It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will”
…A climate for change hovers in the frigid late November air. Sam says, “don’t fight it, feel it.” An unprecedented level of lobbying, legislative tabling and transparent discourse looks to reshape the landscape for the future of Ontario’s wine industry. The Ontario Wine Council just initiated a bold venture called MyWineShop aimed at revolutionizing the retail industry in Ontario. Their manifesto?
In June the federal government passed Bill C-311, opening the door for the provinces to overturn restrictions on shipping wine across their Canadian borders.
Just last week, Nova Scotia followed BC’s lead by introducing the Free My Grapes bill, a set of provincial legislative amendments which will permit direct to consumer wine shipping into that province. Ontario’s laws remain staid silent on the inter-provincial importation of wine and according to lawyer Mark Hicken, that silence indicates a soon to be opening door.
Wine sales continue to grow, the LCBO has many fans and I included have lauded their efforts. Still, the crowd is growing thicker, speaking out, demanding change. Private wine stores exist in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Critics want to know this. Why not Ontario?
With billions of wine dollars on the table and the window of opportunity seemingly imminent, it is with great interest that we follow the players, their agendas and their alliances. Here are twelve influential leaders who will help to define and decide the future of wine sales in Ontario.
Tim Hudak, Leader of the Ontario Conservative Party
Despite a less than impressive showing in the last provincial election, Dalton McGuinty’s departure and a leader-less Liberal government paves a new road to Mr. Hudak’s future. Adding beer and wine to corner stores in Ontario was a misguided and misdirected attempt at liquor reform but Hudak “didn’t reject the idea outright.” This indicates more than a potential partnership for a plan to introduce private wine retail in Ontario. Sure, the Conservatives first need to steal a majority, but a dwindling economy and renewed fear of long-lasting recession might just be the impetus for a Thatcherian foray and a partial crumbling of the LCBO wall.
Kathleen Wynne, leadership candidate for the Ontario Liberal Party
A discussion that involves Hudak would not be complete without mentioning Wynne. According to Scott Stinson, a front-runner to succeed Dalton McGuinty as leader of the party looks to be the long-time Cabinet minister and MPP for Don Valley West (along with former Windsor MPP Sandra Pupatello). Good luck to either, as they will first be faced with the difficult task of leading the faltering Liberals and following what would be a miracle win, trying to withstand the wine storm brewing in Ontario.
Phillip Olson, Chair, LCBO
Olson has been Chair since March 2007 and his position was recently renewed in March 2012 for another two-year term. As head of one of the world’s largest buyers and retailers of beverage alcohol, Olson has seen the LCBO through its golden era. In fiscal 2011-12, LCBO sales topped $4.7 billion and it delivered a $1.63 billion dividend to the Ontario government, not including taxes. The LCBO now faces a tsunami of developing support to privatize the industry. Olson and team can look forward to a heavyweight battle for market share.
Hillary Dawson, President, Wine Council of Ontario
While the WCO’s mission is to promote the growth and sustainability of Ontario’s VQA wines, it is Dawson at the helm brandishing the brand new initiative. MyWineShop is turning heads and unequivocally is the boldest move yet by an Ontario coalition with aspirations to overhaul the wine world in Ontario as we know it.
Brian Schmidt, Vineland Estates Winery, President & Chair, VQA Ontario
As the head of VQA, winemaker Brian Schmidt is instrumental in maintaining and ensuring the exceptional quality of Ontario wine. VQA Ontario exercises delegated authority to administer and enforce the VQA Act and its associated regulations. Along with brother Allan, Schmidt is the candidate most likely to press for a change to rules regarding VQA wine format designations. VQA wines that use the appellation of origin “Ontario” may now be packaged in containers other than glass bottles but not wine bearing more specific claims of origin regulated by VQA. Securing that approval from VQA Ontario, the LCBO and the AGCO would have huge ramifications, including allowing for wine served from kegs in Ontario restaurants.
Bill George Jr., Chair, Grape Growers on Ontario
The GGO represents Ontario’s over 500 growers of 15,000 acres of processing grapes, including 176 wineries in the Province’s four viticulture areas: Niagara Peninsula, Pelee Island, Lake Erie North Shore and Prince Edward County. Bill George Jr. leads an organization that connects growers to the public, the media and the wineries on matters of viticulture, in particular the growing demand for high quality grapes. As an industry partner, the GGO has participated in the creation of over 1,300 additional jobs in the last four years through programs implemented by the Wine Council of Ontario and other industry partners. VQA wine sales at the LCBO have more than doubled over the past five years to over $110 million annually and now make up about 40 per cent of total Ontario wine sales. Good quality grapes, grassroots work and connectivity. This is the work of the GGO.
Moray Tawse, Owner, Tawse Vineyards and Marchand/Tawse
Though his day job as Co-Founder and Vice President of Mortgage Investments at First National Financial Corp. is his bread and butter, Moray Tawse is most passionate about his role as owner of Ontario’s most progressive vineyard. Tawse was the 2012 Winery of the Year award winner for an unprecedented third year in a row at the Canadian Wine Awards. So Tawse goes, so goes the Ontario wine industry.
Bryan McCaw, President, Wine Align
Wine Align is an online service that makes it easier to make smart and informed buying decisions at the LCBO. It boasts the most comprehensive database linked to the LCBO. Many of Ontario’s top critics are on board. Wine Align has entrenched itself in the heart of wine purchasing in Ontario. Yesterday McCaw tweeted “we had a record number of visitors to @WineAlign yesterday (7,900). We’re now getting more in a day than we use to get in an entire month.”
David Lawrason, Toronto Life, The National Post and Wine Align
Lawrason is the most affable guy you would ever want to sit in a room with and taste wine. It is hard to imagine another Canadian wine scribe that covers as much ground, from coast to coast, as David Lawrason does. He is tireless, relentless, opinionated, diplomatic, accurate and concise. His conclusion about privatization? “Alcohol is legal, and so the citizens have every right to sell it themselves, and certainly to select which brands are available, and to shop for it when and where they chose.” Peerless authority on all things wine.
Beppi Crosariol, The Globe and Mail
Certainly less political than his peers, Crosariol concentrates on the wines. As the critic for the largest national audience, his focus stays the course of wine recommendations and where to find them. No other Canadian writer can reach as many people or influence sales (particularly in Ontario) like the Globe and Mail’s man.
John Szabo, M.S., The National Post and Wine Align
John Szabo has the torch in his grasp and is running with it. His influence is on the verge of omnipotence in Ontario’s world of wine. It is hard to think of anyone who will have more to say and be heard by a larger audience, when the levee of Ontario wine restrictions break. Szabo wrote a lengthy, informative and remarkably diplomatic dissertation on the subject of the LCBO monopoly and what it would mean to introduce private wine stores in Ontario. Though he walked a fine line and succeeded in stressing a need for privatization, he managed the piece with an ambassador’s precision. Still, he finished off by saying, “I hope I don’t get put on an interdiction list for writing this.”
Rick VanSickle, WinesInNiagara
Nobody and I mean nobody works more tirelessly to champion Ontario wines, at field level and in print. Though he has been advocating for the overhaul of the system longer than most, save for Lawrason, Margaret Swaine and Michael Vaughan, VanSickle has recently increased his tone and his voice to push for change. It would be hard to imagine elevated discourse and debate without VanSickle in the fray.
Good to go!