Shipping US wine to Canada: FedEx gets in the game – and raises questions

An article on the Wine Law web site, an extremely interesting source on everything legal about how wine is sold (or not sold) within Canada, caused a bit of excitement among Canadian wine tweeps, today, as it revealed that FedEx has begun shipping wine directly from the United States to Canada – or at least, to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

I’d heard a vague mention of that initiative, this week, and was glad to get the details today. I’d actually thought that it was interprovincial shipping that had been opened up, which would be even more interesting – and challenging for the monopolies.

Canadians who grumble about the hold that monopolies have on the Canadian wine trade could find reason to rejoice in this now officially approved means of getting wine where you want, when you want. Any opening in the monopoly is generally welcomed by consumers, around here. But if you’re in Canada, and already counting the bottles you’ll be ordering, don’t get too excited: it’s not that simple, and it’s not cheap.

Yes, you sill be able to order wines from your favorite US wineries, and have them sent to Canada. But you’ll pay full retail price in US dollars, to which all applicable taxes, duties and markups will apply – which means over 100% extra in Ontario and BC, though less in Alberta. And on top of paying double the retail price, you’ll have to pay shipping, which can run over 150$ for 6 bottles, judging from shipments I’ve received in Quebec over the last couple of years. So forget about getting any bargains that way. The monopolies are keeping all the revenues they would get otherwise, and they are not allowing actual competition from the US to take place.

With all these constraints, why should US wineries bother with sending cases across the 49th parallel? As the FedEx web site states: “Canada is the second largest U.S. wine export destination and is the only destination with double-digit wine growth in the last six years.” Good reason to try to increase shipments, for US wineries, especially as the Canadian economy is holding up better than the US economy. There’s more inventory to pick from, these days.

However, the process is not exactly simple or direct, as this flowchart from Fedex shows. “All it needs is tokens and dice to play”, chimed in winemaker Bradley Cooper when he checked it out after I tweeted the link. It does have something of snakes and ladders. Hearing the news, I’d originally thought that a sort of fast track process had been worked out between FedEx and the monopolies, but I now see that this direct shipping process is actually the same as the one I’ve worked my way through when getting wine sent to me to Quebec, through FedEx or other courrier services. You still have to ensure custom brokerage (which FedEx providesSo no big deal, as far as that is concerned.

Another interesting fact is that, according to tweets exchanged with Rod Phillips, this announcement came out of nowhere, even for BC wine industry people who are pushing for more open wine sales. Phillips mentioned that a lawsuit brought forth by Gallo may have something to do with it, but I haven’t found all the details on that case – hardly any, in fact. I will try to find out more.

There is, however, another legal challenge in the works regarding the prohibition of interprovincial shipping of wine, something which makes the apparent opening to international shipping seem stranger. While international trade rules forbid giving local products an undue advantage over international products, the reverse should also be true.

It’s a bit galling that you can get wine shipped directly to you from other countries (even though it’s expensive) while you absolutely can’t get it directly – legally, at least – from another Canadian province. If that uneven playing field was to be challenged successfully, it would mean big trouble for the monopolies. Many can’t wait to see that happen.

 

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.

A season of wine conferences: Santa Rosa or Dallas anyone? Lisbon maybe?

Next Friday, July 24, 2009, the second edition of the Wine Bloggers Conference will get started at the Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa, California (again). Last year’s inaugural conference was a sold out event, with some 170 participants, and this year is sold out again, at an increased capacity of 250.

The conference program brings back the best stuff from last year (like the Live Wine Blogging) and adds to it, with the presentation of the American Wine Blog Awards, and a day in Napa Valley. Keynote speakers include Barry Schuler of AOL fame (and Meteor Vineyard) and Jim Gordon, editor of Wines & Vines, and after parties will feature wines from Russian River and Portugal. Wish I could attend, but late July is family vacation. I’ll wave hello from the shores of the Great Lakes.

