It's a longstanding quirk of Canadian wine law: "Cellared in Canada." Several Canadian provinces allow wineries to import bulk wine (the popular choices today are Argentina and Chile), bottle it and call it Canadian, as long as the back label contains those three magic words. In the country's two biggest wine regions, Ontario law requires such wines to contain 30 percent local grapes while British Columbia law requires no Canadian grapes.
But Ontario's growing boutique wine industry is now calling for an end to "cellared" wines, arguing that the time has come for Canadian to mean Canadian. They claim the practice is tarnishing the reputation of local wine and jeopardizing the livelihood of grapegrowers. They charge that big wine companies are importing bulk wine and marketing it as "Canadian," while domestic grapegrowers leave thousands of tons of fruit to rot on the vine.
"When we have wineries literally driving past vineyards full of Ontario grapes to pick up imported grape juice to make a blend, it is clear there is an issue," said Jim Warren, president of the Ontario Viniculture Association. Growers and small wineries are organizing protests outside wine stores and have called for a boycott. They've asked the Ontario government to enact clearer labeling of "Cellared in Canada" products, increase the percentage of Ontario grapes used in blended wines and significantly increase the availability of VQA wines in Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores. (VQA, or Vintners' Quality Alliance, is the appellation and quality organization that guarantees the authenticity of domestically-grown wines in Canada.)
Until now, few winemakers have been willing to speak out publicly against the practice of marketing foreign wine as Canadian for fear of antagonizing the LCBO, the government-owned monopoly that operates all wine stores and controls which wines are available on shelves.
"Cellared in Canada" brands dominate the limited shelf space allocated to domestic wine in LCBO stores. Less than 2.5 percent of the monopoly's listings are dedicated to wines made entirely from local grapes and labeled VQA. The vast majority of "Canadian" wines sold by the LCBO are, in fact, foreign blends. If a local boutique winery can't make LCBO's list, their only option is direct sales.
The Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group, held a public "grape stomp" last month, lobbying to "Put the 'O' back in LCBO.” There is also mounting pressure online, including petitions, blogs and a Facebook page dedicated to banning the "Cellared in Canada" designation.
The history of blending foreign juice with Canadian wine is long and complicated. In the 1980s, when the Canadian industry was in its infancy, the government granted wineries permission to use foreign wine while labrusca vines were being pulled up and replaced with vinifera in local vineyards. The practice of blending continued over the years for a variety of reasons, including occasional shortages in grape supply due to bad weather.
But the Canadian wine landscape has changed in recent years. There is a healthy supply of domestic grapes, and consumers are embracing locally made wines as never before.
One of the few winery owners willing to speak out on this issue is Seaton McLean, co-owner of Closson-Chase Vineyards. "Bringing in juice, in large quantities, does good things for the bottom line of the companies that do it, but if you have juice available at those prices, your need and desire to purchase more expensive Ontario juice becomes secondary," said McLean.
He agreed there is a market for blended wines, but is lobbying to eliminate deceptive packaging. "There's a strong similarity in the labeling, the choice of bottles and the capsuling. I have close friends who will tell me proudly that they bought Ontario wine but when I press them, it turns out they actually bought 'Cellared in Canada' wine."
The larger wineries that produce Cellared wines argue that the growers only have themselves to blame for overplanting and that local grapes are too expensive. "By bringing in foreign wine to blend with the local wine, it allows us to compete in the under-$10 category," said Bruce Walker, executive vice president of government relations for Vincor International Inc., which is owned by Constellation Brands. "I would suggest less grapes be grown in Canada, or the prices of those grapes must come down to where they need to be."
The government has not acted yet. "We believe that the industry itself is best positioned to develop a long-term strategy that will address the current challenges," said Dwight Duncan, the Ontario minister responsible for the LCBO.