Cellared in Canada: changes in the stores and labels, but no help for Ontario growers

Note: I was originally hoping to post this article on Friday, but an overly busy schedule and a forgotten note pad with essential quotes are causing its publication to coincide with the beginning of the second Regional Wine Week, championed by Drinklocalwine.com. At first, I was disappointed about this coincidence, as I was planning to start with reviews of Quebec wines. But in the end, it seems more and more appropriate to me, as the whole issue of Cellared in Canada is central to what it means to drink local wine. Posts about Quebec and Ontario wines will follow this week.

Sheep mowing rows of 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Sheep mowing rows of biodynamic, 100% Ontario grapes for VQA wines at Tawse Winery, in Vineland, in the Niagara Peninsula

Things are moving quickly to change the labelling and the shelving of Cellared in Canada wines, which had been generating growing controversy over the last few weeks in Ontario and British Columbia. Though this may be good news or fans of VQA wines, there seems to be very little chance that this will help resolve the grape glut that will mostly result in some 8,000 (maybe even 10,000) tons of Ontario wine grapes to be dropped to the ground by their growers.

Last week, Vincor and Peller moved to stem the growing turmoil surrounding Cellared in Canada wines, these mostly-foreign blends that have been insistently sold by their bottlers as Canadian products. Since then, things have kept on moving quickly. According to a Canadian Press article, British Columbia’s Agriculture minister, Steve Thompson, stated that CiC wines were to be moved out of the BC wine section of BC Liquor Distribution Branch store (where they had no business in the first place). The particulars of the repositioning are being left to the BCLDB, however.

The Ontario Wine Council launched a consultation process to discuss relabelling and rebranding of the Cellared in Canada wines, a review that should be completed by the end of the year. The Wine Council sent out a letter to “elite opinion leaders”, to get their feelings on how the blended wines should be sold and labelled. The letter states:

The Wine Council has formed the Industry Working Group on Label Clarity to develop industry-led improvements to the labeling of blended wines.

Our Board gave this committee a strict timeline for response – it has been mandated to report back by December 31, 2009 in order to ensure attention to this important review and to demonstrate that  we are serious about implementing improvements on a timely basis.  Neverthelessthe process will be comprehensive with a thorough examination of potential changes. Among the elements to be reviewed will be:

  • Wording on labels including use of CIC
  • In store signage and shelving – both at LCBO and WRS
  • Look alike labels/Look alike logos
  • Logo for CIC brands
  • Font size/typeface issues and location on labels
  • Measuring consumer reaction to demonstrate that clarity is present/has improved

Jancis Robinson, who did so much to put the issue to the fore, is among the elite opinion makers that the Wine Council has asked to take part in this consultation.

The National Vintners’ Association is also involved in the process, indicated Bruce Walker, Vincor’s Executive Vice President for Government Relations, in an interview with The Wine Case. “It is our intention to resolve this at a national level”, he stated, confirming that the process exceeds the boundaries of BC, where Vincor and Peller made their first announcements last week.

This national perspective has a lot to do with labelling, as bottlers need to comply with Federal labelling standards, Mr Walker continued, stating that the question at hand for the makers of Cellared in Canada wines is: “What can we include beyonde the bare minimum of mandatory labelling?”. VQA products, he pointed out, correspond to the standards for “Product of Canada”, a category that requires virtually 100% of the contents of a particular product to be from Canada: 100% Canadian grapes will do the trick. As for “Cellared in Canada, made from a blend of foreign and domestic grapes”, Walker states that the wines are compliant with federal decisions regarding labelling that go back to 1996.

Indeed, despite frequent complaints regarding the small print and the minimal, back-label-only information about the origin of the contents, it is true that CiC wines are compliant with the “bare minimum” requirements of labelling. But in the same way that complying with the bare minimum of nutritional requirements in the food industry hardly creates health food, can we say that current wine labelling and shelving standards are enough to make things truly clear for and beneficial to consumers? Vincor and Peller are looking to “improve clarity”, but the final results of this operation “will have to be seen”, adds Walker.

