06/29/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 08/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Wine lovers limited by provinces despite federal change

There are far more reforms needed to Canadian liquor laws, advocates say, despite a federal change that was meant to make it easier for wine lovers to import the product from other provinces.

Bill C-311, sponsored by B.C. MP Dan Albas, became law on Thursday, making it legal under federal law to take wine from one province to another. But the law specifies that it's limited according to the law in the province to which the wine is being imported.

Those laws vary, and in some places aren't at all clear, said Mark Hicken, a lawyer specializing in wine law.

"Consumers in Alberta and Manitoba are immediately freed from the shackles of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act," the prohibition-era law that limits the movement of liquor, Hicken said.

"The situation in the other provinces is a little bit more complicated — some do have laws that restrict amounts that can be imported into the province or they restrict the possession of imported liquor from outside the province, so each province has to be looked at kind of carefully on a one-by-one basis in order to figure out what the effect is in each province."

Rather than repealing the decades-old law that prohibited alcohol, the government adds exemptions. Bill C-311 has added an exemption for wine so that consumers can, depending on provincial law, take wine from one province to another. It's expected to help wineries sell more of their product in Canada instead of looking for international customers. Conservative MPs referred to it as wine freedom. But it's not as simple as it sounds, with each province setting its own laws for how much residents can import.

The law in Ontario, for example, isn't clear. Hicken said the Liquor Control Board of Ontario has set a policy but he can't find a matching statute or regulation to back it. It also seems to say that consumers can bring the wine with them, saying nothing about whether they can have it shipped from another province.

British Columbia recently eased its law, but Hicken said it's poorly worded and limits the amount of out-of-province wine people can possess at one time.

System 'completely out of step'

Both provinces allow consumers to bring a case of wine with them from another province.

"Canada's current liquor regulatory system is just completely out of step with the rest of the world in terms of Canadians' inability to purchase wine from another place within their own country. That problem just doesn't exist in nearly every country in the world," Hicken said.

"This bill provides a small amount of reasonable progress in the right direction and I think that it would be very sad if the provinces did not embrace the spirit of the bill and realize how helpful it is on a national basis."

The new exemption also applies to wine made from other fruits and agricultural products, as well as cider, hard lemonade and wine coolers.

Winemakers aren't the only ones who wanted changes to the law. Steve Beauchesne, co-founder of Beau's All-Natural Brewing Company, said it doesn't seem like anyone's enforcing the law, but he'd like to see an exemption for breweries too.

"I'm glad there is [an exemption for wineries] and I wish there was one for beer," Beauchesne said.

"I think it's particularly odd that they singled out wine and didn't include, not just beer, but spirits and ciders and everything else that Canada makes and should be included."

Provincial boundaries hard to cross

There's a much bigger problem for craft brewers than single consumers crossing borders, said Beauchesne, who is trying to break out of his home province. Beau's Vankleek Hill, Ont., location is about an hour from Montreal and 20 kilometres from the Quebec border, but it's been next to impossible to get his beer to restaurants or into the province's SAQ liquor stores. Different regulations make it difficult for brewers in either province to cross the border.

"We're supposed to be one country here and it makes no sense that there's so [many] barriers to move from one province to the next," he said.

"The biggest issue for any small brewery, small winery, small distillery, is access to customers."

Beauchesne said his local Member of Provincial Parliament, Liberal Grant Crack, has been supportive, but he doesn't have any sway with the Quebec government. His MP, Conservative Pierre Lemieux, also supports his cause, he said, but the problem needs the federal government to solve it. Beau's has been in business six years but still hasn't been able to crack the Quebec market.

"For us to sell beer in Quebec, the easiest way to do it would be to export it into Vermont and then have it imported into Quebec afterwards. Because of all the free-trade agreements, it's actually easier for American breweries to get across the border than Quebec breweries," he said.