If Constellation, the American drinks giant, really is sniffing around Vincor, Canada's dominant wine company, I wonder whether they will manage to impose more discipline on the wine labelling customs in Canada where wine drinkers are kept in relative ignorance about the true provenance of so many bottles of wine on the shelves which appear to be Canadian?
I received this plaintive message from John Shearer of Canada this very morning who describes himself as a wine lover with no commercial interest in the wine industry but 'a proud Canadian who would like the world to think of Canada as a quality producer not a country perpetrating a wine scam':
Vincor and other large plonk producers out to destroy the gains made by quality producers. The producers who brought you the 30% Ontario grape content rule for labelling Ontario wines as 'Ontario grown' are already bad enough, but now because of a 'shortage of grapes' they have convinced the Ontario government to change the rule to allow up to 99% imported grapes and still be labelled as Ontario wine.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the Niagara by growers concerned with upgrading the quality and image of Ontario wines. This 'petrochemical' approach of Vincor and other huge producers of only being concerned with how many millions of gallons of poor quality wine can be produced for the lowest cost with the highest profit will kill the whole industry.
Other winemakers around the world manage when faced with poor weather without changing the content of their products. So should Ontario wineries.
I urge all wine lovers to totally boycott all Ontario wine other than bottles labelled VQA.
Let them know your views.
I have done as I have long seen this as a blot on Canada's image and demeaning to Canadian wine consumers, quite apart from damaging to Canadian wine producers.
Linda Franklin, Wines of Ontario responds:
I am very happy to be able to inform you that our situation is not, I believe, as it has been described to you.
The agreement reached with the government and industry is meant to deal with a significant crop shortage (expected to be about 18,000 tonnes instead of 50,000). As you know, Ontario has a somewhat unique law that requires at least 30% domestic content in wines made here, regardless of how they are labelled. For the past few years, all of our blended wines, whether or not they have 30% or 90% domestic content have been labelled "Cellared by (name of winery) from imported and domestic grapes". The term "Ontario" does not appear anywhere on the labels, as this has been a protected term of the VQA [Vintners Quality Alliance which applies to the best Canadian wines] since 1999. Neither are these wines called Product of Canada, even if they have very high domestic content. This conforms to our draft national wine standards, which we hope to complete this year. The technical aspects of the standards have already been passed, and if the entire package is finalized, only wines that are 100% domestic content will be able to carry a regional wine label, one step down from VQA.
The short crop agreement also acknowledges the importance of clearly differentiating for consumers these short crop wines from our VQA wines which are now, and will continue to be, entirely Ontario content. Thus, the LCBO [Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the retail monopoly] has been given just over a month to develop a signage plan for stores based on separating Cellared in Canada wines from VQA wines, and it is anticipated that this signage will remain in place after the short crop, to ensure consumer clarity. There will likely be no "Ontario" category in stores this year, recognizing that wines will either be VQA or blends with significant foreign content.
The agreement further commits the industry to a transition requiring any wine in the future that would like to carry an "Ontario" label to contain 85% domestic content. This transition will be complete in 2010. In the mean time, wines that are not VQA will continue to be labelled "Cellared by...". If national wine standards are passed prior to the end of this transition, then all wines that would like a regional designation (such as Ontario) will be 100% content of Ontario.
John Shearer's reaction:
This is typical industry double-talk to confuse the consumer. Showing a picture of a Ontario scene and saying "Cellared" on a bottle of wine sold in wineries in the Niagara area and in provincial wine boutiques leads the buyer to think the wines were grown, made and aged in Ontario not merely low grade juice or mixed fruit. Also the industry has consistently pushed to have anything processed in Ontario to be marketed as Ontario wine.
As I understand it, the hot issue currently is how the wines are displayed in the retail stores which has until now been highly confusing. But it does seem to me odd that labelling requirements should be temporarily bent to take account of a short harvest.
The sooner this ill-lit corner is fully illuminated, and Canadian wine buyers fully educated, the better.
(03 nov) Mary Shenstone, Director, Ministry of Government Services has finally responded to the email I wrote to protest at the recent further dilution of wine labelling laws in Ontario, Canada thus – included merely for the record as it doesn't move things on very much:
Thank you for your letter expressing your concerns about changes to the blending rules for wines manufactured in Ontario.
As you know, the government recently announced a package of time-limited measures to mitigate the impacts of the 2005 short grape crop. These measures derive from a joint proposal that the Grape Growers of Ontario and the Wine Council of Ontario presented to the government. These two organizations, along with the government and the LCBO [the retail monopoly], are all signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding in which the measures are set out. The measures are designed to enable wineries to cope with the short crop this year while ensuring grape growers have a market for Ontario grapes in the future.
One of the key features of the package is a one-year change to the regulation under the Wine Content and Labelling Act, 2000 to allow a greater percentage of import product in blended wines. This measure allows wineries to supplement their production with imports during a year in which the Ontario grape crop is expected to decrease by more than half, and helps ensure that wineries will have enough Ontario grapes available to them to make premium Vintner's Quality Alliance (VQA) wines. VQA wine standards will remain unchanged and will continue to require that the wine be made from 100% Ontario grapes.
At the same time, the short crop package was designed to address consumer interests as well, which from your email I can see is one of your major concerns. All the parties to the agreement have made a long-term commitment to promote greater clarity and transparency about wines manufactured in Ontario. In addition, the parties have agreed to present wines in the LCBO and winery retail stores in a manner that better communicates Ontario grape content to consumers. This will provide consumers with more information when buying wines made in Ontario.
The government is committed to strengthening the competitiveness of the domestic wine and grape sector and further developing Ontario's growing reputation for premium wines. Our commitment of $10 million over the next five years targeting VQA wine initiatives is a strong example of this support.
I am confident that the sector will continue to grow and prosper, with all the players working in partnership towards achieving their common goals.
Again, thank you for writing.