Who Owns the name “Prince Edward County”? Not the VQA
Yesterday (July 28, 2016) was a big day for The Old Third Vineyards, a small, boutique winery located in Prince Edward County. The Licence Appeal Tribunal ruled in their favour against the Vintner’s Quality Alliance Ontario (VQAO) compliance order that they remove “Prince Edward County” from The Old Third website.
The Old Third Vineyard is located in Prince Edward County. It is owned and operated by winemaker Bruno François and Jens Korberg. They make Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc wines, sold from their estates. Their wines have received ratings of 90 points or higher by esteemed wine experts Jamie Goode, John Szabo and Quench’s own Rick VanSickle. Each vintage – only one per year per variety – is bottled with a wine label that reads “Product of Canada”.
However, their website has a heading tagline that reads “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County.” This is an issue for the VQA.
On February 3, 2016, VQA compliance officer Susan Piovesan emailed The Old Third with regards to the use of the geographic designation “Prince Edward County” on their website.
“The Term “Prince Edward County”, when used in association with wine production, is reserved for approved VQA wines (VQA Act, O.Reg. 406, section 3(2)) and may not be used in any way associated with the wine to describe non-approved wines,” reads the email, which was posted to Facebook by François. “Since The Old Third Winery is not a VQA Member and does not produce VQA Ontario approved wines, you must remove all VQA reserved terms from your website.”
“We are not allowed to use that term since our wines are not VQA approved and VQA ‘owns’ the rights to that name when associated with wine,” wrote François in his Facebook post. “According to them, I am not allowed to print anywhere ‘Prince Edward County’ on websites, signs, business cards even though this is where we live. This is our home. They suggested we replace it with ‘local’ or ‘Canada’.”
François and Korberg were not willing to comply with this request.
As a result, the VQA issued an official Compliance Order commanding them to remove “Prince Edward County” from their website banner; The Old Third either had to remove the location from their website or become a VQA designated vineyard – a membership that costs $1,000 annually, not including the other fees for wine approval ($260), tasting panel reconsideration ($107) and more. A steep cost for a small winery producing two wines every year.
But if The Old Third didn’t comply, the VQA would issue fines and take legal action.
“The implications are huge,” François wrote on The Old Third’s Facebook page on July 10th. “A judgement in their favour would mean non-VQA wineries could not use ‘Ontario’, ‘Prince Edward County’ and other protected terms anywhere on public electronic media. Without the ability to publish one’s actual business address online, no winery in Ontario could possibly not be members of VQA Ontario. We would be forced to join. Cementing them as the ONLY true arbitrators of all that is good in Ontario wines.”
The Old Third hired a lawyer, appealing the compliance order with the Licence Appeal Tribunal. The appeal was argued before the Tribunal on July 6th in Toronto, with the results published on July 28th, 2016: the Tribunal dismissed the Compliance Order.
“The statutory provision must be read in its entire context, taking into consideration not only the ordinary and grammatical sense of the words, but also the scheme and object of the statute,” the Appeal ruling states.
The statutory provision in question, the same one quoted by the compliance officer in the VQA’s original email, reads as follows:
Section 3.2: No person shall use the following terms, descriptions and designations on a label or container of wine unless the wine is approved and the conditions set out in clauses (1) (a) to (h) are satisfied:
With “Prince Edward County” as entry 6.1 in the terms listed.
According to the Tribunal:
“The critical provision is the definition of ‘label’. … read in its entirety, the clause reads ‘…printed or written wording…that are associated with a wine (emphasis added). When this is read in conjunction with the words that precede them, ‘a container of wine’, it is a reasonable inference that the written/printed wording is in respect of the singular – a wine.”
The VQA argued that The Old Third are trying to monopolize on the value the VQA has added to the term “Prince Edward County” by making it an official wine designation. The Tribunal disagreed: “The information conveyed in the banner … locates it geographically. Giving the words, in context, their ordinary meaning, they do not convey that the Appellant produces a Prince Edward County wine.”
The Tribunal’s ruling in favour of The Old Third shows that, even if an organization that regulates wine believes they own a term or regional name, it doesn’t mean they have the right to enforce their designations on those wineries that don’t wish to buy into the designation. The Old Third is a small vineyard in Prince Edward County and it will most likely remain that way.
And it’s these small wineries that first put Prince Edward County on the wine scene – there wouldn’t be a VQA designation for Prince Edward County if it weren’t for the wineries and estates that were producing quality wines long before the VQA came around in 2007: Waupoos Winery, The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Winery, Casa-Dea Estates Winery, By Chadsey’s Cairns Winery, Sandbanks Estates Winery… the list goes on (and on).
Prince Edward County’s wine reputation has been built on the backs of the passionate, dedicated winemaker. While protecting the consumer and ensuring that any wine with the label “Prince Edward County VQA” is a valuable asset in the wine industry, ensuring these passionate, dedicated winemakers continue producing quality wines is vitally important.
“When we first planted vines here, I spent years wondering what my wine would taste like. I dreamed of the day I would harvest my first Pinot Noir grapes. It was a wait that took years,” writes François on Facebook after the ruling was announced yesterday. “Like other producers here, our work helped build an industry that did not exist before. Winegrowers here made ‘Prince Edward County’ a wine region, not VQA Ontario. And I’ll be damned before I let them take the fruit of my dreams away from me.”