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Broken dreams


January 12, 2010
By Marg Land


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Ontario’s fruit wine producers received some disappointing news late last year.

Ontario’s fruit wine producers received some disappointing news late last year.

The province’s Standing Committee on Regulations and Private Bills, in what many described as a partisan attack, voted against an amendment to the Liquor Licence Act that would have provided the small, farm-based wineries an opportunity to sell their product at local farmers’ markets. The decision was made following 60 minutes of public deputations presented to the Liberal-strong committee on Dec. 9.

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Bert Andrews, owner of Andrews’ Scenic Acres near Milton, Ont., and a fruit wine producer, described the hearing as a “farce.” He made a presentation to the committee in support of the amendment on behalf of Fruit Wines of Ontario.

“The track record of the LCBO over the past 10 years has not been conducive to the economic development of the fruit wine industry,” he stated during his 10-minute presentation. “The LCBO is a competitor to farm retail fruit wineries,” he added, after holding up several glossy advertising vehicles used by the liquor board to market its products. In one promotional piece Andrews displayed, described as the LCBO’s top 10 picks, only one of the listed beverages was actually produced in Ontario along with a Canadian organic beer. The rest came from the U.K., France, Italy, Ireland and California.

“That’s what you get in your Toronto Star,” Andrews said.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture also spoke in support of the amendment, sending director Peter Lambrick and David Armitage, the association’s chief research officer, to take part in the deputations.

“Bill 132 just makes sense from a market development, rural economic development and tourism development sense,” stated Lambrick.

“Providing access to the opportunities presented by the increasing popularity of farmers; markets will yield increased product marketing exposure for fruit wines. This customer contact is simply unavailable to small operations with very limited or non-existent advertising budgets.”

“The real difficulty for fruit wineries is they have no access to the LCBO,” added Jim Warren of the Ontario Viniculture Association. “There are one or two that sell there and that is it.

“They really have only one outlet, and that is usually way out of the way in the country.”

Not everyone spoke in support of the amendment. In what only can be described as a paranoia-filled diatribe, Jan Westcott of Spirits Canada talked of hidden agendas and hazes lifting in his presentation to the committee.

“In my view, Bill 132 has little to do with fruit wine and even less to do with consumer access,” he said.

“My sense is that the plan here is to include both Ontario grape and fruit wines, starting with fruit wines … is this really a plan to extend this privilege to all wines across Canada?”

He also said he was “shocked” by the OFA speaking in support of the amendment without considering the plight of the Ontario grain farmer. “Is the intention of this bill to signal that an Ontario fruit farmer is more highly valued than an Ontario grain farmer … or that an Ontario winery deserves preferential treatment compared to an Ontario distillery?”

I’m not sure about the term “preferential treatment” but comparing a fruit farmer, who is actually producing his or her fruit wine on-farm, to a grain farmer, who is selling his or her corn or wheat to a big-business distillery, doesn’t really jive. We’re talking about two different situations with the only similarity being the raw ingredients are produced by a farmer.

The ridiculousness of the argument was not lost on Bob Runciman, who originally brought forward the private member’s bill in December 2008.

“There’s no secret agenda here on my part, I can assure you,” he said after Westcott’s presentation.

But following the five presentations (Bob Chorney of Farmers’ Markets Ontario was not allowed to make his presentation despite driving five hours through a snow storm) the proposed amendment’s six sections was struck down, clause-by-clause, without explanation.

Sylvia Jones, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Dufferin-Caledon, openly questioned why the Liberal caucus members were voting against the amendment.

“(Why have they) changed their decision from when they were supporting the private member’s bill when it came forward in November 2008?” she asked.

“Suddenly, between now and then, we have the Liberal members, in full, collectively deciding that selling fruit wine at farmers’ markets is going to be the end of Ontario as we know it.”

“I don’t think that we believe that this is the end of Ontario as we know it,” said Liberal MPP Michael Brown in answer. “What we believe is that selling wine of any kind at farmers’ markets is not a good idea.”

He added that while he has trust in fruit wine producers, “I believe they have the same opportunity as every other wine producer.”

Oh really?

Runciman was unimpressed with the outcome. “We talked about pilot programs, and what we’ve heard is big business suggesting that this is some sort of secret deal that’s going to do damage to the alcohol retail and distribution system in the province of Ontario. It’s just shameful.

“If you look at Spirits Canada, for example, they sell more Johnnie Walker Red in a year than we’ll see produced as a result of helping these small operators.”

The Leeds-Grenville MPP says he has no plans to bring forward a new bill. “The Liberals sided with big business, also known as big donors, … and killed the bill along with the hopes and dreams of many.”