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The Canadian con contd

17 Aug 2009 by Jancis Robinson

22 Sept 2009 - read an update on this issue in our members' forum.

I'll be publishing my tasting notes on British Columbia wines later this week and my FT article on Saturday will be devoted to them.  But my enthusiasm for the increase in quality of BC wines on a recent visit to Vancouver and the Okanagan Valley was tempered by my experience in a typical local monopoly liquor store in Vancouver. I had heard that BC was rather better behaved than Ontario in terms of not misleading consumers about the provenance of so much of the wine they are offered for sale, but I was wrong.

The bottles below are representatives of the popular Sonora Ranch and Naked Grape brands owned by Mission Hill and Vincor respectively. Very careful reading of the small print on the back label, which carries the term 'Cellared in Canada' , reveals that they contain a blend of Canadian and imported wine.

BCwineshop

Yet, as the picture shows, they are clearly sold as though they were Canadian wines. I asked the man in the store with a badge proclaiming him a Sales Advisor where the wines came from. He assured me categorically that they were BC wines and that the only difference between them and the BC wines carrying the VQA designation was that they were more mass-market offerings.

I know I keep going on about this (click on the Canada tag below), but I think it is doing a disservice to real Canadian wine and its reputation abroad to continue with this misleading practice. It is just so difficult to take Canadian producers seriously when they are allowed to mislead the wine-buying public to this extent. Surely those who buy these cheaper brands would not stop buying them if they were stocked on a shelf headed 'Blended Wines'.

I asked Anthony von Mandl, owner of Mission Hill, how he could justify these practices and he claimed that he was planning to offer greater transparency in labelling and would be spelling out exactly where the ingredients in all his wines come from. If he did, this would surely be a great spur for the biggest company of all, Vincor owned by Constellation, to come clean and do the same. In fact, Vincor, the dominant Canadian wine company, is particularly misleading. It uses its Jackson Triggs label, name of its flagship BC winery, for both BC wines and for imported blends.

I'm delighted that there now seems to be increased awareness of the deeply misleading wine labelling and wine merchandising that operates quite legally in Canada.  There is now a Boycott 'Cellared in Canada'  page on Facebook, and this recent article in Wines & Vines also draws attention to the problem.  Although it is interesting that the most militant protests seem to be coming from Ontario growers worried about their livelihood because a bumper harvest is in view rather than from anyone championing clarity of labelling on behalf of consumers.

How many Toronto wine drinkers realise that wines may quite legally be sold in Ontario labelled 'Cellared in Canada' containing 20% water and only 10% Canadian wine?

Comments

Sorry, I tried double spacing for paragraphs, but I seemed to mess that up somehow! I too call for comment reforms Jancis! :)

18 Aug 2009 21:31 by Jacob Skakun

Great points Howard. The government owned monopoly as liquor board, distributor, wholesaler and also as a retailer (no longer a monopoly) is always a big debate and hot topic with British Columbians. Especially when you mention the 110% government markup that is added to any imported bottle which is then taxed on top of that (essentially taxing a tax). But this is a whole separate topic and debate I'm afraid. www.winelaw.ca/ is a great place to go for info on legal issues related to the BC wine industry.   I love the idea of the VQA running an advertising campaign, spelling out what you can expect by buying VQA wines and even calling out these "Cellared in Canada" labels (almost in a smear campaign style). The sticking issue is of course spurred by money and the fact that the large powerful conglomerates which own the fruit importing commercial wineries also own very large and successful VQA labels made from 100% Canadian fruit (ie Mission Hill & Jackson Triggs). Ideally there would be another independent body created and funded by 100% Canadian wine producing wineries which would promote and campaign against "Cellared in Canada" wines. But as we all know, making wine is rarely the most profitable venture (especially in Canada) and I feel many small/medium sized producers don't have the extra money to fund this project....especially without help from the large scale conglomerates creating what I believe is called a "catch 22."   I also agree that the Government doesn't always have the best interests of the consumer in mind. They too make decisions based on money (which could favour the conglomerates), but unfortunately as of now I don't see many other options. I think writing and talking about the issue in forums like this will create more awareness and hopefully more outrage until practices are forced to change, but that of course is the meek and naive approach. Cheers! Jake www.cherriesandclay.com

18 Aug 2009 21:30 by Jacob Skakun

No, no, no, Howard, I did not mean to chide you, just to remind everyone of what is possible as it has been only relatively recently that ANY formatting was allowed in this comment box.

Your suggestion of a preview facility is certainly noted.

