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A VQA logo guarantees 100-per-cent domestic content. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A VQA logo guarantees 100-per-cent domestic content. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C. and Ontario wines: The scandal that wasn't Add to ...

Canada has never been particularly good at scandals. And so it was with the great "cellared in Canada" wine fiasco. The squawking was over almost before it started. And, if you ask me, it wasn't much of a scandal in the first place.

Responding to a sudden chorus of consumer complaints, British Columbia and Ontario this month declared war on bottles made with cheap foreign grapes that traditionally were stocked on or near domestic-product shelves. About 40 such brands, typically made with juice from lower-cost regions such as Chile or Australia, are sold by Canadian companies, including Naked Grape from Vincor Canada, French Cross from Andrew Peller Ltd. and Sonora Ranch from Artisan Wine Co.

If you've ever bought one of those brands for a 100-mile dinner, you goofed big time. Ontario law requires that just 30 per cent of the juice in cellared in Canada wines be domestic, while B.C. law requires not a drop of domestic content. You should have bought a wine emblazoned with the Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA, logo, which guarantees 100-per-cent domestic content and always has.

Lest I appear to be anything but a consumer advocate on this issue, let me say first that I support the initiatives. Clearer labels were necessary and separate store sections are good.

But this has been a tempest in a crystal decanter. Canada has a long history of importing bulk wine and grapes. Governments supported the practice largely to stimulate cash flow for new winery investments, and that's happened. The current "cellared in Canada" designation was endorsed by a broad coalition of growers, winemakers and government officials when it was hammered out in the mid-1990s.

But recently a number of boutique producers have been making noise about the plight of trying to market $50 pinot noirs alongside $8 and $9 bargain wines that appear to come from the same province. Admittedly, not an easy sell.

But few consumers or politicians seemed to care - until Jancis Robinson rode into town. The high-profile British wine writer visited B.C.'s Okanagan Valley this summer.

She followed up with a scathing column on her website under the headline "The Canadian con contd [continued]" Vincor was subsequently lambasted in the B.C. legislature for pasting its Olympic-sponsorship logo on bottles containing foreign juice - inventory that has since been voluntarily pulled.

"I think it is doing a disservice to real Canadian wine and its reputation abroad to continue with this misleading practice," Ms. Robinson wrote. "It is just so difficult to take Canadian producers seriously when they are allowed to mislead the wine-buying public to this extent."

I'll grant her the "disservice" part. But the rest of her complaint strikes me as unfair and, frankly, patronizing. Difficult to take Canadian producers seriously? Really? A Briton need not fly thousands of kilometres to British Columbia to uncover scandal in the wine industry. She need only cross the English Channel.

Here's a riddle. France is the world's third-largest importer of Sicilian wine, almost all of it in bulk. Ever encounter a bottle of Sicilian vino on your French travels? Didn't think so. I don't want to suggest all or even most of France's many struggling winemakers are so unscrupulous as to goose their juice with richly coloured, high-alcohol stuff from Italy's sunny south. But the Sicilian paradox would be interesting to ponder next time you're sipping an unusually rich glass of the house "Burgundy" at a French bistro.

Fact is, winemakers around the world, and especially in sun-deprived northern Europe, have a long history of misleading consumers. It's all supposed to be a thing of the past, of course. But it's clear illegal practices persist. In 2006, Georges Duboeuf, one of the richest and most famous producers in France, credited with turning Beaujolais Nouveau into a worldwide craze, was found guilty of defrauding consumers by mixing wine from lesser appellations into tanks of more expensive stuff. The case involved about 300,000 bottles worth of wine.

Was it an isolated case or rather the tip of an iceberg? I know where I'd place my bet. In 2007, a French consumer group published a report saying that up to a third of wines sold under France's hallowed appellation system could be from a different region than that listed on the label. The group, UFC-Que Choisir, pointed a finger at award panels for the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, saying they were populated by local industry workers with vested interests. It declared the AOC system was turning into a joke.

I'm not condoning Canadian practices that have misled many consumers. Foreign content should be clearly labelled. But to single out Canada as some kind of cowboy frontier for snake-oil peddlers smacks to me of picking on the little guy.

You want seriously misleading but legal practices? In 2003, when New Zealand faced a harvest shortfall, a few prominent producers pulled a bold stunt. They started blending foreign juice into premium brands that had formerly contained 100-per-cent New Zealand wine. In one case, Montana, a large producer, made its Corbans Sauvignon Blanc with 54-per-cent Chilean grapes. Sacred Hill made two versions of its 2003 Whitecliff Estate Sauvignon Blanc - a 100-per-cent domestic bottling intended for restaurants and high-end retailers and a Chile-New Zealand blend for supermarkets.

It's easy to see conspiracies. But I'm not convinced our provincial retailers here were actively trying to hoodwink shoppers. If anything, stocking cellared in Canada wines next to the VQA offerings, many made by the same parent companies, seems to me a simple matter of merchandising logic and convenience.

And, frankly, there are plenty of Naked Grape and French Cross consumers who don't care where their grapes are grown. They just want wine that tastes good and - something most VQA wines can't boast but which flexible international blends sometimes can - is as consistent as Blue Light or Coors from year to year.

Retailers tend to prefer selling higher-margin brands, after all. In Ontario, the LCBO was already taking steps to literally distance cellared in Canada brands from the VQA shelves. LCBO spokesman Chris Layton says the retailer has been giving marquee treatment to VQA wines through its regular "Go Local" catalogue campaigns and special in-store displays, helping drive VQA sales to double-digit growth over the past year compared with flat sales for imports.

"I think the LCBO has done a good job in making changes to the signage," says Laurie Macdonald, executive director of VQA Ontario, an authority of the provincial government. "They now have signs that say 'VQA - 100 per cent Ontario' and I think it's been a few years since the cellared in Canada wines were shelved under an Ontario banner."

As I said, not exactly world-class scandal material. But I'm kind of amused that at least one esteemed foreign wine writer thinks so.

 

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