Others are more enthusiastic about the fact that things are moving ahead: “We agree that more transparency in labeling would be incredibly beneficial, as the confusion surrounding the “Cellared in Canada” issue hurts all of us in the local wine industry!”, Mission Hill winery’ director of public relations, Lori Pike, wrote in an e-mail to The Wine Case. (An interview request with Andrew Peller has remained unanswered so far.)

Mission Hill, or more precisely, its parent company, the Mark Anthony Group, has indeed gone to more pains than many other Canadian bottlers to make the distinction between its VQA wines and Cellared in Canada wines. Mission Hill, Ms Pike points out, is 100% VQA, while CiC wines are produced by a sister company, Artisan Wines. Also, she stated:

Artisan has taken an industry leadership position on the Cellared in Canada issue.  They do make some other brands with domestic and imported grapes, however they are one of the very few (only CIC wine?) that states quite clearly on the front and back labels the grape origin, with their Wild Horse Canyon wine.  It is comprised of grapes sourced from British Columbia, Washington and California, which they have termed a “west coast appellation”.  The winemaker makes the wines with a different percentage of grapes from each of these regions every year depending on the variability of grape quality and flavour each season so that she has consistency from vintage to vintage.

Whether or not an artificially created “appellation” aimed at “consistency” is a good thing for the wine world is a question in itself, but it must be said that in terms of branding, Wild Horse Canyon wines have the advantage of avoiding confusion created in other brands. Jackson-Triggs Cellared in Canada wines, for instant, sports a label design that is incredibly close to that of VQA wines (same typeface and design, except for the color), and the grapes’ country origin is not specified.

J-T Cellared in Canada labels differ only in color with those of their VQA wines

J-T Cellared in Canada label design differs only in color with those of their VQA wines

Vincor has certainly become conscious of the branding problem with Jackson-Triggs caused by the cohabitation of CiC and VQA wines within the same company. “J-T Cellared in Canada labels should go”, stated Bruce Walker. “We’ll see a change in the not too distant future”.

A planned change

The reason Vincor is able to start moving quickly is because the process of redefining Cellared in Canada actually “started 3 or 4 months ago”, when a Cellared in Canada subcommittee was created, explains Vincor’s executive vice-president. This is what allowed Vincor and Peller to come to the Vancouver Sun editorial meeting of October 1 with mock-ups for new label and a possible category name change (“International Canadian Blend”).

The fact that the industry was already at work also largely explains why the Ontario Wine Council consultation has been started so quickly after Peller and Vincor first came forward, and why the process deadlines are so short. This “high priority” process is to be completed by the end of December, with the consultation phase concluding by the end of November. Implementation will begin in the New Year, with a gradual phasing out of old labels. “At Vincor, we’ve stopped reordering labels” for the current CiC labels, says Bruce Walker, pointing out that the timelines for completing the change will vary, according to inventories and sales of the various products involved. Shelving will likely change more quickly than labelling, because of these production constraints.

In the case of British Columbia, where the Olympics have been presented as a deadline for clearing up the confusion surrounding Canadian and non-Canadian wines, as thousands and thousands of international visitors get ready to travel to the province, it is not clear that the labelling can be changed in time for the big event. At least, the Olympic-label wine Esprit, originally launched as a Cellared in Canada product, has been bottled with 100% VQA wine since July 1st. That way, the Canadian Olympic Wine, part of Vincor’s sponsorship of Vancouver 2010, is now being made with 100% Canadian grapes.

Ontario’s growing pains

While things are looking up in the labelling department, the change will do nothing to solve growers’ problems, for those who did not have a contract with a winery ahead of the 2009 harvest.