Can’t make it to WBC and still looking forward to a wine conference? How about heading to Dallas, Texas, on August 15, for the first DrinkLocalWine.com conference? The goal of the one-day event is to showcase the evolution of the Texas wine industry, which now boasts some 177 wineries. One more proof that you really shouldn’t think of California wine and American wine as synonyms. I’ll miss that one too, but will try to follow the tweet-up/live blogging event featuring 40 of the Lone Star state’s best cuvées, which is set to conclude the event.

The one conference I’m still hoping I can make it too is the second European Wine Bloggers Conference, taking place in Lisbon, Portugal, October 30 to November 1. I certainly wouldn’t mind polishing up and updating my knowledge of Portuguese wines, and meeting with the very interesting, multinational group of bloggers who gather there (the word “European” refers to the location of the conference, but bloggers can come from anywhere). The program includes a visit to the cork forests, guided by natural cork producer Amorim, which in itself should be worth the trip for any wine geek.

And if I don’t make it to this one either, there will be other gatherings in the new year. TasteCamp should move to the Finger Lakes, while the American Wine Bloggers conference will be heading to Washington State. More opportunities to discover wine regions and their production. Last year, at the first Wine Bloggers Conference, I loved the opportunity to learn more about Sonoma Wines, and especially Dry Creek, where I had the chance, during and after the conference, to visit Preston and Quivira, two very solid producers of sunny, intense, well-defined wines. Just that made the trip worthwhile.

EU regulators give up: rosé will remain rosé.

Now that’s some good news to start my wine week.

The European Union Agriculture Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, announced today that the EU is giving up on its plan to allow rosés to be made from a blend of white and red wines. This commercially-minded regulation, which I’d written about with dismay in February, was explicitely aimed at making rosés that would be competitive in the Asian markets. Let’s say quality and tradition were not at the heart of that move. 

The rule – or lack thereof – was first supposed to be adopted in April, but the vote had been pushed back to June 19, after vignerons in France started agressively protesting it. A compromise was first proposed to allow the mention “traditional rosé” to be put on labels, thereby signifying that the wines had not been made from a blend of red and white. Fearing that a free-for-all would set in and that their craft would be discredited, vignerons rejected that as well, and the French agriculture minister came on side (although France had originally allowed the project to be put on the table). Italian and Spanish winemakers also came on board to protest, worried that the anything-goes approach would undermine rosé’s freshly acquired respectability. Pressure had been building recently, with columns appearing all over the world questioning the move.

Over the course of the debate, I read and heard from many people in the wine world who wondered what the fuss was about. Some pointed out that rosé Champagne can be made by adding a little red (from pinot noir) to white champagne – a notable exception to the current european ban on blended rosés. Others noted that many New World rosés are actually blended – and doing fine on the market.

Granted, blending white and red wine, besides being the butt of a very old joke, may not be a total horror. I probably drank a New World rosé that was a blend without knowing it. Surely, there are quaffable blended rosés out there.

What I can say, though, is that the best rosés I’ve had, the serious, truly delicious ones, were all made in the traditional way. That’s true in the New World too. A Donkey and Goat’s brilliant Isabel’s Cuvée, made from grenache gris grapes, is a fine example, with bright flavors, minerality and depth. Refreshing, but not just that.  And back in the Old World, try any Tavel, or a Chinon Rosé, or a beautiful rosé from pinot noir like Jean-Marc Brocard’s Bourgogne Rosé, which was our official usher of spring, at home, a few weeks ago, and had all the expansive aromatic qualities of pinot in a sunny, summery mode. I’ll surely raise a glass of something like that tonight, to celebrate.

As I do, I’ll also reflect on the capacity of European vignerons to get a regulation derailed, and to preserve their trade over industrial interests. And I’ll wonder about what would happen if Canadian vignerons got together to fight the awful Cellared in Canada category, where a minority of domestic wine blended with foreign wine of unknown origin and sometimes water is passed of as Canadian wine. And I’ll raise another glass to Seaton MacLean, of Prince Edward County’s excellent Closson Chase vineyards, who decided to fight this “clever con”. Here’s to real wine from real places.

