“There is a fear that any hint of a wild grape will bring Ontario wine back to the dark days,” said Janet Maul, co−owner of Jabulani Winery. She said the devastating frost in late May 2014 froze many plants to death, and caused her along with others to consider switching to the hybrid grape.
“We were called by grape growers that did not have a single grape,” she said.
She believes there is a double standard at work, as a wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon was originally a hybrid between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Although it is a voluntary program, meaning wineries are not required to be VQA approved, VQA membership can be extremely beneficial to a winery. Perks include everything from lower taxes to provincial grants and even the use of words like “Niagara” and “Ontario” on the labels of the bottles.
Non-VQA wines can to be sold to restaurants, but the tax burden is significant. Leblanc pays $77 in taxes per case whereas a VQA wine would only pay $22. “We strategically pick which restaurants we want to lose money at,” said Janet Maul.
According to Norman Hardie, the VQA was essential in raising the reputation of Ontario wine. “They ended up setting a minimum standard that gave us consistency, but no great industry has ever lasted on a minimum standard.”
Hardie is the owner of a vineyard, which bears his name in Wellington. It is not associated with Leblanc’s organization but shares the same goals. He recently stepped down from the board of the VQA to be more vocal about what he views as regulations that stifle innovation.
“There are so many great styles we could be experimenting with that we’re not allowed to, and I think it’s really holding us back,” said Hardie.
Hardie likens it to students learning to paint in the Impressionist Era. If only Impressionist techniques were acceptable, Picasso, Warhol and Dali would never have been able to experiment and create their own unique styles.
There is no consensus on this issue, though. According to Macdonald, the VQA still plays a useful role in the Ontario wine industry. “VQA has been around for 25 years and it really has been one of the factors that helped the industry succeed because it is a third party certification that includes a taste test for quality assurance.”
Hardie, however, disagrees with this assertion.
“The claim that the tasting panel keeps out bad wine is false. They taste wine at a snapshot in time, so it is not actually a quality assurance. Wine changes a lot over time,” said Hardie. “One of my best wines went through six tasting panels and only passed on appeal. That wine ended up winning Wine Spectator Wine of the Year.”
According to Hardie, “The VQA needs to take the handcuffs off and let us make great wines.”
Leblanc, increasingly frustrated after futile efforts to effect change, does not mince his words. “Off the books, it’s legalized mafia.”