A Long Hangover

By / Magazine / July 24th, 2013 / 2

There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing a politician confess to a crime. I am especially titillated when the offence in question relates to sex, drugs or (in this case) booze. It makes it even juicier when the law-maker/law-breaker makes his fatal admission in the House of Commons itself, thus sparing a journalist like me the trouble of actually investigating anything. All the proof we need is splattered right there on the Parliamentary record.

Ladies and gentlemen, you will be shocked (shocked!) when you read the Hansard transcript of MP Scott Reid from last December: “I was on the wine trail in the Saint-Jean region of Quebec. I was on the wine trail from Nova Scotia back to Ontario. I inadvertently, and unknowingly illegally, brought back some Quebec wine … That should not have happened … Speaking of another illegal wine drinking experience I had at one point, some friends went to Nova Scotia, brought back sparkling wine … from Jost [Vineyards]. We enjoyed it together in Ontario illegally and unknowingly.”

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you: the Honourable Member from Lanark-Frontenac confessed to illegally and unknowingly drinking wine from Jost.

“Is Jost Vineyards so bad?” you demand. Of course not. In fact, Scott Reid’s confession is something of an endorsement for their bubbly. What he’s actually confessing to is breaching the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act. This federal law prohibits anyone except a provincial liquor board (like the LCBO or the NSLC) from transportation wine, beer or spirits across a provincial boundary. This is not a trivial rule — it’s a criminal offence and on your third conviction, you’re liable to a minimum sentence of six months in the clink.

Scott Reid is in good company. Anyone who’s ever lived in Ottawa and snuck across to Gatineau to raid the SAQ (a group which I suspect includes many politicians and Federal Court judges) has also flaunted this law. So has every traveller whose journeyed to the beautiful Okanagan Valley and returned to Toronto or Montreal with a couple bottles stowed in their luggage. The Act, however, doesn’t just make criminals out of tourists. It also throws a stumbling block in the path of every quality-minded winery in Canada, because it forbids them from shipping their wines to wine lovers in different provinces.

“It is an ancient law from 1928 that has no place in modern Canadian society,” Mark Hicken told me. Mark is perhaps Canada’s foremost expert in wine law and the principal lawyer of Vancouver’s Vintage Law Group. He calls the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act part of Canada’s “long hangover from Prohibition” and says that getting rid of it is the “number one” area for reform. “It’s the single most frustrating issue for wineries … The shipping issue prevents them from growing their businesses. That was the case in the United States, but they began fixing their issues 10 or 15 years ago, and their wineries can service most of the country, though there are still some frustrations and hurdles.”

The US experience is instructive. Direct shipping accounts for only about one per cent of the wine market south of the border. However, the small boutique-quality wineries depend on mail order wines to keep themselves afloat. “These wines need direct shipping to reach their market,” says Mark. Without the law, these wineries could devote themselves to quality, knowing that there are connoisseurs across Canada who will snap up their best product.

There is an increasing appetite for change. “We’ve got a growing wine industry. Because it is starting to get international recognition, there is a push within the industry for change,” says Mark. “And there’s a push from the consumer end to increase value and selection. We are in an e-commerce world, because you can order anything you want online.” Because of the pressure from all directions, there are cracks beginning to appear in the antiquated legal regime.

For example, the Ontario’s LCBO recently released a “policy” advising the public that they will allow the importation into Ontario of small amounts of wine for personal use. This is a nice gesture, but it is unclear how a provincial body like the LCBO can suspend the functioning of a valid criminal law like the Importation Act. That’s something only Parliament can do.

Which brings us back to the Conservative MP Scott Reid. He gave his felonious confession to express his support for Bill C-311, which will amend the Act to allow the importation and shipping of wine for personal use. It’s a Private Member’s Bill that was introduced by Dan Albas, the Conservative MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla in British Columbia. Mr. Albas argued for the Bill by saying, “Imagine if cars built in Ontario could not be sold in British Columbia. What if prized Nova Scotia lobster could not be sent directly to all households across Canada? This is the reality for many of the small Canadian wine producers.”

Private Members Bills rarely get the institutional support to make the long and tedious journey into law, but Bill C-311 has a fighting chance. It’s nourished with broad grassroots advocacy (see freemygrapes.ca), and MPs from the Liberal, NDP and the Green Party have spoken in its favour. At the time of writing, the Bill was headed to the Standing Committee for Finance to hear from experts about its pros and cons before moving to a third reading in the House of Commons. As one MP said, the Bill is “righting an age-old wrong and getting rid of an old anachronism that does not really apply in our time.” Is Canada’s wine industry finally shaking off a 90-year hangover?


Matthew Sullivan lives in Toronto. Besides writing about wine, he is a lawyer practicing public law, which helps pay the bar tab. His weekly wine column for Precedent Magazine can be found at www.lawandstyle.ca/shortcellar.

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