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.

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Tasting Note : 1996 Cornas, Paul Jaboulet Aîné

I’ve long had a particular liking for the wines of Cornas, this supposedly toughest, most masculine appellation in the Rhône. I’ve always had a few bottles in my cellar, and was appalled when a scare over some of the oldest vineyards shook the region two years ago.

One of the first Cornas I cellared, shortly after I started putting away a few bottles, was the Paul Jaboulet Aîné Cornas – the regular cuvée, which had the advantage of being more affordable, allowing me to keep two of the 1996 on their side for the following decade.

The 1996 vintage was a significant year for the Jaboulet domaine, since it was the last worked by Gérard Jaboulet, the patriarch who had done so much to enhance the estate’s reputation over the previous decades. Gérard died suddenly in 1997, leaving the family in clear disarray. The quality of the wines suffered in the following few years, as many comments and reviews repeatedly stated.

The long-term result of that difficult period has been the purchase of Paul Jaboulet Aîné, a family operation for almost two centuries, by the Frey family, owners of Château La Lagune, among other properties. Only one Jaboulet, Frédéric, is still working with the company : seven were at the helm up to the sale, in 2006.

The sale has certainly meant an influx in cash. What it means in terms of quality and reputation will have to be seen over the next few year

In the meantime, I am finishing the last few bottles of Jaboulet wines from the Gérard era in my cellar, including a recent tasting of the second bottle of 1996 Cornas. I had tasted the first bottle a year ago, and written a tasting note on my French blog where I was perplexed at the rather reserved flavors and aromas it displayed.

This time was different. Animal smells jumped forward right after opening, blending afterwards with a lovely touch of licorice, some cedar, coffee, a touch of black fruit, and a bit of herbal notes. The licorice and cedar were the most noticeable flavors on tasting, with a pleasant mouthfeel that faded a bit on the finish.

Though this was a pleasant and complex enough cuvée, it seemed unlikely that the wine would have gained anything from staying longer in the cellar. The orange edges and the evolved set of flavors and aromas hinted that while it hadn’t faded, it was on the edge of doing so. Nothing like the 20-year minimum wait time that used to be touted by Rhône experts about the « black wines » of Cornas. Maybe that duration would be more appropriate for the Domaine Saint-Pierre of the same era, the best Cornas vineyard owned by the Jaboulet estates, or for the cuvées of top producers like Clape, Jacques Lemenicier, Vincent Paris or Mathieu Barret’s Domaine du Coulet, to quote a few. I guess I’ll still wait a bit before opening that 98 Clape…

P.S. : Thank you, Jancis !

I’d like to thank Jancis Robinson for her help with this post. Being away from my home, and without any reference books, I couldn’t find any trace of Gérard Jaboulet on the Jaboulet web site or just about anywhere on the web, and my memory was failing to remember the first name. How quickly someone of that stature can seem to be forgotten… I posted a tweet asking for help, and Ms Robinson was kind and generous enough to provide an answer in the next couple of hours. I promise to raise a toast to her with the next bottle of Jaboulet – or Cornas – I open.

Ontario, please clean up the Cellared in Canada mess

Things aren’t getting any better for Canadian wines on LCBO shelves. When I recently returned to Ontario, I was depressed to see that it’s still a struggle to distinguish between real Canadian wines (VQA wines) and Cellared in Canada wines that are made essentially (even totally, in British Columbia) from foreign grapes.

The bottles are mixed on the shelves, with a bottle of foreign plonk sitting beside another made from Ontario grapes. And you still can’t tell that the Cellared in Canada wines are foreign grapes from unidentified sources unless you look carefully at the small print on the back label. Why put that in small print if they’re proud to make them?

It’s a shame. And a crock.

Fortunately, there is a bit of movement on the issue, as forces are mobilizing to correct the situation and apply political pressure on the LCBO and the Ontario government.

In June, an article in the Financial Post talked about ongoing efforts by Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson Chase vineyards in Prince Edward County, and others in the industry to stop the “clever con” that is undermining Ontario (and BC) wine growers and winemakers. In the article, McLean states that Ontario regulations allow Cellared in Canada wines to have 70% foreign content and 20% water (!), leaving room for as little as 10% Ontario grapes. Wonder why they’re cheap? 20% water will help cut down the price, for sure.

Most recently, Environmental Defence jumped on board the movement to correct this confusing mess. They’ve started an online petition to “Put the “O” back in LCBO”. Favoring local wines (made with local grapes) is coherent with a pro-environment outlook. Media events are scheduled to take place in Toronto and St Catharines on July 31, as I learned through a Facebook group called “Boycott Cellared in Canada wines” that has over 800 members and growing.

Mind you, the Environmental Defence petition isn’t perfect. Their call to increase the minimum Ontario content of CiC wines to 50% is a good start, and so is the call for the LCBO to “Increase access to more retail stores across Ontario to sell more 100% grown Ontario wine”. You’d think 50% Canadian (and no water, please) would be the minimum amount you should need before you can even think of putting the word “Canada” on the label.

