Sale of cheap imports as B.C. wines called `scandalous'

VANCOUVER - Low-cost bulk wines from California to South Africa are being sold in Canadian liquor stores as B.C. wines, uncorking howls of protest from wine lovers at home and abroad.

 

It's a controversy about a labelling strategy being used by this country's three biggest winemakers in consultation with federal and provincial governments.

The wines are displayed as if they were domestic products, identifying their country of origin as Canada. However, none of the wines need to contain a single drop of Canadian-made wine.

The practice is catching the eyes of critics in this country and internationally.

A sharply critical article in the influential news magazine The Economist this month was headed: ``Blended Deceit from the Nanny State.''

Meanwhile, Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading wine writers, was also critical in her blog: ``It's just so difficult to take Canadian producers seriously when they are allowed to mislead the wine-buying public to this extent,'' she said.

The low-cost brands are actually the only wines The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch offers in the B.C. section of liquor stores, selling for less than real homegrown wines.

Consumers have to be savvy enough to ignore the displays and head for wines identified by the VQA symbol (Vintners Quality Alliance) - in the `BC VQA' section - to get real B.C. wine.

Only a keen-eyed consumer can tell the difference, said David Bond, executive director of the Association of Wine Growers of British Columbia.

``They are getting a free ride off the reputation everyone else has developed,'' Bond said.

His association's members include some of the province's best estate winemakers.

``They are selling it in the B.C. wine section and it's atrocious. I think it's scandalous,'' he said.

``This is a very calculated form of consumer deception.''

There are about a dozen brand names, from Peller Estates Proprietor's Reserve and Jackson-Triggs Proprietors' Selection, which sell for $9, to Wild Horse Canyon, at $13. All are made by divisions of Mission Hill, Andrew Peller Ltd. and Vincor International Ltd., owner of the Jackson-Triggs label. The three are the country's largest wine companies.

Careful reading of the fine print at the very bottom of the back label shows that they are not B.C. wines at all.

All say: ``Cellared in Canada from domestic and imported grapes.'' Only Mission Hill's more costly Wild Horse Canyon separates itself by stating on the front label that it is made from California, Washington and British Columbia wines.

None of them need to contain any B.C. wine, according to the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. They just have to be bottled in B.C.

And none of them likely do have any B.C. content, said B.C. wine writer Anthony Gismondi.

``Why would they? The grapes would be more expensive.''

The Cellared in Canada issue is one the three winemakers and the Liquor Distribution Branch are sensitive about.

The branch would only explain its policy by e-mail in response to specific questions. Labelling is a federal responsibility, the e-mail stated.

``Wines that are bottled by British Columbia wineries that have imported content are shelved in the `BC Wine' sections of LDB stores,'' the LDB e-mail stated.

``There is no British Columbia grape content requirement for these wines and wineries are able to make their own blending decisions.

``British Columbia VQA wines, which are made from 100 per cent British Columbia grapes, are shelved in the `BC VQA' sections of LDB stores.''

Rich Coleman, B.C.'s minister responsible for the Liquor Distribution Branch, said he was not aware of the practice and intended to look into both the labelling of the wine and the way it is displayed in B.C. liquor stores.

``I never had a problem when we would bring in juice and then ferment it into wine in British Columbia. But if they are actually bringing in wine and re- bottling it and it's already been made somewhere else and they are just re- bottling it, then that sounds a bit odd to me.''

He said he intends to raise the issue with Liquor Distribution Branch president Jay Chambers on Monday.

``So it's where it's actually displayed on the shelf that's the issue,'' he said. ``That I can look into and I will do.''

At Vancouver's Alberni Street liquor store, newlywed Americans Lindsey and Michael Rankin ran into problems as they tried to buy some B.C. wine while on their honeymoon.

They said their confidence in the province's viticultural achievements was shaken when they learned a bottle of Peller Estates wine they were eyeing was actually a bulk wine, likely from their own state of California.

``If it says B.C. wine, you would expect it to be local,'' said Michael Rankin, referring to the British Columbia identifier above the wines. The LDB identifies it with a red maple leaf, meaning, according a consumer aid sign, it is a wine originating in Canada.

Lindsey, the wine-lover of the two, said she read the description on the back label but would not have picked up the fine print identifying it as imported.

``If I read that before, I would have gone straight to the imports section and bought a wine I know something about,'' she said.