To BC wine or not to BC wine...

Consumers are reacting with anger and confusion over revelations that imported bulk wine is being labeled and sold as B.C. wine.

"Customers want the real thing. They don't want a faux B.C. wine," said John Clerides, owner of the private wine store Marquis Wine Cellars over the growing consumer reaction against wines being sold in B.C. liquor stores with the "Cellared in Canada" designation.

He said his store receives four or five queries a day from customers in response to growing media attention being focussed on the practices of the Canadian wine industry. Clerides sells one of the wines but tells customers to put on their glasses and read the label before buying it.

"Cellared in Canada" appears in fine print on the back label of some of the wines sold by the big three Canadian winemakers, Vincor International, owner of the Jackson-Triggs label, Andrew Peller Ltd., owner of Peller Estates and the Mark Anthony Group, owner of the Artisan Wine Group and its Sonora Ranch and Painted Turtle brands.

Other wines, often with similar labels but at a higher price, are genuine B.C. wines. All three winery businesses buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. Wines section of government liquor stores.

Some private stores sell the wines as well; others refuse to touch them.

"I would say customers are dumbfounded. I think there's a sense that they have been lied to," said Matthew Sherlock, manager of Kitsilano Wine Cellars. Sherlock does not stock the wines in his store.

Suzanne Mick, co-owner of Discover Wines in Kelowna, said customers frequently accuse the store of marking up wines up too much when they see what they believe is an identical product in a government store selling for less money.

She said she risks losing customers by telling them they are not reading the entire label.

One wine says "Cellared in Canada" indicating it is a bulk wine while the other, in her store, is a genuine B.C. wine.

Simon Fraser University marketing expert Lindsay Meredith said customers and wineries that produce only B.C. wines have every right to feel they are being deceived. Meredith said both the wineries involved and the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch appear to be marketing and selling a product in a manner that is misleading.

It could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act, he said. At the very least it's unethical.

"The clearest test of any ethical issue in marketing is: Are they advertising the information which may be sensitive in the same font size that they are advertising the regular information.

"If they are not, that's probably your biggest give-away that somebody's breaking what we call 'The Sunshine Rule.' That means you are up to something that you prefer not to be out in the full light of day for people to see," he said.

"Do consumers have a right to be annoyed? You're damn right they do. And it's certainly doing no long-term good for the B.C. wineries because these other products are undercutting wines that are actually vinted in British Columbia fair and square. The price points are coming in so much lower but the consumer thinks it is a B.C. product," Meredith said.

Some of the wines are identified only by a post office box.

Artisan Wines, an affiliate of the upscale Mission Hills winery, for example, has an address on its bottles of PO Box 474 Oliver for its Sonora Ranch and Painted Turtle brands.

"If they have a winery there, they have certainly hidden it well," said David Bond, of the Association of B.C. Wine Growers.

Rich Coleman, minister responsible for the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch was not available Tuesday to comment on the issue, However, last week he said the selling bulk imported wines as B.C. wines "seems a bit odd to me."