Justice Minister Suzanne Anton will announce yet more changes to provincial wine sales on Friday as part of her government's makeover of the liquor industry. But industry insiders say consumers will still be hit with higher prices and less choice for quality wines as a result of the Minister's tinkering.
John Clerides was the first merchant to open a private wine store in B.C. – Marquis Wine Cellars in downtown Vancouver – in 1986. He says the series of changes rolled out by Ms. Anton, which have been billed as consumer-friendly, will drive up costs for higher-end wines when the new rules take effect next April.
"Consumers will be paying more for less," he said in an interview Thursday. In a province with already high liquor pricing, he said the result will also be less choice. "A really cool $25 bottle of wine might be $35 a bottle. So instead of bringing in 10 cases, I'll bring in five."
Ms. Anton will be at a Langley winery's tasting room on Friday to announce her latest measure, which promises will support the growth of B.C.'s wine industry. The government has already promised to allow sales of liquor in grocery stores starting on April 1, 2015, along with Sunday opening of government liquor stores and "happy hour" sales in bars.
It is the new liquor-pricing system that has been rolled into the new rules that has alarmed some merchants like Mr. Clerides. Starting next spring, all liquor retailers, including government liquor stores, will purchase their product from the BC Liquor Distribution Branch at a common, wholesale price.
The government says the new system will "level the playing field" for private and public liquor merchants. Under the current system, the distribution branch provides products at different prices for each category of liquor store, and independent wine stores enjoy a 30-per-cent discount. Those merchants say that discount is needed to maintain a profit because they are not allowed to sell liquor or beer.
Ms. Anton did not respond to an interview request on Thursday but in a written statement said it is too soon to determine how the new pricing system will change wine prices.
"The new wholesale pricing model is about enabling more competition in the marketplace – it's not about changing prices for consumers. Trying to guess what each individual retailer will charge per product at this point is complete speculation."
"If some retailers choose to raise their prices, I would expect that others in the market would be happy to compete and in some cases offer lower prices to draw in consumers," the Minister said in the statement.
Vancouver writer and consultant Bill Tieleman wears many hats but one of his passions is his Wine Barbarian blog. The changes add up to bad news for wine collectors, he warned.
"It will likely mean much higher prices, especially on bottles of $20 and over. B.C. already has the highest-priced wine in North America," he said.
That will put some good wines out of reach for B.C. consumers. "I just picked up a bottle of Christian Moreau, a 2012 Chablis Vaillon, at $39.95. This is a fantastic Chablis, a 91 point rating. We are fortunate that we can get it in B.C."
He calculates under the new rules that that bottle will retail for about $55. "It generally will discourage wine consumption – we are talking about probably the most civilized of beverages. You don't have Canucks riots because of people who drink too much Chablis."