Not too long ago we were in B.C. for a working vacation.
Starting our trip in Vancouver, a city we've had the good fortune of visiting a few times over the years, we stopped by what's become a favourite Yaletown wineshop specializing in local bottles. It's a gorgeous little store with a tasting bar, weekly wine classes and tastings, and a small, well-trained and exceedingly friendly staff.
Each time we would go, we'd leave a little bit exhilarated and a little bit saddened. Consoling ourselves over a bottle of a new found gem, we would fantasize about the wine shop we would run back home in Ontario if given the chance, and wonder aloud if our province would ever get with the program as B.C. had?
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when the Wine Council of Ontario invited us to a briefing to discuss that very possibility. For the last few years, WCO has been conducting studies on the value of opening Ontario's wine market to independent entrepreneurs, who would be licensed to operate their own wine stores in conjunction with the LCBO, similar to B.C.'s successful public/private system.
The group has recently launched a fun education website on this topic, www.mywineshop.ca, where any interested adults can design their own wine retail space; from theme to name — even the location where they'd open it — the website gives John or Jane Q. Public the virtual power to make it happen.
"We really do feel like this is the time," says Hillary Dawson, Wine Council of Ontario president. "If you had probably asked us four or five years ago, we would have responded 'meh, it doesn't feel right,' but it does [now]. This is something they [consumers] want to know more about and something they want to get involved with and to have that many people reach out .... [to] their MPPs already is great news."
The site has a convenient form letter that users can email directly to their MPP endorsing privately-owned wine stores. The site only went live November 19 and at the time of this writing, well over 300 people had contacted their MPPs and nearly 500 people had designed a wine store.
While the Wine Council of Ontario has not set a target for how many people they'd like to see endorse the campaign, Dawson says they're buoyed by the immediate positive response, and do plan on using the numbers garnered to further influence the government to open the market to private entrepreneurs.
Perhaps somewhat serendipitously, about the same time was launched and gaining an immediate ground swell, Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak voiced his thoughts on the matter, possibly making it an election issue, saying Ontarions deserve freedoms of choice and competition.
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This riesling offers a hint of sweetness, lively acidity and peach, apple, pear and citrus flavours that are natural partners to most appetizers and lighter meat dishes like turkey or ham. The fruity nature of this wine will temper the heat in spicier dishes but feel right at home with the whole range of traditional Thanksgiving fare. Product Info: $13.95, 750 mL bottle
A chardonnay offering a creamy-textured palate, balanced acidity and notes of citrus and ripe apple fruit that will easily deal with the deep flavours and textures of most dishes. The pleasant layer of oak also matches nicely to any smoky flavours originating from roasting or grilling and will stand up to any sauce or gravy. Product Info: $17.95, 750 mL bottle
Made from 100 per cent chardonnay in the Traditional Method, the toasty notes from sur lie bottle aging are magnificent with the roasted flavours of turkey and the smoky flavours of ham. Citrus, apple and peach flavours will complement all the fixings, while the sparkle refreshes the palate with each bite. Product Info: $18.95, 750 mL bottle
This local favourite offers a luscious palate, with lingering flavours of mango, pear, caramel apples and spice. The best of both worlds, it is balanced enough to drink on its own, yet offers enough intensity and rich, sweet flavours to match any dessert. Product Info: $24.95, 375 mL bottle
The beautiful pink colour and dancing bubbles of this Traditional Method sparkling rosé will add a buzz to the holiday festivities. Crisp and elegant, this versatile partner will greet you at the door, stay with you for appetizers, and enhance the dinner whether its roasted turkey or scalloped potatoes. Product Info: $29.95, 750 mL bottle
The bright pink hue and flavours of cherry and red berries in this lively rosé complements turkey the same way that cranberries are a classic match; the herbal notes in the wine pair wonderfully with traditional sage stuffing. Product Info: $11.95, 750 mL bottle
