Local Wineries Look to Farmers' Markets

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross

Premier Kathleen Wynne's recent talk about loosening up Ontario's strict booze rules has local wineries hoping they'll soon be selling their bottles at area farmers' markets.

Wynne commented during an interview last week with CTV News that "small wineries, being able to sell in farmers' markets," is one idea being discussed now to help Ontario's wineries, hampered by antiquated rules that restricts them to selling their wine only at the winery, restaurants and the LCBO.

"I hope that by next spring, when the markets are up and running again, we'll actually be able to sell our wines at the farmers' markets," Tom O'Brien, president Essex Pelee Island Coast Wine Country, said Friday in response to Wynne's remarks as well as other positive government signals, which he believes confirms the government's growing recognition that the wine industry is an important contributor to the economy and tourism.

"I think it would add to a huge tourism draw if we have upscale farmers' markets with the produce we grow in Essex County and the wines that we have here," said O'Brien, who owns Cooper's Hawk Vineyards, one of about 17 area wineries, most of which are located close to the Lake Erie shore.

Steve Green, manager of Windsor's Downtown Farmers' Market, said it would be fantastic if wineries could set up booths and sell their product at farmers' markets. "To be able to say: 'I want to pick up what I need for my meal, and a bottle of wine too,' all you're doing is putting icing on the cake."

As a consumer, he knows one of the obstructions discouraging him from buying local wines is having to drive out to the county to get them, he said.

"Any time you loosen the rules for producers, such as a winery, to sell their produce in the local market, that can only be a great thing."

Wynne and her government aren't going to allow the sale of wine and beer in corner stores.

But a spokeswoman for Finance Minister Charles Sousa said they are looking at other ways to increase access to Ontario wines.

At the top of the list, said Susie Heath, is the opening of Our Wine Country boutiques inside LCBO stores and featuring up to 500 Ontario wines. The first three opened this month in the midst of the Niagara wine region (in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls) and in Windsor at Lauzon Parkway and Tecumseh Road East.

O'Brien said the new boutique stores are impressive with a beautiful layout and about 360 Ontario wines at the Windsor store.

They take smaller shipments than the regular LCBO stores, meaning they can stock wine from small producers like Cooper's Hawk, which produces only about 4,000 cases a year.

"It's a big, big support," he said of the new boutique stores, recalling last week holding a tasting and selling 60 bottles.

But O'Brien said there are still plenty of impediments to the industry that need loosening

up. When a winery sets up at a big wine show, offering samples to wine lovers in cities throughout the province, it's not allowed to sell bottles.

"We could sell a huge amount of wine (at these shows) because consumers will be ready to buy a bottle of wine when they taste it, a week later, they're not going to do it," said O'Brien.

And then there's the LCBO markup.

O'Brien said on a $16 bottle he sells at his winery, he gets to keep $11.50, but if it's sold at the LCBO, he keeps only $7.Another peculiar rule allows wineries to sell wine by the glass, but forbids them selling a bottle if the customer's going to drink it on site.

"The basic premise of these 40-year-old laws is the drinkers of Ontario are irresponsible people," said O'Brien, and now the government is realizing the wine industry has responsible customers and responsible people running things.

Sousa's spokeswoman Heath said the government's always looking for ways to support Ontario wine, which is why it has created the Our Wine Country boutiques.

"And we'll continue to look for ideas to increase access."