The perfect pairing for Canadian wine: free trade

Bill C-311 will allow individuals to order and carry wine for personal use across provincial borders for the first time since 1928

The perfect pairing for Canadian wine: free trade

Charla Jones/CP

There can probably be no better way of hammering the benefits of free trade into the skulls of the few remaining skeptics than to point to Canada’s wine industry. In particular, the fact we’ve got one even half-worthy of the name. During the original 1987-88 battle over Canada-U.S. free trade, our vintners fought hard politically to protect the pathetic plonk of the time. Canadian wine was a line of business that had defied quality improvements and innovation since the French first started canoeing up the St. Lawrence, but when it became clear that Canada’s economy was going to open wide, winemakers adapted with remarkable speed.

Nothing focuses the mind like the threat of competitive extinction. The national Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was formed, and research into customized Canadian growing techniques exploded. (British Columbia, which had just 15 wineries, now has 200.) And a handful of producers who had been fooling around with the very old German idea of “Eiswein” got serious and began winning gold medals in international tasting competitions. Wine producers know that the timing is no coincidence.

To anyone who has lived to see the whole thing, it has been like magic. What was once thought literally impossible because of climate—that oenophiles would go out of their way to come to Canada for domestically produced wine—is now taken for granted. Canadian ice wine, in particular, is essentially an all-new addition to the global palate. It is almost as if chocolate or tomatoes had remained a New World secret until now, and had been suddenly revealed to the Old, meeting a tide of rapturous reviews.

The stakes riding on federal private member’s bill C-311, which has passed second reading in the Senate, are probably lower. But given what experience has taught us—namely, that protectionism and over-regulation have particularly obnoxious effects on the beverage and food trades—there is less excuse for Ottawa not to have acted sooner. Under old federal rules against bootlegging, a wine drinker in one province could not order wine directly from another, or even carry it home from thence in his car. Anything he drank had to pass through his own liquor board. If the wine he might want was made by a small producer who did not have a wholesale deal with his province, he was out of luck. As a result, some of Canada’s very best wines are all but unavailable outside their province of origin.

Dan Albas’s bill will lift that dead Prohibitionist claw, allowing individuals to order and carry wine for personal use across provincial borders for the first time since 1928. This will, in theory, permit the existence of a direct mail-order and Internet market. That will be good for vintners in the existing wine-producing areas of B.C. and Ontario, especially small-scale bespoke ones. It will be even better for new wine experimenters in unexpected places like Nova Scotia, which now has 15 wineries of its own placing bets on a hardy grape variety called l’Acadie. As Albas pointed out in the House of Commons, innovators like these have no hope of gaining international attention unless they can gain Canada’s first.

C-311 has all-party support and should continue whizzing through to royal assent. But the provincial liquor boards, those last bluenosed relics of Prohibition, can still interfere with the growth of a mail-order cross-country wine market. The federal bill provides reassurance to sellers, but liquor boards could choose to try defending their sales monopolies and policing individual importers. Most provinces have their own laws or regulations forbidding mail-order import, though the policy actually applied varies from place to place. (Ontario, Alberta and P.E.I. do have stated rules allowing travellers to bring wine for personal consumption home with them.) It is not clear that the boards are prepared to surrender their turf easily just because the feds will stop helping to enforce their cartel. Up until now, provinces like Ontario have been creepily enthusiastic about shutting down Internet vendors who were not careful enough about selling only in-province.

Already, bogus hypothetical concerns about reciprocal rule-making are beginning to be heard. Rich Coleman, the B.C. energy minister who controls the liquor file there, says he likes the idea of a free wine trade across borders, but he warned the Vancouver Sun’s Gordon Hamilton that “we may run into some provinces who say they want to have some restrictions coming in. What we don’t want,” he adds, “is inter-jurisdictional hassles for our folks. If we want our guys to be allowed to ship into Ontario, we have to expect that we are going to have to accept their wine on the same terms as our guys are shipping out at.”

The simple answer would seem to be, “So accept it, then.” There is no reason B.C. or any other province should be policing small wine shipments at all; Coleman’s responsibility is to growers and buyers in B.C., and either way, no matter what trouble other provinces create, the smartest policy is laissez-faire. Unfortunately, his inarticulate concern about what the other guy is doing may herald a situation in which everybody is engaged in protectionist “self-defence,” nobody in particular is to blame, and the trans-Canada wine market everyone should desire fails to be created. This would be a perverted bureaucratic outrage against recent history, basic economics, good taste, common sense and small business, all at once.

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