For Vincor, the current grape glut is due to “speculative growers” who decided to grow grapes without a contract in hand. Clearly, they are not in Vincor’s plans. “Can we buy all the grapes that don’t have a home? We can only buy what we can sell. So that can’t happen in the year we’re in”, says Mr Walker, who even went as far as saying that the Ontario governement “encouraged bad behavior” by bailing out growers who were stuck with 4,000 tons of unsold grapes last year.

Asked if growing purchases of foreign grapes by bottlers of Cellared in Canada products could be at least partly responsible, he insisted that “we have not been increasing our foreign content” in those wines, and that a lot of the CiC wines sold in Ontario by Vincor contain significantly more than the 30% minimum required by law. In the case of BC, Vincor CiC wines always hold some Canadian content, even though there is no minimum content: Mr Walker was unable to specify amounts for any of the BC bottlings, however.

The executive vice-president of the Constellation subsidiary went on to give a spirited defense of Vincor’s role in promoting Ontario wines and bringing them to market. A defense that also gives an idea of the weight the company carries in the Ontario industry: “We buy the most grapes in Ontario, and we are the largest producer of VQA wines in Ontario. We work on a long-term basis with 85 growers, and we buy a quarter of the total Ontario crop: two thirds for CiC, and one third for VQA.”

He also stated figures according to which a 10$ bottle of Cellared in Canada wine brings 6.67$ in revenue to the local wine industry, while a foreign bottle only brings in 72 cents. Half the crop of Ontario wine grapes goes into Cellared in Canada.

For Mr Walker, another factor that makes buying more grapes difficult is the presence of a marketing board for Ontario grapes. The price paid for the grapes at harvest is a predetermined amount negociated between Grape Growers of Ontario and the Wine Council of Ontario (see here for details). That price has to be paid for any and all grapes, regardless of quality. Buying an oversupply of grapes at a lower price would be illegal, contrary to what has been going on in places like California.

Clearly, Vincor would like the marketing board and uniform pricing go, and be replaced by a “market driven pricing system”. Grape Growers of Ontario have proposed a two-tier pricing system (a higher price for VQA, a lower price for lower-quality destined to Cellared in Canada wines), but have been turned down so far by the Wine Council of Ontario. Bruce Walker doesn’t see any significant change happening before the next harvest, as long-planned purchases are already completed for 2009.

While a system that would encourage better price for better-quality grapes, and allow a more flexible supply management, do seem desirable in theory, Walker himself recognizes that a transition from controlled price to market-driven pricing “is difficult for suppliers”. With the weight of big players like Vincor and Peller, it’s hard to see how growers could achieve a strong negotiation position in an unregulated grape market.

Question marks

Though the lack of pricing flexibility in Ontario does seem like a significant issue, some questions remain. It is a little difficult to see how a 5 or 10% increase in Canadian content in the CiC wines, even at current prices, could result in a drastic increase in the price of those bottles. Certainly, it seems outlandish to claim, as Ontario Wine Council president Hillary Dawson apparently did, that the price of Cellared in Canada wines could shoot up to 18$ or more if the Ontario grape content was increased. There are, after all, VQA wines sold in Ontario for as low as 11 or 12$ at the LCBO – including Vincor’s OPEN brand.

Also, if Vincor is putting in “much more” than 30% Ontario grapes in CiC wines, why would it worry about seeing the minimal requirements rise?

Whatever the end result of the current efforts being undertaken by producers of Cellared in Canada wines, the current situation has clearly got to stop.  As Calgary blogger CDUB put it, the category, as it is now, challenges many areas of common sense that apply for a number of other products:

If a shirt is made in China but I’m wearing it, can the tag say “worn in Canada” and be offered for sale in a local-products store? Would it be allowed to dominate prime shelf space?

As we are in the middle of the LCBO’s Go Local campaign, where VQA wines are promoted… side by side with big signage for Cellared in Canada wines, that is indeed a very good question.

