August 23, 2013

Free the flow of my grapes

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — There was a time when “Canadian wine” would have been considered an oxymoron in the order of “Florida maple syrup.”

But no, times, and presumably climates, have changed. These days, some world-quality wines are the product of vineyards in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. Maritime provinces Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island also have credible but limited local wine industries.

According to the Canadian Vintners Association, 500 wineries exist in Canada, squeezing and fermenting the grapes from some 1,700 vineyards. Most of these wineries are small time, although there are a few large-volume producers.

Last year Canada exported more than 26 million litres of wine, worth about $41 million. That’s double the volume of only five years ago.

As you read this, depending on the appropriate time zone, someone in China, the United States, Russia, Japan or South Korea is washing down a meal with a fine Canuck wine.

You might say things are looking very rosy for the Canadian wine industry; but thanks to a law that critics say has passed its time and gone off, grape-growers are griping that their domestic sales are being corked.

The law, adopted in 1928, is called officially the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, and it says “no person shall import, send, take or transport or cause to be imported, sent, taken or transported into any province from or out of any place within or outside Canada any intoxicating liquor.”

What it means is that no one can buy wine from a producer in one province and bring it to another. It also means the same ban on the shipping of said wine, which puts a damper on Internet trade.

The law, of course, was intended to thwart the traffic in booze during the Prohibition period, and, frankly, it probably could have stayed on the books as is forever had not Canadians developed a knack and taste for homemade wine.

A year ago, a member of Parliament representing British Columbia’s bountiful Okanogan Valley managed to get a private member’s bill passed nullifying the law, at least on the federal level. Because the regulation of alcoholic beverages is a provincial power, however, the move was more of a symbolic measure and a vote of encouragement to provinces to slacken their grip on their grape industry.

So far, only two provinces have responded, namely B.C., with its huge wine industry, and Manitoba, which has none to speak of, though it does produce exportable volumes of other booze, notably whiskey.

Other big wine and spirits players, like Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, so far have shown no intention of budging.

What’s at stake are revenues gleaned from the sale of alcohol from provincially owned and regulated retail outlets. Unlike the free-wheeling situation in the United States, where, it seems, any mom and pop grocery is licensed to sell booze, in Canada one must visit the provincial monopoly outlet to get one’s preferred poison.

An organization has sprung up to lobby for changes to provincial laws and policies. It’s called Free My Grapes, and it appears to be a transplant of an American campaign. The group’s website encourages supporters to send a letter to their respective political representatives.

Direct purchase from wineries is banned in 11 states. The Canadian situation is distinct from that of the United States in that down south restrictions seem designed to protect the interests of private wholesalers who distribute wines in various states.

The reality in Canada — at least according to some wine lovers we know — is that many Canadians simply ignore the law and order directly from compliant wineries in other provinces. While not in the league of Al Capone, it’s a type of Prohibition booze traffic that few provinces seem eager to either enforce or legalize.

(And speaking of Prohibition and cross-border smuggling, there’s an excellent exhibition that might be of interest to readers, not too far across the border, at the museum in Sutton. It’s on until the end of October.)

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at