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Fermented grape drinks sit next to canned fruit at a Save-On-Foods in Surrey, one of only four B.C. supermarkets selling wine. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
Fermented grape drinks sit next to canned fruit at a Save-On-Foods in Surrey, one of only four B.C. supermarkets selling wine. (Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

Grocery-store wine still rare in B.C. nine months after announcement Add to ...

Nine months after the B.C. government announced wine could be purchased from grocery-store shelves – the flagship promise in an extensive overhaul of the province’s liquor laws – only four are selling it, and it remains unclear when that number will rise.

None of the four stores are in Vancouver, and observers say the government’s plan has been complicated by opposition from municipalities, international trade agreements and concerns about fairness.

“I think most people’s experience over the holidays was that wine wasn’t on grocery shelves,” New Democratic Party MLA David Eby, the opposition’s liquor-policy critic, said in an interview.

In April, to great fanfare, the province announced sales of B.C. wine at grocery stores would begin, starting with a Save-On-Foods in Surrey. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, who was then in charge of the file, called the announcement “a very exciting moment in B.C. history.”

Last week, the province indicated it was still pleased with the new program, saying in a news release that “it’s clear these changes are working for customers and industry alike.”

Under the system, grocery stores can apply to use privately held liquor licences, such as those of existing stores that want to close, or special government licences.

Only four private licences were available this year, and the province’s plan to auction off fewer than two dozen licences, which are specifically for grocery stores to sell wine, has been slow-moving. Details of how the auction will work are expected in the coming months.

A government spokesperson said in a written statement on Monday that British Columbians asked for liquor sales in grocery stores, and the province made the necessary changes.

“Now, it is up to businesses and local governments to take advantage of these changes if they want to align with the significant consumer demand,” the statement read.

The new rules restrict the sales in grocery stores to B.C. wines.

Mr. Eby said the idea of selling wine in grocery stores is very popular, but the government did not adequately consult affected parties, including wineries, private liquor stores, small grocery stores and city councils.

“The list of people who have lined up to say … ‘You need to do a better job’ with this roll-out is impressive. What’s not impressive is the number of stores where wine is available,” he said.

Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, which represents about 350 private liquor stores, stressed the province’s intentions have been good. However, he said putting wine onto grocery shelves has run into far more obstacles than the government anticipated.

Municipalities have to approve sales of wine in grocery stores before the merchants can go ahead, a B.C. government spokesperson said. Last month, Vancouver city council voted to put off a pilot project in which five grocery stores were to be allowed to sell wine for a year.

The city will wait until a broad review of its liquor policies is done. A U.S. wine industry group has said selling only B.C. wine in grocery stores violates Canada’s obligations under international trade deals such as the North American free-trade agreement.

Mr. Guignard said his organization’s primary concern has been fairness, because it brings new competitors into the market. He said grocery stores that sell wine in other countries can account for up to 70 per cent of all retail wine sales.

“Our concern is it’s not just small grocery stores selling a little wine, it’s a fundamental shift in the retail market, which undermines the investments private retailers have made,” he said in an interview.

Miles Prodan, president and chief executive officer of the B.C. Wine Institute, an independent, not-for profit winery association that holds 21 licences to sell B.C. wine, said the experience at the four grocery stores so far has been “fantastic.”

All four stores are part of the Overwaitea Food Group, which did not return messages seeking comment. The licences the Overwaitea Food Group is using are from the B.C. Wine Institute. A grocery store wanting access to one of the institute’s other licences would have to wait until one becomes available.

Mr. Guignard said at least a couple of dozen of his 350 members are considering transferring their licences to grocery stores.

A B.C. government spokesperson said Coralee Oakes, the minister for small business, who took over the liquor file in July, was not available for an interview.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said grocery stores that apply to sell wine on their shelves must be at least one kilometre away from another liquor store. In fact, the one-kilometre rule does not apply to wine sales on grocery store shelves. Also, the story said the province plans to auction off 22 special government licences. In fact, the province hasn’t released a precise number and has only said there would be fewer than two dozen licences auctioned off.

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