Cellared in Canada – Let’s talk about it

For those who haven’t been following it, this is more or less what started getting this issue more attention: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a200907291.html (I won’t go over it all here to save space – just Google “Cellared in Canada” for the back story.)

The laws pertaining to the labeling of Canadian wines are not new and this kind of wine has been available for years. As the folks at http://www.iconwinesbc.blogspot.com/ have state, “[w]e don’t think this public outcry would have taken place 5 years ago” and I have to agree. More people now have more confidence in their domestically produced wines and I’m glad to see them effectively defending the image of Canadian wine.

I really think that this issue is important and rather than be like a lot of blogs that I see on the internet (which just rant and rave about issues without actually offering any new and potentially constructive ideas) I have some ideas that I think might be useful.

Now I’m not an expert when it comes to the laws of the land and things like that. But I do work in the wine trade and I think that I’m a fairly knowledgeable consumer.  Since this blog and podcast is geared towards other consumers who love BC wine, I figured that you all might have an interest in how this plays out as well.

At this point, it seems to me that there are two problems. One is that consumers are feeling like they have been deceived by the “Cellared in Canada” wines. The second is that there are no universally accepted controls in place that can tell consumers exactly where the wine is coming from.

1 – Consumer Deception

As John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd told Jan Wong on CBC’s The Current (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/podcast.html), they were just following the rules; their labels “compl[y] with what the federal label standards are” and he’s right. However, just like those out-of-date by-laws regarding the proper hitching of horses to public buildings, these ‘rules’ are now out of date. The industry knows this and has been quiet about it the whole time hoping that no one would notice. The anger of most consumers now shows that they were right in trying to keep it quiet. However, things are going to have to change this time.

No one likes to be called stupid, but that’s exactly what wine consumers are feeling like when they find out what the vague phrase “Cellared in Canada” means. It’s written so small on the back labels of wine bottles that share shelf space with the real Canadian product that it’s easy to assume the wrong thing. Doesn’t finding wine on a shelf with a Canadian flag over it mean that the wine is made in Canada, the same way that Italian or French wines have shelves with their flags over it? How silly would it be to buy a wine imported from France that says, “Cellared in France”??

The big wineries that produce “Cellared in Canada” wines are now going to have to answer for this deception somehow. In the store that I work in, I had three different customers today refuse to look at any of Vincor’s Jackson-Triggs wines because they’ve heard their name mentioned as a producer of “Cellared in Canada” wines. (The white label series of wines are “Cellared in Canada”.) Unfortunately for Vincor, those customers today now equate the Jackson-Triggs label no matter what color it is with deception and this is unfortunate. They will be missing some good wine. The J-T Grand Reserve wines are fabulous and Proprietor’s Reserve wines are great values. I don’t have a problem with the concept of wines that are now produced as “Cellared in Canada”, but I wish that they weren’t labelled as such and that they weren’t placed in the same section of the store.

So here is my suggestion for a solution to this problem;

All wines produced in Canada that are made from imported wine and/or juice should be labelled with the phrase “International Blend – Made from wine imported from {country 1},{country2}…
This label should appear at the bottom of the front label with a minimum 10-point font size. These wines should also be placed on shelves in the store under the heading “International Blends” with no country’s flag appearing above it to denote any kind of country of origin.

While we’re on the subject of labelling, why don’t we start adding ingredients to the wine labels as well? As a ‘historic beverage’, wine is exempt from having to display all of the things that are put into the bottle. How about knowing if a wine was processed with Blanc Varietal, Beta Glucanase, or ‘balanced’ with sugar or malic acid? Might make reading those labels really interesting on some producers’ wines.

2 – Unanimity on appellations and regulations 

The second problem has more to do with industry bickering than anything else. There is no universally accepted (or government decreed) regulation governing the origin of the grapes for wines in Canada. Each province has its own thing (or not) while BC and Ontario have the much ballyhooed Vinter’s Quality Alliance system (or VQA). For BC at least, there is no unanimity about VQA and a winery’s participation is purely voluntary. As a quality seal of approval, VQA worked great, bringing consumer confidence in Canadian wine up to new heights, while also setting the bar for quality.

Then something happened. Wineries started leaving. Quality started slipping. Of the 4 wineries that I have worked at in recent years, only one was a member of VQA at the time (and has since left). In a classroom tasting just over a year ago, I tasted two identically labelled VQA-approved wines that were utterly different products. It has also been a long time since consumers equated VQA with quality wine that they’ve forgotten what VQA stands for, 19 years after VQA was introduced into law in BC.

The most disturbing part that I see is that the wineries who aren’t participating in VQA are now going to have to prove to the consumers where their wine comes from. Consumers may not trust something that doesn’t have some kind of certification on it anymore. People who would have spent money freely on all kinds of new and wonderful new wines are now a little more guarded about their spending and won’t be taking risks the same way that they did even 2 years ago.

The other side of that coin is that VQA itself will be called in for questioning (not entirely a bad thing at this point). Can consumers trust that a VQA labelled wine is actually grown here, when the same company that makes it also produces “Cellared in Canada” wines? Some of the labels look unsettlingly similar.

So again, here is my suggestion for a solution to this problem;

Make the VQA appellation system mandatory for all wineries wishing to produce wines where the origin of the grapes is important. Allow these wineries to use the region where the grapes are from (example – VQA Naramata, VQA Golden Mile, or more generally, VQA Okanagan). These wineries should also be able to use the terms ‘icewine’ and ‘meritage’ as it currently stands with VQA.

Remove the stipulation that says that these wineries must be a ‘member’ of a club, like the BC Wine Institute and remove the ‘sensory evaluation’ aspect of the procedure. The average consumer doesn’t know about it anymore and its effectiveness is questionable.

Wineries that choose not to include a place name should use a generic label, such as “Canadian Table Wine” (CTW) or something like that. Wine consumers love acronyms and why should the EU get all the AOC’s, IGT’s, DOCG’s, and QmP’s. 3 levels of wine quality are easy for consumers to remember (VQA, CTW, and IB) and easy to stock on the shelf and market.

Also, the VQA system should be a national program administered equally throughout the country (if Italy can do it, so can we) with respect to the different climates and terroirs of the regions. Quebec and Nova Scotia should not be denied using varieties that are frowned upon in BC for the same reason that AOC law in France doesn’t dictate that Grenache be grown in Alsace. (They do dictate what will be grown in each region to qualify for each AOC, but they’ve had a few hundred years’ experience to figure out what works best and we in Canada haven’t, so let’s not jump into that part of it for a while…)

A nationaly run VQA program would give the wine industry a national voice. This might come in handy for getting some of those liquor laws updated and make wine sales between provinces a little easier. Imagine that… 

So in closing (sorry this is such a long post – I didn’t mean it to get this long, honest), the system we have has to change. Producers (especially smaller producers) have to be more united in their organization under an appellation system. Larger producers have to stop deceiving the consumers. At the end of the day, we all want the same result – a good (or great) glass of wine at the end of the day.