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B.C. wines stuck behind online trade barriers

Grapes in the vinyard of Black Hills Estate winery in Oliver, BC on Sunday, October 11.

Daniel Hayduk/The Globe and Mail

When the accolades started pouring in for Painted Rock Estate Winery's Red Icon 2009, proprietor John Skinner was unable to respond to the surge in demand for his wine from Canadians outside of British Columbia.

The passage of a federal bill on Thursday to lift archaic restrictions on interprovincial wine trade was supposed to fix that, but Mr. Skinner says the B.C. government has dropped the ball.

"It's woefully inadequate. They have lost an opportunity to show leadership," he said Thursday after the province failed to explicitly open its borders to online sales directly to consumers.

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"We make very good wine and it is not inexpensive," he said. Red Icon lists for $55 a bottle in B.C., and the customers who are willing to pay that "don't just all live in Vancouver. They live all across Canada. Those are the people I want to go to directly via e-commerce."

In Ottawa, Conservative MP Dan Albas won unanimous support for his Bill C-311, the private member's bill to gut the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, an 84-year-old law that restricts the transport of wine across provincial borders.

The bill still needs Senate approval, but Mr. Albas, the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, said the real challenge ahead is to convince provincial governments to drop their own restrictions now that the federal barriers are falling.

"The last thing we want is protectionism of any sort taking place," Mr. Albas said in an interview. He said he'd like to see his home province set an example by taking down its own barriers, but the immediate response from B.C. fell short of the mark. "British Columbia has had a tradition of leading by example. ... I would hope we could take a wider perspective."

The province announced Thursday that British Columbians can now bring liquor back into B.C. from other provinces and territories without paying additional taxes. B.C. residents can now bring back up to one case of wine, four bottles of spirits and a combined total of six dozen bottles of beer, cider and coolers from other provinces for personal consumption.

But the announcement made no specific provision for Internet sales, an oversight that Mr. Skinner fears will allow provinces like Ontario to continue to raise substantive barriers to imports from B.C.

Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for liquor distribution in B.C., said he would set to work on the other provinces but did not see any basis for that fear.

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"As far as we are concerned, people can make orders for wine in B.C. on the Internet today," Mr. Coleman told reporters. "We're not going to be in the way for them doing it from this end, and we don't need to change the rules for them to do that."

But he said the provinces will need to spell out whether they will want to control imports from B.C. "We'll get in touch with all the other provinces to make sure we have an understanding of what their rules will be," he said.

Adrian Dix, the B.C. New Democratic Party Leader, said Mr. Coleman has missed the point. British Columbia should have been pushing for a deal with the provinces long before this, so that the province's 206 wineries could take advantage of the new marketing opportunities once the federal law changes.

"Last year I was writing to the other premiers to move on the issue of online sales – that was always the key part of it," he said. "Either Mr. Coleman doesn't understand that, or the government is not as supportive of the industry as they ought to be."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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