August 28, 2009

A Response to Hilary Dawson’s letter of Aug 19/09 in Niagara This Week

I was disheartened to read, once again, Ms Dawson’s defense of Cellared in Canada (CIC) wines. As the president of the Wine Council of Ontario, she must be painfully familiar with the struggles that Ontario wineries must endure. To have an important representative claiming that CIC wines are good for Ontario’s wineries, I believe, shows a lack of insight or disregard for the problems that CIC wines create.

The CIC program was instigated to provide a stop-gap solution while growers and wineries upgraded their vineyards. The program, which originally required a minimum 50% Ontario wine, was to “sunset” in 2000. Unfortunately, the CIC producers soon discovered they had a wind-fall business and the program continues to this day. We now have the situation of the “tail wagging the dog”: the Ontario content requirement is routinely adjusted to accommodate the needs of CIC producers and not the grape growers. Yet in a good year like 2008, grapes are left to rot when simply increasing the domestic portion of CIC wines could have benefited everyone.

Yes, CIC wines do provide a market for roughly half of Ontario’s winegrape crop. But to sustain the current high volume of CIC wines, Ontario’s CIC producing wineries get to import far more cheap wine from off-shore. The current CIC formula calls for 30% domestic content and 70% foreign content. Interestingly CIC wines can even contain up to 25% water!

The CIC laws allow only a few wineries to produce these wines. Ms Dawson says that CIC wines benefit the wine industry. How can it when only a handful of wineries can make CIC wines? As it now stands, three or four mega-wineries -- one of them not even Canadian owned -- control all CIC wine. No other wineries benefit, dollar-wise, from these wines. While the industry’s high-rollers are building designer wineries, many of Ontario’s wineries are wondering whether they will survive into next year. My advice to anyone going into the wine business in Ontario is “Don’t quit your day job.”

I do not buy the argument that CIC is the only way Ontario wines can compete on price, or even that CIC wines necessarily deliver a price advantage. I have seen CIC wines selling for as much as $13.95 -- fully into the premium price range. How can a premium price be justified for a bulk product that lacks a pedigree, that is essentially a mongrel? I’ve also seen (and am glad to purchase) VQA wines for as little as $7.95.

My own purchasing is driven by pricing, and at every VQA price point I can find quality and value plus the typicity we wine folk look for in “wines of origin”. I buy imported wines nearly as often as I buy VQA because I value what terroir and heritage bring to wine. Whether a Nero d’Avola from Sicily or and Old Vines Foch from Niagara, I want to experience the “sense of place” that these wines offer. I’m also much happier to direct my money to the wine makers that promote regionality, authenticity and honesty in wine. CIC provides none of this.

Above all, what I find most distressing is the effect CIC wines have on the public’s perception of Ontario wine. Most of the CIC wines I’ve tried over the years have been, at best, disappointing. Many are even an insult to wine drinkers. The fallout from this is that the average person thinks Ontario wines are mediocre, cheap, and at best lack-luster. Worse, the international wine press are shaking their heads tying to figure out why Ontario is so firmly committed to a course that makes us a laughing stock among international wine regions.

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