18 Aug 2009 19:44 by Jancis Robinson

"By the way, do please remember that you can make PARAGRAPHS in comments, thereby making them easier to read, with a DOUBLE LINE SPACE."   Apologies, Ms Robinson. I am new to your site and just saw this tip. Perhaps if there were a "preview post" option, it would make it easier to structure comments? In any case, many thanks and my sincere apologies for posting what must appear as monolithic and forbidding screeds! HJA  

18 Aug 2009 18:14 by Howard Anglin

Mr. Skakun, Briefly, in response to your comment. I don't think we differ on the fundamentals, and we both share a goal of improving, and improving the reputation of, quality Canadian wine.  You write:  "Howard, it's great that you feel the term "Cellared in Canada" should raise alarm, however due to the complete lack of media attention, the average Canadian consumer isn't at all educated these practices and are instead trusting the signs in our Government run liquor store. These bottles are on shelves with gigantic "British Columbia" signs hanging above them and as Jancis points out, many of the so called "Sales Advisor" staff don't even have a clue about the products they're selling."  It seems that the biggest problem here is with the State-run stores and their ignorance of -- and outright misrepresentation about -- "Cellared in Canada" wines. There is no defense for selling these wines side by side with 100% Canadian wines. As I noted, I have no idea why, in the year 2009,  the government is in the business of selling alcohol or deciding what wines the people of Ontario or BC should be allowed to drink. I don't want to turn this into an anti-LCBO or BC Liquor control board rant, but we don't limit the sale of tobacco or pharmaceuticals or fruit to government-owned and operated distribution centers, so it seem bizarre that we meekly tolerate this heavy-handed (and, as your example shows, badly run) intrusion into the distribution of wine in Canada. As for increasing consumer awareness, as with other products, I would expect the farmers and winemakers to promote their own products. If producers are so concerned about "Cellared in Canada" wines (and they have every right to be), why doesn't their trade organization, or the VQA, run a campaign about it?  It seems a little meek and self-defeating to wait around for the government to wade in and impose new label laws. Besides, they should be careful what they wish for. Governments don't always have the consumer's best interest at heart. Who's to say new label laws will favor 100% Canadian wine makers rather than the interests of large conglomerates who can make more money trucking in US grapes and (in some cases literally) watering down the product? It seems risky and, in the interim unproductive, to rely on government intervention and the inevitable increase in red tape and compliance costs. Good Canadian wines are wonderful products. So sell them as such and hit back at shady practices with an aggressive ad campaign. Best regards, Howard.

18 Aug 2009 18:10 by Howard Anglin

By the way, do please remember that you can make PARAGRAPHS in comments, thereby making them easier to read, with a DOUBLE LINE SPACE.

 

18 Aug 2009 08:56 by Jancis Robinson

I am the last one to defend shoddy practices, David. And I really must put on my deerstalker and get some more solid information on exactly what happens to all of the wine imported into France, but there is still so much cheap rubbish available here (I write from the Languedoc) that it has always been a bit of mystery why they need to venture abroad to bolster supplies - except of white wine, and very full bodied red.

I suspect  some of the imports go into non regular wine products such as vermouth, odd aperitifs, coolers etc but - as you imply - I should investigate further.   Although I have been critical of the shoddier practices of the French wine industry throughout my career; no chance of a Legion d'Honneur for me!

However, at least there is a very clear, and quite substantial, legal and clear category for wine concocted by blending the produce of different EU countries: it is clearly labelled and tends to be sold as such - unlike the misleading appellation 'Cellared in Canada'. 

18 Aug 2009 08:54 by Jancis Robinson

I agree, Jancis, two wrongs don't make a right, but it does irk me somewhat that the local (in Ontario) and international (yourself) will dump on the Canadian industry for such a shoddy practice, but rarely or without much fervour do they do the same with French or Spanish producers who 'import' product. I'd like to see all perpetrators equally pilloried.

17 Aug 2009 21:44 by David Churchill

Jancis, first off, thank you so much for bringing international attention to what I consider to be a criminal practice that has been deceiving the average Canadian consumers and harming Canadian grape growers for years. Howard, it's great that you feel the term "Cellared in Canada" should raise alarm, however due to the complete lack of media attention, the average Canadian consumer isn't at all educated these practices and are instead trusting the signs in our Government run liquor store. These bottles are on shelves with gigantic "British Columbia" signs hanging above them and as Jancis points out, many of the so called "Sales Advisor" staff don't even have a clue about the products they're selling. As far as the labeling, it's literally in small print on the back that simply says "Cellared in Canada" (however some labels do say "A blend of Canadian and imported grapes" but most do not). Sure, most people in the wine industry understand that these are made from imported bulk juice, but the average buyer with little wine knowledge sees the cheap price tag and figures its low-end Canadian wine. Perhaps many of these people seeking some cheap Sauvignon Blanc to put ice cubes and lemon slices in still wont care, but I'd say a very large percentage of people wanting to support the local industry would care. It's true that many of the quality small producers do sell all their wine every vintage, but there are still boatloads of other cheap 100% Canadian wine (albeit maybe not as cheap as the Cellared in Canada wine) on the shelves to buy as an alternative if you're looking for something simple and drinkable. These gigantic wine companies (such as Vincor and Mission Hill) should have the resources to source 100% Canadian grown bulk grapes to make these lower end labels with. The VQA helps to guarantee Canadian origin, but again many people aren't educated about it, and origin is really all it designates. Many small BC producers chose not to be VQA certified as it requires a fee to become a member and they can sell their wine without the promotional help being VQA provides.    It's true that the BCLDB [British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch] and LBO should have separate shelving or displays which prominently state that these wines are vinified in BC from imported grapes and then let the consumer make their own mind. I'm not entirely sure what's preventing this, except that the liquor board must be making more money off of these "Cellared in Canada" wines than they would off an average bottle of cheap Chilean wine. Somehow we need to force transparency on these profiting companies to prominently label where the grapes are farmed, because as long as they're cashing in it's not going to happen. Whether that's through more stringent labeling laws (which I feel should happen) or through creating more awareness and educating the public (which Jancis is helping with) it needs to happen. I'd love to see a combination of shelving display changes by the BCLDB and labeling changes by producers. There has been a small victory recently... The Jackson-Triggs Esprit label (owned by Vincor) is the official wine of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics & Paralympic Games and the wine they were selling and promoting as such wasn't even made from local or Canadian wine but rather from imported grapes.  Obviously many people (including myself) found it completely ridiculous that the wine that we would be serving and promoting to the hundreds of thousands of visitors that we'll be welcoming this coming winter isn't even Canadian. (We've highlighted that in a recent post here: http://www.cherriesandclay.com/2009/08/09/2010-gold-already-awarded-the-backpedal/) On our local blog (http://www.cherriesandclay.com), this is something that we've been concerned about for a while as both consumers and professionals in BC and we've expressed these concerns recently (http://www.cherriesandclay.com/2009/06/04/shocking-news-indeed/), although I feel it's time for more pressure and more large scale boycotts. Cheers and thanks again!

