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Politics Ontario won’t loosen up wine-importing laws any time soon: Wynne

Premiers Darrell Dexter of Nova Scotia, Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Pauline Marois of Quebec attend the opening prayer for the Council of the Federation meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., on July 24, 2013

AARON LYNETT/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark plied her Ontario counterpart with a fine Okanagan chardonnay, but it wasn't enough to persuade Kathleen Wynne to loosen up the province's protectionist practices on importing wine.

Ms. Clark and Ms. Wynne met on the sidelines of the premiers' summit – a meeting to which Ms. Clark brought a bottle of Stewart Family Reserve from Quail's Gate – to discuss Ontario's prohibition on individuals direct-ordering their vino from across provincial boundaries.

Afterward, Ms. Wynne said she would not allow the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the government-run corporation that holds a virtual monopoly on alcohol sales, to open up the borders.

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"I think that it behooves a bigger conversation than that; I don't think just a directive from one premier or another," she said during a break in the heart of Ontario's Niagara wine country. "I think we need to look at other practices across the country, and how can we expand markets for Canadian wine in general."

Last year, the federal government repealed a Prohibition-era law that banned people from bringing booze across provincial borders. So far, only B.C. and Manitoba allow buyers to direct-order wine, with Nova Scotia also pursuing changes.

But Ontario has continued to insist wine cannot be directly ordered across provincial lines without going through the LCBO. The province argues this trade barrier is needed to protect its homegrown wine industry. The barrier also ensures the government collects tax and other revenue from markups on the wine.

Rowland Dunning, executive director of the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, argues wine shouldn't be treated differently from beer or liquor. "Why should Ontario residents subsidize B.C. wineries by ordering direct and avoiding taxes and markup?" he said in an interview.

Dan Albas, a B.C. Conservative MP who sponsored the bill that lifted federal restrictions on interprovincial wine sales, argued Ontario actually has the most to gain from an open market, since it has the country's largest wine industry. "We are removing hurdles and making slow, steady progress, but ultimately these are political decisions," he said.

Even Ontario's wine industry supports a more open system.

"It's actually called modern wine retailing. That's what they do all around the world," said Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario.

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Ultimately, the interprovincial wine trade amounts to "virtually nothing" in Ontario, said Patrick Gedge, president of the Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario. It mostly involves a handful of connoisseurs and high-end restaurants buying from small wineries that do not produce enough to even sell to the LCBO.

Ms. Clark leaned on exactly this argument: that there would be no harm in changing the system. And if that line of reasoning doesn't work on Ms. Wynne, there's always the chardonnay.

"I presented her with a beautiful bottle," Ms. Clark said. "I think after she samples that, we're going to make some significant progress on this file."

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