Cellared in Canada: big bottlers move to stem growing outrage

Over the last few weeks, pressure had been building nationally and internationally, concerning the deceptive Cellared in Canada wines. These inexpensive bottles, made by the country’s major wine bottlers, give a Canadian aura to blends made totally (or almost) from foreign wine brought in bulk to this country from Chile, Australia or elsewhere.

Last month, articles in The Economist, abroad, and the Vancouver Sun, nationally, were added to a long list of features by Jancis Robinson, Wine Spectator and French industry site Vitisphère, all criticizing the confusion between truly Canadian wine and foreign plonk. A half-hour segment on CBC’s The Current also contributed strongly to the debate by catching Andrew Peller president John Peller in a web of his own contradictions about the clarity (or lack thereof) of CiC labelling. While Peller insisted that the labels were clear, and that all relevant information was clearly stated, a string of LCBO consumer interviews at the end of the segment showed all of them surprised, if not angry, at learning that what they thought was Ontario wine was something else altogether. They certainly thought it was confusing and deceptive. And so did Anthony Gismondi, as he stated in a solid piece also published in the Vancouver Sun.

Facing growing public resentment, as well as growing pressure from the BC government, big bottlers Vincor and Peller met with the Vancouver Sun on Thursday to explain that they were planning changes to the labels and presentation of the wines. While Vincor president Eric Morham and Andrew Peller president John Peller insisted they never meant to mislead the public (then why all the small print on the labels, the incredible similarities between some brands’ VQA and CiC labels?), but that they are hearing the feedback and are working on new label designs.

One reason for the move might be explained by the BC government’s changing attitude towards the confusion:

In a separate interview, Rich Coleman, minister responsible for the Liquor Distribution Branch, said the LDB is on-side with the changes in marketing the wines.

“I have already told our guys to look at how it is displayed in the stores. It will be fixed.”

Coleman said Vincor, which is an official Olympic supplier, told him its Cellared in Canada wines should be re-labeled before the 2010 games begin, a sensitive issue for both the government and the winery

Here’s hoping that not only the labeling will be re-done, but also that Vincor will focus on actual Canadian wines, in its Olympic promotion, instead of products like the Cellared in Canada Esprit wine. The Olympics will be a great opportunity to showcase Canadian wine to the world, not compromise its credibility by blurring boundaries.

At this point, the decisions seem to affect only British Columbia, but it would seem normal that they should apply to Ontario as well. On Friday afternoon, I tried to reach spokespeople for Peller, Vincor and Mission Hill (in this last case, to see if the company would follow suit with the two others), to confirm whether or not Ontario is also concerned, but received no reply. I’ll follow up when I get more details about the proposed changes from the concerned parties.

One person who did reply is Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson Chase Vineyards in Prince Edward County. Mr McLean, who has been speaking out in public – and working behind the scene – against the present Cellared in Canada situation, welcomed the new position by Peller and Vincor as “good news”, while pointing out in his e-mail message that the labels weren’t the only question at hand:

“However, there are many other fundamental elements of the Ontario Wine Industry that are dysfunctional and the clear labelling of CIC wines is just the tip of the iceberg.  So, we’ll see what happens next week and fingers crossed that it will be significant.  If there is no decrease in the 70% Chilean content a lot of Ontario growers will have a tough time surviving.  I hope that the CIC guys ultimately see how they could make themselves appear to be good citizens if they went ahead and committed to buying the aprox. 8,000 tonnes of grapes that are unsold and will make a wonderful photo op hanging there, dying on the vines, while 50,000 tonnes arrives from Chile.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see how Cellared in Canada wines wouldn’t be having a negative effect on the wine growers of Ontario, who are facing considerable drops in prices and uncertainty about the intentions o buyers, as a Globe and Mail pointed out on Friday. Increasing the amount of Canadian wine in the blended wines would seems like it could be a favorable option (content of Ontario grapes can be as low as 10%, contrary to what the Globe piece says). Especially since Vincor and Peller, while looking to improve the labels, seem to want to hang on to the word “Canada” in what is essentially a foreign product. According to the Vancouver Sun piece:

[Vincor president Eric] Morham produced mock-up labels that Vincor is considering for its Sawmill Creek brand that state in large print on the front of the bottle the origin of the wine. One option states “International Canadian Blend”. The other, “Cellared in Canada.”

