Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Adrift on the Sea of Plonk

One (very small) disadvantage to travelling abroad is that you lose touch with what’s happening back home. So, last autumn, I missed the Ontario government’s announcement of how it wants to encourage Ontario’s grape-growing and wine-producing industries to move away from CIC (Cellared in Canada) wines and towards VQA (Vintner Quality Alliance) wines.

First, some definitions. In Ontario today, “Cellared in Canada” means wines made with at least 30% juice from Ontario-grown grapes. Yes, that means that these “Canada” wines have up to 70% juice from foreign grapes. “Cellared in Canada” is misleading, cleverly and deliberately so. In contrast, VQA wines have 100% juice from Ontario-grown grapes.

To shift Ontario production more towards VQA wines, the government (along with the Wine Council of Ontario) wants to persuade Ontario consumers to drink more VQA wines. How? Through a mix of:
  • Feel-good promotion (Rah! Rah! VQA! Taste a better wine today!)
  • Reduce barriers so that more VQA producers can sell more wine through the LCBO (long overdue), partly through a 30% rebate back to VQA producers on wine sold through the LCBO  [May 5:  Here's another thought.  Why not give the consumer some of that 30% rebate off the retail price?]
  • Increase the tax on CIC wines
The government says it will use the higher tax on CIC wines to fund its promotion of VQA wines, making the program revenue-neutral. But really, at this point, should the poor consumer have to pay higher taxes on any wine sold in Ontario?

One assumption in this approach is that Ontario consumers are buying CIC wines instead of VQA wines. Does this make sense? Not to me. CIC wines are inexpensive (<$10), lower quality wines…plonk that gets you drunk cheaply, which is why some folks drink wine. VQA wines at least aspire to be something more, to reflect the character of the grape grown in Ontario terroir, as interpreted by the Ontario winemaker. For a CIC drinker, the next best choice isn’t a premium VQA wine, it’s cheap imported plonk. Let’s not kid ourselves. Educating Ontario consumers about VQA wines is laudable, but government and industry should aim those efforts at Ontario’s buyers of imported premium wines, not buyers of CIC wines.

Now, the possible exception to this perspective is the CIC drinker who wants to support Ontario wines and thinks that a “Cellared in Canada” wine is an Ontario wine. Yes, I’ve met many consumers who think that CIC wine is Ontario wine. I have nothing against Ontario producers importing cheap juice and bottling low-end wines. It’s something that’s done in many other wine regions. But call it what it is. Another new government priority is “ensuring clearer labelling and signage for all Ontario wines.” If this means the abolition of the designation, “Cellared in Canada”, then bravo! It’s overdue, as is ending tax breaks for CIC producers.

So, the Ontario government gets a "tip of the hat" for promoting VQA wines and helping more VQA wine producers get their wines into the LCBO, and a "wag of the finger" for raising taxes on CIC wines. I'm still waiting on the abolition of “Cellared in Canada”.

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