serving in proper glassware brings a new range of logistical challenges such as transporting, storing, and washing the glasses. “Can you imagine premium brands like Roumier, Pierre Yves Colin, Ponzi or Anthill selling at a farmers markets?” questions Thiel.
Additional considerations include whether a winery stall will be required to have hard walls, or other restrictions on the physical space imposed in order to control access to alcohol, whether wineries will be permitted to group together save on costs or gain access to markets, how wine will be shipped and warehoused, and whether a winery principal will be required to be on hand to sell (as opposed to a winery representative or hired worker), as some markets demand from their food farmers.
But, “let’s not make this too complicated,” urges Dawson. “Too many conditions will limit participation”.
Although this is viewed as a minor victory for VQA Ontario wine, it can be also viewed as a small step towards loosening the tight regulatory environment surrounding the sale of alcohol in the province. As Dawson points out: “if the government can feel comfortable doing this, than other changes are possible”.
Stay tuned for more details on this story in January 2014.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier