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Timeline Uncertain for Canada Liquor Legislation

Positive changes for B.C. wineries are likely to come slowly

by Peter Mitham
John Yap, minister of justice for liquor policy reform in British Columbia (left) meets with members of the Wine Islands Vintners Association in September while researching recommendations for his B.C. Liquor Policy Review.

Vancouver, B.C.—Significant breakthroughs are occurring in Canada’s fusty tangle of liquor laws and regulations, and wineries stand to be major beneficiaries.

Ontario recently announced that wines bearing the VQA designation and made solely from Ontario grapes could be sold at farmers markets, while a three-location pilot of boutiques selling exclusively VQA wines would be expanded.

But the changes pale in comparison to last week’s release of 73 recommendations following a review conducted last year of British Columbia liquor policy.

The review was one of the first initiatives of B.C. premier Christy Clark following her election in May 2013. The government’s attempt to privatize the province’s liquor-distribution system in 2012 was halted, but the 2013 review solicited input from citizens regarding the changes that needed to be made.

The province has pledged its support for the recommendations, which include an overhaul of licensing, storage and distribution regulations.

Many of the recommendations are sure to please wineries, which have long struggled with the province’s licensing and distribution requirements (see “Licensing Requirements Pinion B.C. Wineries”). 

Recommendations from B.C. report
• Allowing tastings in picnic areas and other “low-risk” venues without the need for a special license endorsement;

• Allowing wineries and other manufacturers to sell alcohol they didn’t produce, and amending legislation that governs protected farm land to allow this;

• Allowing off-site retail locations including stalls at farmers’ markets as well as secondary tasting rooms;

• Allowing licensees to store wine and other liquor at off-site warehouses, and to permit the transfer of product between retail locations operated by the same licensee.

Other recommendations include the improved promotion of B.C. wines, permitting alcohol sales in grocery stores (and ensuring sales hours are consistent with those of wineries and other producers), and amending tied-house laws to permit owners of licensed UBrew/UVin operations (and their family members) to own other liquor-related businesses. The report also recommends growler sales and greater regulation of home liquor delivery.

“Overall, it’s a really positive approach to everything,” Mark Hicken, a lawyer specializing in wine law and president of the Modernize Wine Association of B.C., told Wines & Vines.

What’s not on the report
While many expected changes to wholesale pricing, which affects the margins of private licensees, and improvements to the government-run liquor distribution system, these remain on industry’s wish list.

“There’s a few things that are missing, and I think they’ve been set aside for another day, and I’m not sure how soon that day will arrive,” Hicken said. “I think everybody is waiting on another day to see what if anything is going to happen on those issues.”

Nevertheless, the province has taken a leadership position on several issues, and this may prompt other provinces to follow suit. Ontario’s announcement of sales at farmers markets is a case in point followed a few days after the B.C. announcement. B.C. has also pledged to work with Canada’s other wine-producing jurisdictions to promote the country’s wines in each other’s areas.

But again, Hicken is cautious about whether or not the changes will happen.

“We’ve got an attitude change here that’s really, really important to bring us in line with the rest of the West Coast,” he said. “Whether that spreads to the rest of the country or not is an open question.”

How soon B.C. will implement the changes in its own backyard is perhaps the biggest question of all.

Timeline for change
Some changes could be done by summer, but the government says there are no guarantees. Questioned by Wines & Vines regarding a timeline for implementation of the recommendations, the B.C. Ministry of Justice (which undertook the review of liquor policy), cited justice minister and attorney general Suzanne Anton’s comments at the Jan. 31 press conference.

“There is a fair amount of policy work that needs to go into making these changes a reality,” she said. “In other words, we've made a lot of announcements; they don't happen overnight.”

Hicken expects provisions liberalizing liquor service at summer festivals to be first in play, but he acknowledges that everything remains a proposal at this point.

“All of these are just recommendations. The government has announced that they’re supporting all of them, but none of them have been implemented yet and, in fact, it will take a significant amount of work to implement all these changes,” he said. “The broad sweeps and the direction is all great, but it’s going to take time.”

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