However, another petition argument to “Increase the Ontario wine market share to 51% at LCBO stores throughout Ontario” is unrealistic: even if all Ontario producers had easy access to Ontario stores, they don’t make the volumes of wine to cover that figure. Besides, that would become a preferential treatment that wouldn’t last a minute under WTO and NAFTA rules.

Still, it’s good to know that people are organizing, and one can only hope that pressure will keep building for change. Maybe more action at harvest showcasing the effects of Cellared in Canada on grape prices and on actual Canadian winegrowers and winemakers?

Separate shelves for VQA and CiC wines would be an easy, short-term step that the LCBO could take that would make things a bit clearer for the consumers. My sources tell me that it’s already the case in British Columbia (even though both categories remain under a general “BC wine” banner).

What makes me curious, however, is that I haven’t found any significant statements on the issue by major wine writers like Tony Aspler, John Szabo, David Lawrason or Beppi Crosariol. Why won’t they weigh in, at least for consumer advocacy, by clearly stating the difference between the categories for their readers? Jancis Robinson sure has, repeatedly coming out in favor of Canadian wines being made from Canadian grapes. Which is what logic dictates.

Another Kind of French Paradox

I’ve been pondering on two separate, yet related bits of news about the world of French wine.

1. The French Government wants to make French wine simpler.

Trying to compete on international markets with New World chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, France is creating a simpler category of plonk made without any geographical obligation. Called “Vignobles de France”, the category will allow varietals to be placed front and center on the labels, and allow winemaking practices like oak chips and added tannins. Also, it will be possible to make them with a varietal that is planted outside of its traditional region (you want to make a gewurztraminer in Pauillac? It’ll be a Vignobles de France). And you’ll even be allowed to mix wine from different regions.

Clearly, this is a wine industry decision, not unlike (more…)

A look at the 2008 Canadian Wine Annual (the good and the bad)

A few days ago, I grabbed a copy of Wine Access magazine’s Canadian Wine Annual for 2008 at my neighborhood news stand. It is a great reference about all that is wine (and fruit wine, and cider, etc.) in Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and everywhere in between. Some 393 wineries are listed, with coordinates and a short but often very precise and useful description. Really cool and useful stuff, by qualified contributors, including articles on green initiatives in Canadian vineyards and on wine tasting and wine-food matching.

You also get the full listing of results from the 2007 Canadian Wine Awards, a competition chaired by Anthony Gismondi with, I must say, admirable restraint. Gold medals (more…)

WineCreator: A Roundup on Ronda

I finally found a minute to check back for reports on WineCreator, the ambitiously-named meeting of wine pundits and renowned winemakers that was held in Ronda, in Andalusia, a couple of weeks ago.

Last weekend, Jancis Robinson published, as promised, an overview of the conference, where she revealed an intriguing side of the whole operation. Apparently, this was more (less?) than (more…)

A glimpse at the WineCreators

Little has filtered, as of yet, about what went on at the incredibly ambitious WineCreator meeting that was held in Ronda, in Jérez country, last weekend. Yet a lot of people are surely curious about knowing what the “greatest” minds in winemaking and wine journalism came to discuss during this ” tribute to creativity in a world where the signs of globalisation are becoming increasingly evident”.

Jancis Robinson, a key participant in the meeting, (more…)

Meeting of the Creators

Talk about a modest proposal.

One of Spain’s top wine writers and a pioneer of the Priorat region, reflecting on the apparent convergence of taste that is gripping the wine industry, decided to discuss the trend with a group of the world’s top winemakers and a group of the world’s top wine writers for a two-day conference to be held in Ronda, Spain, on April 18-19. Their efforts have been rather successful, judging from a list of participants that include winemakers Peter Sisseck, Alvaro Palacios, Carlo Ferrini, Paul Draper and Denis Dubourdieu and wine writers Michel Bettane, Stephen Tanzer, James Halliday and Jancis Robinson, who is honorary president of the event.

The name of the event? Nothing less than WineCreator (told you it was a modest proposal…). Wanna go? It’ll cost you a measly 2,000 euros – just for the conference, for wine professionals. Non-professionals pay 4,000 euros including meals and lodging for two days.

With that kind of pricing, I’m hoping somebody will publish the proceedings or put videos online. It is a remarkable gathering of minds, and it would be very much worth sharing their thoughts with the world. There will be enough wine writers present to do that, right?

Mas Collet 2004, Montsant, Celler Capçanes

Among the lesser-known wine-growing regions of Spain, Montsant seems like a potential treasure trove of solid, yet not too expensive wines, often coming from undervalued old vines. Its soil has similarities with next door Priorat (unproductive soils on slate, also common in Bierzo), and so does the varietal selection, but there is certainly nothing in common with the stratospheric prices of Priorat wines.

Which is what makes Mas Collet 2004, a well-integrated combination of (more…)