The people spoke, Parliament listened, and finally the Great Wine North will be one.
Within a month, pending Senate approval of a bill passed last week by the House of Commons, Canadians will be free to pick up the phone or log on to a website, place an order for a case of domestic merlot or chardonnay, and have it shipped across provincial lines from vineyard to doorstep. Until now, that simple act was a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, a violation of a Prohibition-era law that made this country an international laughingstock and stifled our wine industry’s growth.
But wait. The provinces apparently still think jail is a fine place for Internet wine shoppers. They interpret the law differently. Direct shipping is off the table, they say, and was never the intent of Bill C-311.
“The bill doesn’t say that at all,” insists Rowland Dunning, executive director of the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, which represents Canada’s 13 liquor boards.
Well, yes it does, a fact underscored by Mr. Dunning’s denunciation of “direct sales into other provinces” in his protest against C-311 to the federal standing committee on finance on March 27. I’m willing to bet Mr. Dunning a fine bottle of Blue Mountain pinot noir from British Columbia that if the Senate endorses Bill C-311 as expected, Canada’s Berlin Wine Wall will be history. I’ll even settle for FedEx’s affordable ground-rate service when I win.
Bill C-311 amends the 1928 Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, decriminalizing direct-to-home interprovincial wine sales in quantities deemed reasonable for personal consumption. The wording clearly includes not just wine carried in person but also parcels “caused to be brought” into another province (standard legalese for courier delivery).
The first bizarre sign of resistance came on Thursday, less than 24 hours after the bill, introduced by Conservative MP Dan Albas, received unanimous support in the House (a remarkable feat given the failure of most private member’s bills). Anticipating a smooth sail through the Senate, British Columbia’s minister responsible for liquor distribution, Rich Coleman, pulled a smoke-and-mirrors move, declaring that residents returning from other provinces would now be permitted to carry back up to one case of wine, four bottles of spirits and a combined total of six dozen bottles of beer, cider and coolers. The announcement fell flatter than a spilled day-old Bud. Conspicuously absent was any indication that the government would honour the impending law by abolishing the prohibition against wine e-commerce.
“What they’ve done is completely against the spirit of what was intended by the bill,” says Vancouver lawyer Mark Hicken of Vintage Law Group, which represents several Canadian wineries. “I’m just shaking my head. It’s unbelievable.” Mr. Hicken likens Canada’s interprovincial restrictions to a hypothetical situation in which a Parisian would be unable to order a bottle of wine from Bordeaux.
Despite the bill, the provinces, which skim fat profits through liquor-board markups, can still throw a wrench into the e-commerce locomotive. Under the terms of the amendment, they must set down laws defining “personal consumption.” Will it be a 12-bottle case? A bottle? A thimbleful? We don’t know because the liquor boards are still busy crying in their beers. (Incidentally, beer and spirits don’t qualify, a sad omission that deserves another amendment.)
“We’re not there yet, but we’re almost there,” says Shirley-Ann George, president of the Alliance of Canadian Wine Consumers, a grassroots group that operates the website FreeMyGrapes.ca. Ms. George is urging citizens to lobby provincial governments for a sensible interpretation of the bill.
Arguing that there was no need for change, the province’s liquor boards say Canadians have long been permitted to source out-of-province products through private-order services; just call and they’ll arrange for delivery to a store near you.
But that’s a joke. Many boutique wineries justifiably refuse to offer their most coveted wines to outside liquor boards because provincial markups for warehousing and transport render those products absurdly expensive.
To take one example, the excellent Painted Rock Merlot 2008, which sells for $40 in its home province of British Columbia, was released at $68.95 through Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, a 72 per-cent hike.
Besides, it can take several months to fulfill a private order, a non-starter for many consumers (and federal politicians, apparently) who see no point in waiting when FedEx can do the job faster and cheaper.
Liquor boards – curiously, the only formal opponents to the bill – are even trotting out that chestnut about the need to keep prices high in order to fund services like provincial health care and education. Give me a break. That’s not the basis for the 1928 statute, which merely was designed to regulate the tracking of alcohol, not pay for high-school football jerseys.
Besides, we’re talking peanuts. C-311 was inspired by consumer interest in high-quality, small-lot wines that have been woefully underrepresented in provincial liquor stores.
In the United States, where a 2005 Supreme Court ruling prompted most states to permit the practice, interstate sales to consumers account for just 0.5 per cent of the retail wine market. Based on that example and an average bottle price of $18, Ms. George’s Free My Grapes alliance estimates that the potential loss to provincial and territorial treasuries for grown-in-Canada wine (not including the mind-boggling markups that simply cover liquor-board overhead and contribute zilch to government coffers) would range from a high of $619,495 a year in Ontario to $44 in Nunavut (not a big consumer of Canadian wine).
That’s a far cry from the $300-million national total quoted by liquor boards to the federal government, a grossly exaggerated figure based on the full retail value of interstate sales to a handful of U.S. jurisdictions with the highest traffic in direct-to-consumer purchases.
This country experienced no Boston Tea Party or Whiskey Rebellion, but if the sour-grapes provinces intend to fight honest, responsible Canadians over a few dollars in lost wine taxes, they’ll come away smelling like a badly corked chardonnay. The Wine Rebellion of 2012 is about to begin. FedEx, start your engines.
Black Hills Carmenere 2010, B.C., $300/6-bottle case, www.blackhillswinery.com
Blue Mountain Pinot Noir 2010, B.C., $24.90, www.bluemountainwinery.com
Closson Chase Churchside Pinot Noir 2009, Ontario, $49.95, www.clossonchase.com
Exultet Pinot Noir The Beloved 2010, Ontario, $45, exultet.ca
Flat Rock Sparkling Brut 2007, Ontario, $35.20, flatrockcellars.com
Hidden Bench Nuit Blanche 2009, Ontario, $40, www.hiddenbench.com
Painted Rock Red Icon 2009, B.C., $55, www.paintedrock.ca
Poplar Grove The Legacy 2007, B.C., $50, www.poplargrove.ca
Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir Stewart Family Reserve 2009, B.C., $45, Quailsgate.com
Summerhill Pyramid Cipes Brut, B.C., $24.94, www.summerhill.bc.ca
Tawse Estate Chardonnay 2010, Ontario, $37.95, tawsewinery.ca