Shouldn’t using the word Canada should mean having a majority of Canadian content? In any case, I find it hard to see why the bottlers would want to hang on to CiC, which has been garnering so much negative attention. Time to start fresh, and give straight answers, guys.

What is a Canadian wine?

My recent summer vacation in the quiet and picturesque Manitoulin Island, in Northern Ontario, was a bit ginger-peachy – as far as wines go, that is. I had some lovely wine from New Zealand, France and Ontario, but was quite depressed by the “Cellared in Canada” section of the LCBO stores.

A few years ago, it seems to me there was a clear distinction, in the stores, between wines bottled by Canadian companies with hardly any criteria, and VQA wines, which require all grapes used in the wines to come from Canadian vineyards and, if a specific region is mentioned (like Niagara), from the region in question.

Now, it’s all muddled together in a single section, and what’s terrible about it is some of these wines are hardly Canadian at all. If you look closely enough at the labels, you’ll find out that the bottles are made of “a blend of Canadian and domestic wines”. And according to all the information I’ve read, that amount of Canadian wine can be as low as 10% or maybe even none at all, according to a well-informed blog. Frankly, tasting a Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc “cellared in Canada” was an extremely bland experience. There was nothing unpleasant about the wine, but there was hardly anything to be said about it either. It was very pale and without any character.

Quite a contrast with, say, a Peninsula Ridge sauvignon blanc (very well-balanced, to an extent I’ve rarely seen in Niagara sauvignon blanc), a Clos Jordanne pinot noir (perhaps the closest thing to the spirit of Burgundy on this side of the Atlantic), a Château des Charmes single vineyard chardonnay (like the St David’s Bench, which I’ve always appreciated over the years), or a Hernder riesling (I’ve had several crisp, balanced and ageworthy cuvées), all VQA wines that have lots of character, and all express a sense of place. The very nice and very typical mineral character of the best Niagara chardonnay can’t be found in a “blend of domestic and imported wines”, now can it?

The fact that a Cellared in Canada wine (whatever that means) can sit alongside a VQA wine without any clear distinction is, in my opinion, a retrogade idea that can only weaken the image of Canadian wine, an image that has progressed remarkably with the quality of the wines since the late 1980s. By muddling the whole question, the companies and authorities that are allowing this lack of distinction are harming local production and confusing consumers who should be able to make a clear choice. It seems to me that the only ones who benefit from this are big producers who can make a profit from using really cheap bulk wine from Australia or Chile in their big volume labels. In terms of winemaking, it’s the equivalent of blueberry yogurt made without any blueberries – a deceiving marketing ploy.

And here’s a disturbing thing. That bland sauvignon blanc I had was proudly claiming on its label that Jackson-Triggs wines are official wines of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Better yet, Jackson-Triggs has released a special line of wines called Esprit, as part of its sponsorship deal with Vancouver 2010. And guess what. The official press release fails to mention anything about where the wines come from, and from what I’ve seen of the labels or any other information, they don’t seem to be VQA.

I’ll try to investigate this matter further to find out exactly what is going on here, but I’m quite worried. Vancouver 2010 seems like an amazing opportunity to make the world discover the wines of Canada. And Vincor, the Constellation subsidiary that owns Jackson-Triggs and signed the sponsorship deal, has plenty of great Canadian wines in its portfolio (including the beautiful pinot noirs and chardonnays from Clos Jordanne, or NK’Mip Cellars, a BC aboriginal winery they distribute). However, if the Canadian wine industry is to be represented by cheap globalized plonk, what’s the point?