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A tourist enjoys a glass of wine in Osoyoos, B.C. British Columbia policies limit the sale of wine in grocery stores to B.C. wines.

LAURENT VU THE/Getty Images

The U.S. government is renewing its concerns that B.C. policies block access for American wines to the province’s grocery stores.

On Friday, the Trump administration said it’s asking the World Trade Organization (WTO) to establish a dispute-settlement panel to examine “unfair” regulations in British Columbia.

At issue are policies on the sale of wines in grocery stores, enacted by the former Liberal government of Christy Clark in 2015, that limit the sale of wine in grocery stores to B.C. wines.

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“Such discriminatory measures limit sales opportunities for U.S. wine producers and provide a substantial competitive advantage for B.C. wine. These regulations appear to breach Canada’s WTO commitments and have adversely affected U.S. producers,” the U.S. statement said.

It’s not a new irritant. On Friday, B.C. Premier John Horgan said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer raised the issue last year in a meeting between the pair during talks to renew the softwood deal.

“Mr. Lighthizer raised the wine issue and I committed to him that if he resolved the softwood-lumber deal, I would toast him with a glass of wine of his choosing,” Mr. Horgan told a news conference, adding he is leaving it to the federal government to deal with the wine dispute as part of the continuing North American free-trade agreement talks.

Long before Mr. Horgan’s meeting with Mr. Lighthizer, representatives of Argentina, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, the European Union and the United States sent an open letter to Ms. Clark raising concerns about the issue, suggesting it violated Canada’s commitments to the WTO.

“It’s my view that Trade Representative Lighthizer and the entire Trump administration seems to be lashing out in every direction on every issue, whether it’s softwood, whether it’s pulp and paper here in British Columbia,” Mr. Horgan said. “Now, it’s wine.”

In a statement, Mr. Lighthizer said “discriminatory regulations” are “unfairly” keeping U.S. wine off of grocery-store shelves and they are unacceptable. “Canada and other Canadian provinces, including B.C., must play by the rules.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in the same statement that B.C. customers should be able to buy “great” American wine. “The practice of discriminating against U.S. wine is unfair and cannot be tolerated any longer,” he said.

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In 2017, U.S. wine exports to British Columbia totalled $56-million and U.S. wine had a 10-per-cent share of the B.C. market, according to the statement.

John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said Canada is aware of the concerns about the B.C. wine market and takes its international trade commitments very seriously. “We will continue to work closely with the provinces and territories on this issue, as the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages in Canada falls under provincial authority,” he said.

In a subsequent statement, the department said that while alcohol is a provincial matter, only the federal government has representation at the WTO, so they need to collaborate with the provinces on the issue.

The BC Wine Institute, representing the wine sector in the province, said in a statement that they were “disappointed” by the U.S. request for a WTO dispute-settlement panel.

“Still, we need to take their concerns seriously and we have been pro-active in working with all levels of government to address the concerns of this, and other trade issues,” said Miles Prodan, president and CEO of the institute.

He noted that domestic wine accounts for 32 per cent of sales in Canada, compared with 68 per cent for imported varieties.

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