Changing Canada’s liquor laws could save the wine industry… or at least help it thrive

By / Magazine / November 16th, 2016 / 17
Time for laws to evolve with the pace of the industry.

Granted, government generally moves rather slow. But with the evolution in Canada’s wine industry and the shifting culture around food and wine, it’s time to evolve the antiquated laws passed during prohibition and those designed to protect us from ourselves. Not all issues may relate to every province, but these are just a few of the changes I would like to see.

1. Transparency in labeling

The SAQ (Société des alcools du Quebec) recently began publishing the residual sugar levels in the wines it sells. Both the SAQ and LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) now include information on a wine’s sugar content on their websites.

The significance of this cannot be understated, particularly with the popularity and proliferation of sweet red wines in the market. Even if we ignore for a moment the discussion of whether these wines serve a valid purpose (personally and professionally, I don’t believe that they do), the issue is about transparency and the consumer having ready access to accurate information about the wines they are drinking. With the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in our society, the amount of sugar we consume should be a significant concern.

According to European standards, a wine is considered dry if it possesses not more than 4 grams per litre of residual sugar (equivalent of 1 teaspoon).

How much sugar is in the wines you are drinking? According to the SAQ website, Yellow Tail Shiraz contains 11 grams/litre of residual sugar (almost 3 teaspoons of sugar), Cupcake Red Velvet has 12 grams/litre and Apothic Red a whopping 17 grams/litre (you can do the math). Comparatively, the delicious, distinctive, easy-drinking and affordable Navarro-Lopez Old Vines Tempranillo Pergolas from Spain ($15) only contains 2.4 grams/litre. As is clearly evident, the argument for drinking sweet reds because they are less expensive than well-made quality wines is not accurate. And don’t even get me started on the marketing of sweet red wines which are clearly directed by their packaging and advertisements to the younger generation (I dare say not that different from the marketing tactics of the big tobacco companies from many years ago).

We are all concerned with the origins and ingredients of the food we consume. Shouldn’t that concern also extend to the wines we drink? It’s time that each provincial liquor board demands the inclusion of a wine’s sugar content as part of the information readily accessible to consumers. And federal labeling laws should be changed to include the information (including amount of calories) on wine labels alongside the alcohol percentage. If consumers still choose to drink the sugar-laden swill, that’s ultimately up to them, but the issue is of transparency, truth in labeling and misleading the public into thinking these wines are actually dry. With accurate information, as consumers, we can take greater responsibility for the wines we consume and the producers we support.

2. Relaxation of fencing around beer/wine gardens at events and festivals

Some provinces have already taken steps to relax the fencing requirements around beer/wine gardens at events and festivals, but every jurisdiction needs to move in this direction.

Some may think that keeping the drinkers segregated is safer, but it is actually counter-intuitive. Essentially, you are putting people in a confined area and telling them they’re not being let out until they finish drinking as much as they can. It encourages over-consumption and quick consumption. If you allow people to drink at their own pace while they are visiting food stands or enjoying the festival’s entertainment with their families, chances are there will be far fewer alcohol-related issues.

The Interstellar Rodeo music and wine festival in Edmonton is a great example. The entire venue is licensed; people are allowed to have a glass of wine in their seats, while they are eating at the food trucks or just hanging out with their families watching the musical artists perform. In the four years that the festival has been in existence, there has not been a single alcohol-related incident.

British Columbia recently relaxed its beer/wine garden fencing requirements. When asked what impact the changes have made, a spokesperson for the government indicated that overall, “whole-site licensing has made events more family-friendly, with fewer people being noticeably intoxicated. There have been less concerns regarding overcrowding in licensed areas, and the whole-site option has eliminated long lineups and allowed for more flexible site configuration options for festival organizers.” Sounds like a win-win.

I’m a firm believer that if you treat people like civilized human beings, they will act like civilized human beings, but if you treat them like caged-up animals, they will act like caged-up animals. That’s not to say that there won’t be exceptions, but it’s time the government stops over-parenting the majority for the actions of the exceptions. Treat the majority as responsible adults and penalize the abusers.

3. Interprovincial shipping

This is a no-brainer. The federal government removed barriers for the shipment of wine across provincial borders, but gave the discretion to the individual provinces. Legally, Canadian wineries can only ship direct to consumers outside of their province if the recipient is in a province allowing such shipments.

Shouldn’t we be encouraging inter-provincial commerce? Shouldn’t we be supporting our domestic industries?

Provincial liquor boards need to stop worrying about the pittance (literally) they may lose in tax revenue and look at the bigger picture of what’s actually most beneficial for the country as a whole and its citizens. Free my grapes indeed!


Editor-in-chief for Quench Magazine, Gurvinder Bhatia left a career practising law to pursue his passion for wine and food. Gurvinder is also the wine columnist for Global Television Edmonton, an international wine judge and the president of Vinomania Consulting. Gurvinder was the owner/founder of Vinomania wine boutique for over 20 years (opened in 1995, closed in 2016) which was recognized on numerous occasions as one of the 20 best wine stores in Canada. Gurvinder was the wine columnist for CBC Radio for 11 years and is certified by Vinitaly International in Verona Italy as an Italian Wine Expert, one of only 15 people currently in the world to have earned the designation. In 2015, Gurvinder was named by Alberta Venture Magazine as one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People. He is frequently asked to speak locally, nationally and internationally on a broad range of topics focussing on wine, food, business and community.

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