A sommelier on your bedside table

I’ve let a lot of things hanging, in the last, hectic few weeks. Like writing on this blog – which will now pick up its usual pace again. Or renewing my subscription to Sommelier Journal, a very interesting and distinctive magazine aimed at a knowledgeable and/or professional readership.

I’ve found a lot of great content in the magazine, since I subscribed last October. Solid portraits of various colorful winemakers (like Gary Pisoni or Merry Edwards), interesting pieces on wine service and wine pricing in restaurants (this is a sommelier journal, isn’t it), good overviews of wine regions like Alsace and Sicily, and a very good series on wine flaws, like volatile acidity and high alcohol. The simple fact that high alcohol would be adressed as a wine flaw is, to me, reason enough to subscribe.

Of course, this is not a magazine for beginners. Even though the writing is clear and generally avoids jargon and overspecialized discussions, it does require a bit of knowledge about wine to be fully enjoyed. Which makes it an excellent read for someone like me, who’s bean reading and writing and learning about wine for years and years, or for anyone trying to push their wine-thinking skills a little further.

You can check out a selection of free access articles on the web site, by browsing through the archive. Reading back through them, I’m wondering more and more about why I let my subscription lapse. I’ll take care of that right away.

Published in: on May 26, 2009 at 8:26 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

TasteCamp East: adventures in Long Island wines

Well, here I am at The Greenporter Hotel in Greenport, NY, on the Eastern end of Long Island, for a meeting of wine bloggers called TasteCamp East.

The event is organized by Lenn Thompson, one of the top wine bloggers and an expert on the wines of New York and, more specifically, Long Island, where he lives – and obviously, drinks. (more…)

When Robert Parker can’t get his facts (or his ethical guidelines) straight

I was appalled and incensed, Friday evening, when I read a post by Robert Parker himself on the eRobertParker forum. I don’t often agree with Mr Parker’s taste, but I do have respect for what he’s accomplished and for the energy he’s put into advocating wine.

I’ve lost a lot of that respect, now, after an attack he has made on wine bloggers and on the Wine Bloggers Conference and those who organized it. And it’s not a question of opinion. Even as he accuses wine bloggers of spreading falsehoods, Mr Parker has evidently not even bothered to check any facts on what he states in his forum post.

Let me quote him. (more…)

The California Wine Fair is back already

A year can sure go by fast. It’s spring in Canada, and time for the California Wine Fair again. I even missed the Western Canada dates (sorry guys), and barely caught up with it on time for the East Coast part of the tour.

It’s no April Fool joke. Ottawa gets its turn this Wednesday, April 1, at the Westin Hotel, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. Montreal is next on the list on April 2nd, and the event is as a fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, while Quebec City’s Fair, on Friday, April 3rd, will benefit the Fondation Cardinal-Villeneuve, which seeks to help people with physical handicaps.

After that, it’s Toronto on April 6 and Halifax on April 8.

You can get the full details right here. As well as the list of participating wineries for each city. The list varies, but includes the likes of Heitz Cellars, Calera, Seghesio, Ravenswood, Bonny Doon, Bonterra, Kenwood, Hahn Estates, L’Aventure, Hess Collection, Jordan, to name only a few. 

While I’m at it, I should mention that the New Zealand Wine Fair will also come to Canada this spring. A first event took place on March 24 in Edmonton (sorry again), but the others will be in late May in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. The list of participating producers is not out yet, so we’ll come back to this closer to the event date.

Quebec City hosts its first ever Salon des vins

Tomorrow, Quebec City’s very first Salon des vins et spiritueux (site in French only) will open, providing wine lovers and professionals from the region (and beyond) with a first event of this scale. Organizers have managed to get a lot of people on board, showcasing a higher number of industry participants than the Montreal Salon, which was, up to now, the only one in Quebec.

Of course, it remains to be seen if (more…)

American Wine Blog Awards: still time to vote… and to argue

Folks, if you like wine blogs in general – and certain wine blogs in particular – you still have a little over a day to vote for the finalists of the American Wine Blog Awards, the main recognition offered to wine bloggers for their passionate efforts to present different points of view on their – and your – favorite drink.

I happen to think that, (more…)