Monday, December 23, 2013

The Sale of VQA Wine at Ontario’s Farmers’ Markets

The Sale of VQA Wine at Ontario’s Farmers’ Markets

Apparently, Ontario will be revamping provincial liquor laws to permit VQA wines made from regulated homegrown grapes to be sold at farmers' markets.  On Dec 16, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who doubles as agriculture minister, announced a $75-million program to enhance the province’s wine and grape industry, which will allow the sale of certified VQA wine at farmers’ markets.
Many in the industry recognize this advance as a great concept but wonder if the proposed pilot program is still too restrictive and protectionist by limiting it to only VQA wineries. The announcement constitutes a minor victory, with the long- term goal to have the Province of Ontario ditch prohibition-era LCBO regulations and join the rest of the country by revamping dated liquor laws. British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec already allow sale of local wines at farmers’ markets. 
The announcement although welcomed has been met with plenty of skepticism. The fact remains; this is not the first time that politicians have endorsed selling wine at farmers’ markets. In September of 2008, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal Government, and the LCBO decided to allow wine to be sold in farmers’ markets; nonetheless a variety of restrictions both social and regulatory resulted in failure of the initiative.
There are those who question why the latest announcement is exclusionary and not more comprehensive in scope.  At the very least they are hoping that this will pave the way for expanding additional product offerings in the future to include a wider range sales of local craft beer, wine and artisanal spirits at farmers’ markets and beyond.
One would think that it is a no-brainer, Ontario's licenced restaurants, winery tasting rooms, and micro-breweries are already watchdogs for acceptable practice and culture of the responsible service of alcohol.

The current government says the initiative is part of the roll-out of the 2009 Wine and Grape Strategy, which involves the creation  of an Ontario wine fund to purchase specialized equipment and machinery, as well as better marketing for wines locally and around the world. As well, a wine secretariat — to reduce red tape and help grape growers and wineries be more competitive is in the process of being instituted.
Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA)
Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) sets a framework by which standards for quality wine production made from Ontario grapes and appellations for wine regions are established. From quality standards for grape growing and winemaking, to comprehensive testing and truth in labeling and consumer safety standards, all stages of the regulation are stringent and intensive.
The Grape Growers of Ontario is the official organization that represents 500 grape growers in the province, including the three designated viticulture areas: Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward County, the North shore of Lake Erie or Pelee Island.
To qualify for the VQA, wineries must use only grapes grown in the three designated viticulture areas. Non-grape wines or wines that do not meet this geographical criterion don’t qualify and in addition to giving up the majority of the revenue they generate outside their own vineyards, those who are not in a VQA-designated area for grapes; or fail to qualify for VQA status cannot put “Made in Ontario” on their labels.
Several people I have spoken with our concerned that a VQA Ontario designation will significantly restrict the wine varieties wineries will be able to offer at farmers’ markets now and in the future. There are already comprehensive testing requirements, registrations, audits and volume fees that come with a VQA designation. And it takes a couple years to get a VQA registration for wine as the grapes need to be registered and tracked from harvest to bottle.

Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario – an industry group self-described as the “champion” of VQA wines – argues the number of wineries producing 100% made-in-Ontario product that don’t qualifying for VQA membership is unbelievably limited. In the past, Dawson wondered whether farmers’ markets are worth pursuing. She stated a preference for private wine stores dotted across the province to open up an even larger market. “I think the opportunity is so commercially small,” said Dawson. “Is that going to grow our industry? Not a chance.”
According to data collected from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, there over 140 licensed wineries including grape and fruit wineries of which 108 wineries produce VQA wines.

Questioned whether the VQA would contemplate expanding its membership criterion to include other made-in-Ontario wines such as fruit wines from Ontario’s 27 licensed fruit wineries, Ms. Dawson has been quoted as saying, “ the VQA  is important enough and has driven value enough that we don’t want to dilute it.”
The Ontario Viniculture Association had lobbied for years for a relaxation of the rules, arguing its VQA wines are made only with Ontario grapes. In addition to its first-rate grape wines, Ontario boasts an notable selection of fruit wine which is produced from non-grape products, including apples, blueberries, cherries, currants, elderberries, loganberries, pears, raspberries, strawberries and honey. By law fruit wines have to use 100% Ontario fruit so they are 100% Ontario product but are not given the same privileges as grape wines. At the end of the day, it all comes from the ground in Ontario.

Small wineries that stand to gain the most from the farmers’ market program are the ones who are likely to be excluded if it is strictly a VQA initiative. Mead and hard ciders are not produced from grapes and therefore can't receive a VQA designation. Currently there is no designation for a 100% Ontario hard cider or mead. Haliburton’s Moon Shadows Winery is the only winery in the province licensed to produce maple syrup-based wine and would not be eligible.
Other provinces, most recently British Columbia, realize the benefits to both fruit producers and their clients, and have permitted the sale of locally produced craft beer, wine and cider at its farmers’ markets. 

Critics chafe that the VQA Act that initially supported a struggling wine industry that was constantly losing out to imported products has become a cartel and a closed exclusionary group: “The playing field for wineries in Ontario is not level. There are rules that apply to the influential wineries and rules that apply to everybody else.”

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