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Will B.C. Wine Laws Intoxicate Ontario?

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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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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.