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Tear down provincial barriers to wine and you get my vote Add to ...

Maybe this is a good time to remind federal candidates that wine drinkers are voters, too, that we're tired of liquor boards prying, in the name of federal laws, into the cellars of the nation. That Canadians deserve access to great domestic wines regardless of which province or territory they call home.

It has come to light that two provincial liquor boards recently cracked down on a pair of B.C. wineries for the unconscionable violation of shipping small quantities of premium wine directly to out-of-province customers.

Specifically fingered by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and Manitoba Liquor Control Commission were Mission Hill Family Estate and Red Rooster.

The legal basis?

An absurd Prohibition-era statute.

That law makes it illegal for anyone to send or carry beverage alcohol across a provincial border without the consent of the government in the destination province.

That bottle of Okanagan red you picked up at the tasting room and bundled into a suitcase for the trip home to Nova Scotia? Contraband.

Known as the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, the legislation was passed in 1928 as a concession to temperance zealots who may have lost the Prohibition battle but clearly won the war, upholding Canada's international reputation as a country of repressed do-gooders.

"In principle, the law is so absurd," said Mark Hicken, a Vancouver lawyer who maintains the website WineLaw.ca. "That's a really, really Draconian power to have."

It's so absurd that most liquor boards paid scant attention to the law.

After all, consumers generally don't buy wine by phone or over the Internet to save on the liquor board markups. Most want access to small-production wines not available for sale in local stores. Buying direct, in fact, tends to cost more because wineries charge full retail and the customer pays for shipping on top of that.

Then the LCBO decided to suck the fun out of the great rare-Canadian-wine hunt.

"We are required to ensure that suppliers abide by the law," LCBO spokesman Chris Layton said, adding that the board's phone call to Mission Hill roughly five months ago "was not in any way, shape or form threatening or heavy-handed." He said the board would have been remiss in its obligations if it had not warned the winery to alter its website to block out-of-province orders. In short, the LCBO was once again just doing the right thing - even though it appears to have initiated the crackdown and was not acting in response to a chorus of public complaints.

Curiously, the LCBO even went beyond the call of duty, overstepping its provincial jurisdiction to snitch on Red Rooster to the Manitoba commission.

"It was something that was brought to our attention by the LCBO," said Diana Soroka, manager of communications at the MLCC. "We in turn spoke with the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch and pointed out the fact that this was in contravention of not only our liquor act and regulations, but also B.C.'s."

Talk about killjoys. One of the biggest pleasures collectors have today is to join winery clubs, where typically a subscriber gets first shot at limited-release, high-end wines as well as access to specialty products - say, an experimental lot of sangiovese.

"This whole thing is squabbling over really minor amounts," said David Enns, co-owner and winemaker at Laughing Stock Vineyards, one of the few B.C. boutique wineries that prefers to sell its top wine, a $39 red called Portfolio, through the LCBO in Ontario (where it was recently priced at $55, thanks to added LCBO and distributor markups). But he says the bureaucracy of securing a licensed Ontario distributor is more trouble than most of his competitors can tolerate. "Most of the other boutique wineries aren't even interested in doing the paperwork."

By putting the kibosh on direct interprovincial sales, ostensibly to uphold an outdated law, liquor boards are sadly reinforcing an already balkanized wine culture in Canada, where top Okanagan cult wines such as Poplar Grove, Pentage and Black Hills are enjoyed locally and can be shipped to, say, California but are virtually unknown to consumers in Ontario, Quebec or the Atlantic provinces.

It's hard not to believe, as Mr. Hicken does, that the liquor board crackdown was motivated by more than the perceived need to enforce an outdated and unpopular law.

"The original purpose of the legislation is gone, but the various government boards are using it for a different purpose now, which is revenue," Mr. Hicken said.

It seems obvious to me that the LCBO is being inconsistent in citing the moral high ground in dissuading parties from shipping wine across provincial lines. The LCBO itself, in its 2005-06 annual report, proudly pointed to a $25-million windfall from the preceding fiscal year attributable directly to cross-border shopping by Quebeckers seeking relief from a strike at the SAQ, the LCBO's provincial counterpart.

I can find no mention in the annual report of Ottawa-area LCBO cashiers doing the responsible thing and ramping up ID spot checks to ensure customers were not from Quebec, even though parking lots were teeming with out-of-province plates and with drivers clearly intending to break the venerable Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act. Any fool could see what was going on. But why sabotage lawless behaviour when you stand to gain $25-million on the balance sheet?

Several Canadian winery executives I have spoken with said that if liquor boards were willing, they could find a way to enable direct out-of-province sales under the antiquated federal law. Wineries could report direct sales to the boards, which would collect their rightful markups and ensure proof-of-age standards. Consumers could enjoy their clubby relationships with wineries and, perhaps more important, the gratification of speedy courier delivery rather than waiting for liquor boards to carry products many months or years after they have been released.

Daniel Zepponi, Mission Hill's president, says it's basically a matter of installing the right software. "I'm not trying to skirt taxes or anything. I just want to streamline the system," he said.

Mr. Layton notes the LCBO, like most other liquor boards, offers a no-charge private order service that enables customers to source products from around the world, including Canada, with a one-case minimum, providing the winery is prepared to ship. Laudable though they are, such services typically take at least two months to source products, often longer, by which time many customers lose interest.

"It's not meeting the expectations of modern consumers when these things can take months," said Paul-André Bosc, chairman of the Canadian Vintners Association and vice-president of marketing at Château des Charmes winery.

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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