Feel the Grapes' Wrath Ontario wineries are feeling confined by provincial regulation

Ontario Wineries Lobbying for VQA Reform

As Paul “Smokie” Leblanc sat penning his umpteenth letter to the provincial government protesting provincial regulation in the wine industry, he wondered if his efforts were all for naught.

Leblanc, a vintner, is the owner of Smokie Ridge Vineyard, located about an hour’s drive south of downtown Ottawa. He is also the President and founder of the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers Association, a group of 13 small−scale vineyards in the Ottawa Valley. All the members share a common goal: to lobby the provincial government to repeal what they feel are restrictive and outdated regulations on wine production and distribution.

Their disdain is largely targeted at the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), the certification body that administers regulations set forth by the provincial government. Although, Leblanc is also appealing to MPP’s, the LCBO, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to hear him out.

“They’ve made it impossible for us non-VQA wines to play in the market,” said Leblanc.

The VQA was established by the wine industry in 1988 and codified in provincial legislation in 1999. It was established as a way to ensure a minimum standard for Ontario wines, as years of poor tasting wines had hurt the reputation of the region, both nationally and internationally.

The Process

In order for a wine to become VQA certified, a vineyard must comply with standards around growing and ultimately send a bottle of the finished wine to the VQA head office in Toronto, who then contracts the testing of the wine to LCBO labs. The wine undergoes 22 laboratory tests that determine a range of features such as alcohol content and origin of the grape used in order to accurately label the wine. After the laboratory testing the wine is subjected to a taste test intended to root out unpalatable wines before they hit the market.

“The VQA was first intended to clean up the wine industry. Now that everyone has to undergo the same tests whether they are VQA or not, the VQA has become redundant,” said Janet and Tom Maul from Jabulani Winery, a member of the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers Association. “The VQA is used by big wineries to stifle competition.”

The main reasons a wine would be rejected are that either the grape being used is not recognized by the VQA or the taste profile of the wine does not fit within VQA standards.

“Our model is based on grape varieties that are internationally accepted as wine making grapes,” said Laurie Macdonald, executive director of VQA Ontario.

The Problems

This model poses a problem for many smaller scale wineries, as classic wine-making grapes such as merlot are not suitable for growing in the Canadian climate, and can only be properly grown after exhausting lots of money and resources. Cold-hearty hybrid grapes, a cross between wild grapes and classic wine making grapes, were developed in order to withstand the harsh climate. Wines made from hybrid grapes are difficult to differentiate between their classical counterparts but are still not accepted by the VQA. Yet winemakers such as Leblanc continue to use them because they don’t have the resources to justify growing internationally recognized grapes that can’t survive.

Merlot grapes at jabulani

“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.”


Aidan Chamandy

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