Winemakes to alter labels

Two of Canada's largest winemakers said Thursday they will change the labelling of their bulk import wines in response to a consumer backlash over the sale of them as B.C. wine.

They never intended to mislead consumers, John Peller, president of Andrew Peller Ltd. and Eric Morham, president of Vincor Canada, said in an exclusive interview with the editorial board of The Vancouver Sun. New label concepts are already in the works, they said.

"We've heard the feedback loud and clear," said Peller.

Further, they have been in discussion with the Liquor Distribution Branch to ensure the labelling and marketing of their bulk import wines clearly indicates they are not real B.C. wines.

The shift in labelling comes two weeks after The Vancouver Sun revealed the wines are not required by law to have even a drop of B.C. wine in them. The winery CEOs said the wines are brought into the country from Chile, California and other countries in 24,000-litre containers. They do have some domestic wine blended in, they said.

They account for 50 per cent of the volume of all Canadian wine sales.

At present, the wines are sold in the B.C. wines section of government liquor stores and identified as products of Canada. Small print on the back of the label, however, states they are imports that have only been "cellared" in Canada, meaning they have been blended and bottled here.

In a separate interview, Rich Coleman, minister responsible for the Liquor Distribution Branch, said the LDB is onside with the changes in marketing the wines.

"I have already told our guys to look at how it is displayed in the stores. It will be fixed."

Coleman said Vincor, which is an official Olympic supplier, told him its Cellared in Canada wines should be relabelled before the 2010 Games begin, a sensitive issue for both the government and the winery.

"I think you will see the marketing change," Coleman said.

Vincor's Morham estimated the changes should take about three to five months.

If regulatory issues slow the process down, the winemakers said they will voluntarily put the information on the front label.

Morham produced mock-up labels that Vincor is considering for its Sawmill Creek brand that state in large print on the front of the bottle the origin of the wine. One option states "International Canadian Blend." The other, "Cellared in Canada."

The major wineries are also considering a special Cellared in Canada logo to identify the product.

"There has never been any intention on any part of our companies to mislead consumers," said Peller. "We will take immediate steps to rectify and clarify the confusion because there has never been any intention on our parts to deceive.

"There's an opportunity to remove some of the misinformation and confusion and we will do it. I guarantee you. You have my word. Our goal is to label them open and honestly and be as absolutely transparent as one can be."

Morham said labelling was never considered significant on the bulk wines because consumers of Cellared in Canada wines are looking for consistency of taste and quality rather than place of origin, which is the main driver in the 100-per-cent B.C. wines.

"All of this has been a wake-up call for us. The value of what has happened to us is that clearly it has raised an issue where consumers have a concern and I think that it is our responsibility to try and be as transparent and forthcoming as possible.

'The honest-to-God truth is that we haven't been really focused on this. We haven't been trying to deceive people. We haven't been trying to mislead people. The simple truth is, it's not something we have talked about," Morham said.

The quick response to the bulk wine issue earned the two companies praise from wine drinkers.

Glenn MacCoubrey, of Surrey, had launched his own personal boycott of the wines after reading The Sun articles. He said he would go back to buying the products if they are clearly identified.

"I was not getting what I thought I was getting, which for a consumer is a no-no," he said.

MacCoubrey said that he was a loyal B.C. wine drinker who felt betrayed.

"It's like cheering for the Canucks. There's certain bragging rights an individual gets when you go out and you know you are ordering a B.C. wine.

"I am glad to see a quick response. It behooves them to straighten this out before the Olympics."

Vancouver lawyer Al Hudec, a wine lover who follows the B.C. industry closely, said the major companies had a lot to lose by not acting quickly.

"I applaud it. I really applaud it," he said of the pledges to relabel the wines.

"When consumers focused on it, I think they were offended by the confusion."