John Peller at Wine Talks – Preparing for Battle

The BC wine industry will be facing some battles over the coming years. The renegotiations of NAFTA  and the Comeau case, that is set to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada this December, are just two of the things that the industry will have to fight for. So says John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd. at a talk Tuesday evening at the Wine Talks series at Okanagan College*.

Peller’s talk included a lot of family history and thoughts on where the industry is today. The family history aspect of his presentation was quite moving and many in the audience appeared to have not been aware of John’s grandfather’s, Andrew Peller’s, personal involvement in the genesis of BC’s wine industry. (Of course, there will be a book coming out that will include some of that history, and more, next summer. *ahem*) The most poignant information for me was insights about Andrew Peller’s character and personality, something that is not easy to obtain through the text of a book, even his own autobiography. Andrew Peller wanted only to be able to have and support a family. After all of the companies that he had created (some successful, some not) the most important thing was family and, as an immigrant coming from Hungary, his arrival in Canada was what allowed him to do that. The most important day in his life had nothing to do with business success but everything to do with his arrival in Canada. After a tumultuous journey by ship across the Atlantic, the sight of Halifax harbour was the happiest moment in his life.  This remained so throughout his life and in his will, he asked that his ashes be scattered in Halifax harbour.

John Peller’s father, Dr. Joseph Peller, had left his medical practice to take over the company through the late 1960s and into the 1990s. John took over in the early 1990s and has guided the company through to the present. Taking over in the post-Free Trade years was not easy and I believe that John deserves a huge amount of credit for taking the company from André’s Wines / Baby Duck to Andrew Peller Ltd. / Gretzky & Sandhill brands.  His knowledge of the industry is profound, intense, and very personal. The actions of politicians, bureaucrats, and trade negotiators are on John’s mind as the Comeau case and NAFTA are poised to become two battles for the wine industry in the coming years.

For industry people, these events will make their day jobs either more or less difficult depending on the outcome. Some wineries, especially smaller ones, may not even notice while others might be driven out of business because of it. For most casual wine consumers in BC, nothing may appear to change at all. Customers in Ontario may one day be able to order their own case of BC wine directly from the winery’s website without any fear that they would be breaking the law. In BC’s wine country right now, the interprovincial trade issue has been a big part of conversation for many years.

According the Peller, the outcome of the Comeau case will not solve anything but will be the “match that lights the gasoline” poured on the fire of interprovincial trade. With the fuse ready to be lit, there is clearly going to be some turbulence in the Canadian wine industry in the coming years and it is all based around trade with other provinces or countries. This is how far the industry has come in the recent quarter-century. 25 years ago, the industry just wanted to be able to sell their wines to anyone at all!

What I think is the saddest part about the Comeau case is that it uses the Supreme Court to modify laws that should have been updated or rescinded altogether by our elected Members of Parliament. These people are the ones who are elected affect that kind of change, not the courts. In his talk, John Peller said that the government bureaucracy of today is very different than the way it was in the 1980s. He noted that 40 years ago, the federal bureaucracy used to be staffed by people who were not capable of getting jobs anywhere else and who simply did as they were told by the elected MPs. Peller contends that the same bureaucracy is now made up of much more educated, competent individuals. This new bureaucratic culture is much more powerful and almost calls the shots to the elected MPs instead of the other way around. Peller noted that the quality of those elected MPs has declined over the years and that this makes progress difficult. He cited Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s recent troubles with making changes to the tax system as a symptom. Morneau happens to be Liberal but Peller suggested that these changes would have been proposed regardless of the government’s political stripes because the main objectives in the changes originated from the bureaucracy, not Minister Morneau himself. In a recent meeting to discuss NAFTA, a Minister in the government admitted to Peller that he (the Minister) “didn’t really know anything about the wine industry at all”. That is worrying coming from a person ostensibly fighting for the survival of the wine industry in international trade agreements.

On the same evening as Peller’s talk at Okanagan College, a press release arrived in my inbox about a campaign to raise money for the wine industry to present as interveners in the Comeau case. They even have a GoFundMe page and a hashtag #CanadianWineForAll. While the $200k is certainly lofty, I am curious to see how many average consumers will make a donation to this particular cause. I, as a lowly industry grunt, wine writer and single parent, have no extra money at this time to donate. I would guess that donating blood to this campaign is not really necessary at this point.

But I certainly agree that interprovincial trade barriers are silly and need to be removed and I was happy to hear that the Supreme Court will be hearing the Comeau case. The group of BC wineries who will be interveners – Painted Rock, 50th Parallel, Noble Ridge, Liquidity, and Okanagan Crush Pad – are all similarly positioned in the BC wine world. None of them are the “Big 3” commercial wineries – Andrew Peller Ltd., Arterra Wines Canada, or Mark Anthony Wine Brands, all of whom have developed strategies to deal with interprovincial trade. (It was Andrew Peller who noticed that it was not illegal to bring grapes across provincial borders, which is why he set up wineries in places like Truro, Nova Scotia.) Nor are they the very small boutique wineries that plentifully dot the Okanagan Valley and make the Naramata Bench one of the highest density wine regions in the world. Sadly, the fractures between large and small wineries will likely continue.

As someone with a particularly broad vantage point from which to observe the nation’s wine industry, John Peller now has the potential to be highly influential in BC in a way that his company has arguably not been since the late 1970s, when Baby Duck lost top spot to Calona’s Schloss Laderheim in total domestic sales. After seeing the respectful handling of Sandhill (a Calona brand originally) and others, I have nothing but optimism for their recent winery acquisitions. My hope is that the company headquarters in Ontario will spend enough time reading the memos coming from their BC wineries. Perhaps this truly national company with someone who is knowledgeable about all wine-producing regions and wineries of all sizes across the country, will be able to lead by example. I, for one, will be watching intently to see what happens.

Cheers from wine country,

~Luke

 

*Major kudos need to be extended to Ian MacDonald of Liquidity Wines in Okanagan Falls for initiating the Wine Talk series with Okanagan College. I had not yet been able to attend one of these and am thrilled that there is a winery owner that understands how important academics is to the future of an industry. From what I can tell through my research on the history of the wine industry here, this has not always been the case. Higher education has not always been respected in BC compared to other places where I have lived. Perhaps the industry will be considering a more academic approach to solving its problems in the future…

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