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'Cellared in Canada' Wines Under Siege

Wines made with foreign grape juice face a consumer boycott

by Peter Mitham
Cellared in Canada label designation
Toronto, Ontario -- With all signs pointing to a bountiful harvest in Ontario vineyards, wineries and wine enthusiasts alike are calling for an end to the long-standing "Cellared in Canada" label designation that, by default, identifies domestic wines made from foreign juice.

Originally introduced in 1972 to provide for the blending of foreign and domestic wine during periods when domestic grapes were in short supply, the current regulations in Ontario require Cellared in Canada wines to contain no more than 70% foreign juice. The wines also may be identified as "Product of Canada" and "Vinted in Canada."

By contrast, wines bearing the Vintners' Quality Alliance (VQA) seal must contain only fresh juice from Ontario-grown grapes.

While the regulations governing labeling are clear regarding content allowances, critics claim that the mingling of VQA and Cellared in Canada wines on store shelves leaves consumers unsure of what they're buying. While foreign juice might allow domestic wineries to produce wines that retail at a price competitive with foreign wines, critics claim the wines simply aren't Canadian.

The movement has spawned the group Boycott "Cellared in Canada" Wines on the popular social networking site Facebook. Since the start of 2009, the Facebook group has grown to 890 members, including Tim Hudak, leader of Ontario's opposition Progressive Conservative Party.

Demonstrations outside Ontario liquor stores at the beginning of August also highlighted the issue, which many growers feel rob them of a potential market. With a possible winegrape harvest of 56,773 tonnes (62,581 U.S. tons) this year, well in excess of projected demand, groups such as the 103-member Ontario Vinicultural Association deem the issue a matter of survival.

"Many Ontario grapegrowers will have no market for their grapes again this year, which for some may lead to bankruptcy," OVA president Jim Warren reported in the association's latest statement.

Vincor Canada is among the winemakers incurring the wrath of those who want to see Ontario-made wines contain nothing but Ontario grapes.

Esprit Shiraz
Vincor's Jackson-Triggs is donating a portion of sales from its Esprit brand to the Canadian Olympic team, but will not be selling the Shiraz at the games, since it is "Cellared in Canada."
Vincor attracted criticism for its use of Cellared in Canada product as part of its Esprit portfolio of wines, produced in Ontario. Originally launched in 2007, the wines -- Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Shiraz -- were designed to mark Vincor's role as official wine supplier to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which will take place in Vancouver, British Columbia, in February 2010. Since sales of Esprit wines support Canadian athletes training for the games, critics felt the wines should have been made entirely from domestic juice.

While select bottles of the wine poured at special events and sold at Vancouver International Airport bore the VQA seal, Vincor has since announced that all Esprit wines will now have VQA certification. While the move eliminates Shiraz from the Esprit portfolio, Vincor spokesperson Trevor Heisler said Vincor wanted to put content first. "It was more important to convert everything to 100% VQA than to deliver four categories," he said.

The debate in Ontario is giving rise to similar concerns elsewhere in Canada, though the circumstances are different. In British Columbia, for example, the B.C. Wine Authority requires that B.C. wines use only B.C. grapes. Product of Canada wines aren't addressed by the regulations, and can contain up to 100% foreign juice.

However, sales figures tracked by the government-run B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch don't specify content when it comes to sales of domestic wines. Sales figures for B.C. wines include Product of Canada sales.

Lisa Cameron, executive director of the B.C. Wine Institute (which has a mandate to promote VQA wines and holds the licenses for a chain of VQA wine stores), said regulations in B.C. ensure that wines made from B.C. grapes are labeled as such. Wines made by local wineries from anything less than 100% local grapes are labeled Product of Canada.

"We're not in the same situation Ontario is," Cameron said. "The difference is that the grapegrowers in Ontario sell up to 30% Ontario grapes into Cellared in Canada product. In British Columbia, (our growers) don't; 100% B.C. product gets put into 100% B.C. wine."
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