Jane Ellmann’s pocket vineyard is still too muddy to prune back this week – she’s waiting for a hard freeze to get in and do the last chore of the season. She and her husband Peter own Muse Winery on southern Vancouver Island, tucked up against a sheltered cove on the Saanich Peninsula. They grow grapes with alluring names like Ortega, Bacchus and Marechal Foch – varietals more often found growing in northern Germany and France.
Muse is a popular stop on Vancouver Island wine tours, but the wine is almost impossible to buy outside British Columbia. For all but the biggest of B.C.'s 200 wineries, the Rockies present a solid barrier to selling their products to other provinces.
Last year the Ellmanns tried to work through the legal hurdles presented by the prohibition-era law, the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, by sending their wines to Alberta’s liquor commission for distribution. By the time the government was done, a bottle of their award-winning “Voluptuous Vixen” Foch Noir cost an extra $10.
“After all that work, we didn’t make any money,” Ms. Ellmann said.
The B.C. Liberal government has offered tepid support to pull down the cross-border restrictions, but it has fallen to Adrian Dix, the leader of the B.C. New Democratic Party, to champion the interests of business.
“It's just good common sense,” Mr. Dix said in an interview this week. “I don’t know why the government isn’t doing it. There is inertia in these things.”
Mr. Dix says it is worth taking a hit on provincial liquor revenues to allow the province’s wineries to sell their products directly to Canadians outside B.C. Coming from a politician better known for wanting to raise business taxes to pay for social programs, it’s a remarkably free-enterprise approach. He's earned kudos from Conservative MP Dan Albas, the Okanagan-Coquihalla MP who is pushing a private member's bill in Ottawa to change the federal law. Mr. Albas would give each province the right to set personal exemptions so that a Calgary oenophile could order a case of wine directly from an Okanagan vintner.
The current law is easily evaded by tourists who drive across the border. What B.C.’s winemakers really want is to free up online sales and make inroads into the lucrative Ontario market.
Averill Creek winemaker Andy Johnston holds the current law in contempt. “It's a joke, a farce,” he said. In defiance, his Cowichan Valley vineyard will ship wine across the country by courier, but most of the 7,000 cases he produces each year are consumed in B.C. because distribution through other provincial liquor boards – Ontario in particular – is a nightmare.
In Ottawa, Mr. Albas’ proposed change has won support across party lines, but the provinces are lukewarm.
“There is not one province that has indicated they think it’s a great idea,” noted Miles Prodan, executive director of the B.C. Wine Institute. Ontario wants to protect its own wine industry, but all the provinces are concerned about loss of revenues if wineries can sidestep provincial liquor control boards.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has applauded Mr. Albas’ efforts, and has pledged to work with the other provinces to open new domestic markets to B.C. wines. But it is hard to see where Ms. Clark has taken action. There's no indication she raised it at any of her meetings with other premiers to date, and she is not expected to bring it up when she hosts the premiers for a conference later this month.
Nirmal Gidda, proprietor of the Mt. Boucherie Family Estate Winery in Kelowna, can't figure out why the B.C. Liberals aren't all over this issue. He can measure the value of the wine tourism trade in the Okanagan by the Alberta licence plates that dominate his parking lot every summer. They can – and do – bring wine home with them, but being able to sell wine over the telephone or Internet would be a huge boon. “It would probably increase our revenues by 25 to 30 per cent to be able to ship to private customers in Alberta,” Mr. Gidda figures.
The Okanagan – the province’s prime wine region – has reliably returned B.C. Liberals to the legislature for two decades. Mr. Gidda's nearest vineyard neighbour is Quail's Gate, owned by B.C. Liberal MLA Ben Stewart. “And yet it's hard to get any commitment from them,” Mr. Gidda said. “We need to have somebody step up to the plate.”
Despite the B.C. Liberals’ apparent stranglehold on the region, the NDP Leader senses an opportunity. Since winning the party leadership last spring, Mr. Dix has visited here 17 times. “They are taken for granted by the B.C. Liberals,” he said. “I’m not going to write the Okanagan off.”
By pushing Ms. Clark’s government on this issue, Mr. Dix is giving the grape trade someone to cheer for.