17 Aug 2009 21:15 by Jacob Skakun

Ms. Robinson and Mr. Switzer,I am a big supporter of the smaller, high-quality wineries in both BC and Ontario whenever I am back in Canada. But I'm not sure I see what the problem here is. Perhaps my assumptions are based in ignorance (in which case I hope you will correct me), but doesn't the phrase "Cellared in Canada" immediately raise alarm bells in a consumer? It sounds to me like "Assembled in the USA" labels, which reveal as much as they conceal. A consumer may still choose the "Cellared in Canada" wine (particularly as it is likely to be cheaper), but does that consumer really think he is supporting Canadian grape growers (or, given that price is probably more important to him, does he care?).Second, the monopoly selling system (BC Liquor Stores/LCBO [Liquor Control Board of Ontario]) is obviously a huge problem for small producers (and for consumers seeking no-state approved wines or older vintages) and I'm baffled by its persistence.  Still, whenever I've enjoyed a delicious craft wine at a Toronto or Victoria restaurant and inquired as to where I can buy it, the inevitable answer is that it sells out very quickly and is almost impossible to get unless you know the wine-maker or buy it in the first week of release. From this answer, I've always assumed that these excellent small producers do good business--i.e., all their wine is sold to regular purchasers, from the winery or to restaurants. If their wines are in high demand an sold quickly, how are they harmed by not placing their wines on LCBO shelves (again, I vehemently oppose the state monopoly on sales, but still). And how is this different from many of the best California or Washington State wineries? I can't just go into a large wine shop in Los Angeles and buy Harlan or Bryant Family or Sine Qua Non or Quilceda Creek wines off the shelf (unless they have them through the secondary market at hugely inflated prices, which is a different issue). I expect that, if I am going to buy the best wines, I have to be on a mailing list or pay market prices in the resale market. Why would Canada be different than other markets?Also, assuming there is a problem with the "Cellared in Canada" designation (and, from the photo Ms. Robinson posted, the deception appears to be more on the part of the sellers, who place the bottles in the BC or Ontario section of their shops, rather than the wine-makers who do not claim the wine comes from Canada), why is state regulation the answer? Why can't a guild designation like VQA solve the problem? Why can't 100% Canadian, no water added producers put that on their labels and then advertise the fact--something like "If it doesn't say 100% Canadian, you are probably drinking American grape juice." Why is the answer more laws, more regulation and more red tape for producers?Finally, most wine produced and consumed in the world is plonk. I absolutely agree that, as long as the state has a stranglehold on distribution, it has a responsibility to make sure that wines not made in Canada are not placed on shelves next to wines that are.  However, to the extent that "Cellared in Canada" at least means there is SOME Canadian labor involved, I'm not sure it makes sense to consign these wines to the same category as foreign wines. Surely Canadian consumers and winemakers would both prefer that Canadians buy wines in which the profits stay in Canada rather than flow abroad.  So shouldn't consumers have an opportunity to buy at least partially-Canadian wines instead of being driven to buy cheap Chilean or American wines? If so, the only way they can know they are buying partially-Canadian wine is if the labels say something about Canada. "Cellared in Canada" seems like a reasonable way of doing that. I don't know the regulations for every other industry, but I am pretty sure that at least some other products can be labelled "Product of Canada" without being 100% Canadian from base materials to final product. Thank you very much for calling attention to this practice, Ms. Robinson. HA     

17 Aug 2009 14:24 by Howard Anglin

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