VQA Ontario’s Impact on Producers. Is it worth it?
Earlier this month, The Old Third Winery in Prince Edward County won an appeal against the VQA (read the full article here).
Canada’s wine designation system is still in its infancy, especially when compared to the European systems. So, it’s understandably not perfect yet. Lately, the organization in Ontario – Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) – has been flexing their regulatory muscles in an effort to bring all Ontario wineries under its umbrella. This becomes a problem, especially when the regulations don’t leave room for non-member producers to state their physical location without fear of a hefty fine.
“This is a significant decision for the wine industry and for Prince Edward County,” said Alexandra Mayeski, attorney for The Old Third, about the Tribunal’s ruling in their favour. “It arises out of the VQA attempting to act outside of its jurisdiction by trying to prohibit The Old Third from using the terms ‘Prince Edward County’ in the context of stating where the winery is located.”
Mayeski was instrumental in arguing their defence against the VQA. “If The Old Third was not able to state its location on its website, this would be an absurd result,” she continues. “This is not what the regulating legislation intended.”
“When we got the email, it was just saying we should put ‘local’ or ‘Canada’ if we wanted to be more general,” said owner Bruno Francois when I spoke with him after the ruling was announced. “We decided that they didn’t have the right to own a place like Prince Edward County. It’s a legal jurisdiction, it’s a municipality. So we ignored the warning. I eventually called Laurie McDonald, the executive director of VQA, and the first words out of her mouth were: ‘Have you considered joining VQA?’ The second thing out of her mouth was ‘Oh, you should appeal it then.’”
“People should want to join VQA because it’s a great organization, not because they’re being strong armed, or because of the tax advantages,” said Francois.
There’s more to the VQA regulations, and the organization itself, than just the restrictions about place name. They also taste wines to ensure that wines bearing the VQA mark will meet their standards.
“VQA has a tasting panel,” states François. “I don’t agree with the concept. First you have to pay for membership. And each individual wine has to be approved. They get LCBO employees to taste your wines. There’s no other wine that I know of in Canada where the taxation rate is based on the opinion of a bureaucrat.”
Avant-garde producers have to fight to have their specific region on the labels of new wines that have been made in a unique way.
One such producer is Richard Johnson, grape grower and owner of By Chadsey’s Cairns. VQA certified, By Chadsey’s Cairns makes wines from only the grapes grown on their estate. Johnson and winemaker, Vida Zalnieriunas, are constantly and consistently breaking the mould of Prince Edward County wine styles.
“There are peculiarities within the system,” said Johnson about the VQA. “We weren’t allowed to use VQA Prince Edward County on one of our wines called Muscat because it didn’t have enough sugars needed to meet the requirements for VQA. We made it this way (with less sugar) on purpose because we like the aromas and tastes better – so it was a weird requirement. Eventually the VQA agreed and this year we’re allowed to put VQA Prince Edward County on our Muscat. But we couldn’t last year or for the past six years.”
“We also make a sparkling wine with the charmat method rather than the traditional method, so we had to put VQA Ontario again. I’d rather be able to put that my grapes came from my vineyard than having VQA Ontario,” said Johnson. “And if our wine has VQA Ontario, they won’t let us put the origin of the grapes. It’s a weird anomaly.”
“If anyone tries to do something new, they tend to fail the tasting,” said Francois. “If they fail the tasting three times, then when they sell to restaurants, they pay three times the tax.”
It is worth it?
Ultimately, it becomes a question of benefits. Is it beneficial for wineries to join the VQA even if they have to jump through all of this red tape just to be able to use the term VQA on their labels? Is the VQA living up to the original purpose and goals of a wine designation system?
“It’s a mixed bag,” says Johnson. “The important thing about the VQA is the idea about controlling quality, origin of the grape and certain standards for wine so that consumers can understand that and so that members of the designation can get some benefits. When consumers get a wine that says VQA Prince Edward County then consumers know that at least 85% of the grapes were used in the wine. If a wine uses VQA Prince Edward County and it has not gone through the the VQA then that erodes the guarantee.”
“For me, the only important thing is that all the wines in my store are grown on my property,” says Johnson. “By Chadsey’s Cairns and Old Third are two of the few wineries in Prince Edward County that can say that.” Other wineries import/buy grapes from other regions to mix into their wines – and the VQA only requires 85% of the grapes to be from the region. Johnson says a few changes he’d like to see include: “Putting the emphasis more on the origin of the grape in terms of what goes on a label. Foreign/domestic blends should have to put on the percentages of grapes and countries of origin. Local wines that don’t get sugars high enough in their grapes for a local designation should still be able to put the local origin on the label. The charmats (prosecco style) should be able to get a local designation.”
The region is important, but that doesn’t mean the VQA can control the name of a place.
“The problem [with the request the VQA made to The Old Third] is that Prince Edward County is a place and an address. It’s not just a wine region, so trying to control the term is a bit difficult,” says Johnson.
“Prince Edward County – people have such a strong connection with the name,” says Francois. “In the County, people associate their place with The County. There’s an incredible identity, an attachment to place. Even from a legal perspective, they don’t have a right to own a name place like that. It’s insulting. Because their lawyer said ‘Oh, Prince Edward County VQA has a value on it’ and the reason we’re using it because we know the value. Excuse me, we were here before the VQA. If there’s any value to the Prince Edward County as a wine designation, it’s the wineries and vineyards that created it. The VQA is profiting from that.”