For a number of weeks now, I have been listening to both sides of the Cellared in Canada vs VQA designated wines with much interest.  One constant in this debate was that both sides are equally passionate about their position.  The other thing that was glaringly obvious was that the Government and LCBO are prepared to do nothing to assist our wine growing regions or the consumers who benefit from true Canadian Wines and those Cellared in Canada.  A surprise, NO.

Before I get into this debate too far, allow me to preface, the entire country is affected by the Cellared in Canada fiasco, not just Ontario.  Our friends in BC, Nova Scotia and across the country are all faced with this dilemna.  However since we are based in Ontario, lets look at it from the Ontario perspective.

Let me start with what the VQA is, and that is the Vintners Quality Alliance.  This was put in place to protect and promote our wines as Canadian Quality.  To be VQA Ontario, a wine must be made from 100% Ontario grown Grapes of approved varietals;  the grapes must meet a specifically approved sugar level at the time of harvest, depending on the varietal; subappellations must use grapes exclusively from the region (ie: Twenty Mile Bench); and finally, 85% of the grapes grown in a particular vintage must be from that vintage and listed on the label.  (see for more information)

What are the laws or rules governing Cellared in Canada?  None that I have seen provide any specific standards or weight for the industry.  In British Columbia, wine under the Cellared in Canada label is 100% produced from foreign grapes, while in Ontario, 70 % foreign wine is permitted to be blended with Ontario wine.  Is this Canadian wine? No!

Imagine Chianti Classico blending Sangiovese from California with Merlot and or Cabernet from the Okanagan.  The Italian wine world would be aghast.  The LCBO would certainly not put it on its shelves anywhere near a true Chianti Classico.  How about a California winery blending Canadian Cabernet Sauvignon with Napa Valley Cabernet, where would that be placed?  Certainly not in the California section, Arnold and the United States Agriculture Minister would not stand for it. The LCBO executives would not risk losing their precious trips to California each year!  Would never happen.  Why then do we tolerate it here? 

Let me say this, Cellared in Canada Wines are not all bad wines.  They certainly have a place in the market.  They allow wineries to make money to focus on other projects, and provide a buffer in lean years.  It is the wording on these labels and the shelf placement that is deceiving.  It makes no sense at all to have a cellared in Canada section adjacent to the VQA section.  The LCBO says repeatedly, and one employee even told me that they “educate” their staff and consumers alike on the difference.  However on three seperate occassions at three seperate stores, when I asked the question of what the difference is between the two, did I get an answer?  No I did not.  In fact at one store, when I asked for an inexpensive Canadian Wine, I was led directly to the Cellared in Canada section.  I said Canadian wine!  Perhaps I was interrupting a Union Break.

Some Ontario wineries will say that the cost associated with getting grapes locally is too expensive to allow them to be competitive in the $8-$10 dollar range.  Perhaps this is true on some levels, but the exclusion of these growers and their grapes could lead down the same path as our peach famers, which was Out of Business!  What then, the entire Ontario Wine Industry becomes  Cellared in Canada?  I believe there is an argument to be made that we do not need to compete in the $8-$10 range.  If we are making great Canadian Wines, using the best possible winemaking techniques, and using the best grapes, we should charge accordingly.  The French do it, as do the Americans, Italians and so on.  We should be proud of our Canadian wine, and not be quick to undervalue the Industry.

One of the reasons our grapes tend to be more expensive than those brought in from overseas is the fact that our standard of living is higher.  We tend to pay people more money per hour, we have benefits, health care etc.  None of this is free.  Do we want to trade that off for the benefit of cheaper wine?  We live in a country that looks after its workers, and offers them a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.   Imagine a winery bringing in a winemaker or sales team from outside and paying them below minimum wage, in order to maintain their visibility on the shelves and marketplace.

What can you do as a consumer?  Support your local  VQA recognized winerie.    Lobby the LCBO, they unfortunately still control what we drink by and large.  At some point they will have to listen to us if we speak out loudly.  Let them know it is unacceptable to keep a Cellared in Canada Section next to the VQA section.  Get in touch with your MPP, let them know you want Canadian fruit, farmers and wines protected, and have them put pressure on the LCBO.   Lobby to have the word “Canada” taken out of the title.  It is confusing and misleading.  Imagine a first time Canadian wine drinker picking up a bottle of Cellared in Canada, drinking it and then thinking that is Canadian Wine.  Are we not lying to that consumer?  Wouldn’t we rather have them consume a great Riesling made from Niagara fruit from Henry of Pelham or Cave Spring Vineyards? 

My solution to this issue is to drop the name Cellared in Canada, and put each bottle of wine in the section of the LCBO where the majority of the grapes come from.  This will cause the LCBO some grief, but it is a way to allow us to be proud of our VQA wines and what they stand for, and allow our wines to be taken seriously on the International stage. 

I love VQA wines from here and British Columbia and am a huge supporter. I want to see wineries succeed.  If they need to import grapes, I understand, just don’t call it Canadian. Tell us clearly where it is from.  If it is good, people will buy it, and wineries will get the desired revenue without confusing consumers. 

To the LCBO, shame on you for purposefully misleading the public.  Take your head out of the sand and give the public what it deserves, a truly Canadian section free and clear of Cellared in Canada.  At a minimum, educate your staff and the public on VQA and its difference from Chilean Canadian Wine.