Flavours of blackberry, black cherry, cocoa and spice are the perfect complement for a prime rib roast. Salt in the meat’s seasonings and pan gravy will accentuate the fruit in the wine and act to soften its moderately firm texture. Product Info: $16.95, 750 mL bottle
Pinot noir’s cranberry, cherry, earth and spicy notes enhance lighter meats like pork, or roasted turkey without overpowering. Cave Spring pinot is dry, with a structure and elegance that reflects Ontario terroir. Product Info: $17.95, 750 mL bottle
The black cherry and earthy notes of this gamay meld wonderfully with duck, and mirror the tangy, fruity flavours of the accompanying cherry chutney. Always a classic for traditional Thanksgiving dinner, this is one of the best examples of Ontario gamay which shows poise and depth. Product Info: $17.95, 750 mL bottle
The wild, dark berry fruit flavours of baco noir are underscored with herbal, smoky and earthy notes. Baco has the intensity to stand up to the characteristic gaminess of lamb or dark turkey meat and has a good seam of acidity which cleanses the palate. Product Info: $14.95, 750 mL bottle
Of course, wine and alcohol can be a contentious and divisive issue. So not surprisingly, not everyone wants to see the government-run monopoly messed with. The WCO is sensitive to the worries of concerned parents and citizens who fret about the possibility of having alcohol sold at the corner store. That's why the the Wine Council is advocating only one license per business, and so far not in favour of licenses being granted to stores that sell other items.
"If your sole business is selling alcohol, then you put your whole business on the line when you break the rules," says Dawson. "If your sole business is selling chips and you lose your [liquor] licence, then, oh well."
Nay sayers are also worried about money: how will this already cash-strapped province deal with the loss of the $1.5 billion in revenue the LCBO hands over to provincial coffers?
The WCO says Ontario has set aside about $150 million to build 70 new LCBO stores — money Dawson says could be better spent on much needed health care or education. Arguing independent entrepreneurs could take on the risk and spend their own capital — not the taxpayers' — to build their own wine shops, that $150 million could be spent elsewhere, and the province would still get its pound of flesh through taxation already in place, without the costly overhead.
"It really is a win-win-win proposal. There is absolutely no loser in this. This is good for Ontario," says Dawson. "We believe this addresses social responsibility."
It also addresses the need to keep up with Ontario's booming wine industry. Earlier this year KPMG released its findings of a study it did for WCO. The results were impressive: sales of VQA wines in Ontario rose from $178 million in 2007 to $269 million in 2011 — a 51 per cent increase that also saw the addition of 1,300 jobs. In 2010, the local wine industry generated $10 million dollars for tourism and the study suggests wine tourism will increase by at least another 20 per cent by 2017.
It's these skyrocketing numbers that has The Wine Council saying the LCBO can not keep up with that unprecedented growth.
"Each year Vintages only releases 200 slots. The challenge is you've got 130 [Ontario] wineries all competing for those 200 slots. We could probably sell 4,000 wines. How do you get your wines to market?"
When B.C. opened up its wine market to independent business, the WCO says wine culture in B.C. grew significantly, meaning greater revenues for all parties. It also allowed for tremendous growth in the local B.C. VQA industry. And the Wine Council of Ontario would like the same system implemented here.
"The LCBO performs an impressive role — and we like it," insists Dawson. "It's just at capacity — it's almost a crises of success. We have more wineries opening every year. It's not built to accommodate the growth of our industry."
When we were in sommelier school, we had a teacher who told us owning our own wine stores at many of us dreamt, would never happen in our life time.
Is it now possible all our B.C. dreaming may come true? Maybe. Hopefully. But the conversation that's going on now warrants the question: as a society, would we stand for a state-run telephone company as our only choice, or just one provincial grocery store as the sole option? Then why are we comfortable with a government run wine store dictating our choices? If the early showings from mywineshop.ca is any indication, apparently we're not.
Follow Erin and Courtney Henderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheWineSisters