Anything to declare?

Gismondi’s Final Blend
by Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

Anthony Gismondi

You can strike another one off the calendar. Another year, that is. Did 2015 flash by in a blink or does it just feel that way because my email box seems as if it was overloaded with editors asking where is that copy?

My year began sensibly in Hawaii on a deserted beach in Maui. I’m not really a beach person but living in an insignificant Pacific Time zone in a world that never shuts down, I’m connected 24/7 to the world of wine. If it isn’t Europe all evening, it’s eastern Canada in the morning, and all the rest in between, so recharging has now become as important as anything. Best of all, it is time that allows you to think. That said, the whales and the turtles are a distant memory as 2016 approaches, and I can’t wait to get back.

Australia kicked off 2015 with an ambitious upbeat showing at the Vancouver Wine Festival. The almost futuristic showing of what’s really possible Down Under was inspiring. Translating that into new listings and change on store shelves is proving to be a much bigger challenge.

It’s interesting to consider that when North America was a wine world afterthought in the 1970s and 1980s, most every import producer was breaking down the doors of North American retailers trying to get their wine into the country. By the 1990s Canadian monopolies were a showcase for wines of place. Dozens and dozens of boutique Napa Valley producers dotted our shelves and they were vying with their contemporaries from Australia and New Zealand and Chile and Italy. It was a time of super-Tuscans, Chianti Classico, class-growth Bordeaux, countless Burgundy négociants and exciting new New World finds almost weekly. There was even hope for South Africa. It’s hard to believe but visiting a wine shop back then was a real thrill for what was the forerunner of a wine geek.

It’s a different wine milieu today. Big brands and big retailers rule the world. The lowest price, the highest margins (and the sweetest wines) drive the business and we are all the poorer for it. There was much jubilation when the U.S. wine market surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation two years ago. A lot was expected, or perhaps we should say was dreamed about, but what is really going on in the world’s number one wine market still lags far behind other countries in per-capita consumption.

In 2015 Shanken’s IMPACT Databank Review and Forecast for the US market noted slow growth especially among the on-trade environment where it is projecting “a tiny 0.2% increase by the end of this year, to a total volume of 321.7 million nine-liter cases. The 2015 volume increase represents the smallest increase since 1994 and after steadily increasing from 1994-2011, the per-capita wine consumption is projected to decline for the fourth consecutive year, as Americans bypass wine in favor of spirits, RTDs [ready to drink beverages] and cider.”

When you include bulk imports used for American brands (the equivalent of our Cellared in Canada or, more recently, International Canadian Blends) the domestic table wine category is projected to inch ahead in 2015. The report states “The primary growth driver in recent years has been Moscato, while on the import side double-digit gains continue to come from New Zealand wines, and on a much smaller scale, French rosé. Barefoot Cellars owned by Gallo is the “only brand with retail sales value exceeding $1 billion. Australia’s Yellow Tail leads all import labels comfortably by both value and volume.”

The numbers are somewhat shocking given it’s the age of the ‘Somm.’ Could it be natural wines and grower Champagne, just about all you read or hear about from sommeliers these days, are not on the radar of American wine consumers? If Hawaii restaurants are any indication the answer is a resounding no. But before we get too patriotic, it’s not much different here in Canada.

We have the provincial monopolies to thank for our shrinking selection. The changes are subtle, but as the expansion of big brand ‘facings’ (the number of bottles set side-by-side on a shelf) in liquor stores continues, each new facing spells the death of a boutique label likely produced in a legitimate appellation by a small family producer. In other words, every extra facing of Yellowtail, or Apothic or Sawmill Creek or Copper Moon means one less Rioja, or McLaren Vale Shiraz or Alto Maipo cabernet.

In March I attended ProWein. It turned out to be like a bowl of homemade chicken soup for the damaged wine soul. So much energy and so many great bottles and so few in Canadian stores. Like most foreign stops lately you learn that fewer and fewer family wineries are interested in dealing with the leviathan of rules and regulations that come with selling to Canada’s liquor monopolies. Between the regulations and the paperwork most say it’s no longer worth the effort to ‘maybe’ sell a single pallet of wine. And in another self–fulfilling way it’s not worth the monopoly’s time either. Bring on the sweet moscato and the sweet Prosecco and the critter labels and mega brands.

A better story is Canadian wine: production is up, sales are up, prices are up and the quality is up and all that is happening despite the best efforts of the country’s two largest markets, Ontario and Quebec, both of whom continue to block the sale of domestic wines made outside of their provincial boundaries.

Canadian vintners not exactly known for coming together to grow the market internationally may want to look to Adrian Bridge. Bridge is CEO of one of Portugal’s oldest and most important wine firms, the Fladgate Partnership, purveyors of several global brands led by Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca ports. Speaking at Spain’s Wine Vision 2015, Bridge was quoted in Drinks International as saying “The patchwork of different interests that exists in the world of wine often obscures our common areas of interest and gets in the way of cooperation and yet many of the significant challenges that are faced in the wine industry can be overcome by cooperation between competing producers, regions and even countries.”

Bridge speaks from experience revealing he has worked with Fladgate’s “archrivals/ competitors”, the Symington Group, holding joint port tastings. Bridge warned there are limits to what can be done but it is his view is that “The advantages of collaboration will generally outweigh the risks associated if the rules are clear and the parties look beyond their immediate goals and look to the medium and long term.”

Maybe 2016 is the year someone stops our quagmire that is Canadian wine politics, sidesteps the monopolies and brings together the industry under one banner. There is a sense the monopolies are on their last legs, not because of any reasoned or eloquent arguments that they should be terminated – and there are many – but rather like ancient Rome in the process of arrogantly trying to control everything to do with liquor they have finally upset Jack and Jill Citizen who think buying wine in a grocery store or a private wine shop is not the mortal sin it has been portrayed.

As I type this, Ontarians will have beer in 58 grocery stores by the end of the year. Ironically the folks who did all the work lobbying for grocery store wine sales will get nothing because according to government, the case for wine is far more complicated. Like BC, Ontario is learning grocery store wine sales are extremely complicated especially when you try to create a system that favours the home team and then try to implement it with special interest groups who are friends of government. An open market with a flat tax would eliminate all the problems, but then the only people who would benefit from that are consumers.

Somehow we will all survive in 2016 because Canadians will do what they have to do to buy interesting wine, even if a good portion of that will be illegal in the eyes of our goofball liquor laws that stretch from the Queen of England, to Ottawa to our photo-op obsessed provincial politicians. Consumers in Quebec and Ontario will continue to shop across provincial boundaries in search of bargains. British Columbian consumers and restaurants will continue to clean out Alberta wine shops and illegally ship their wine booty home, thumbing their nose at laws that make no sense and never have.

It’s tiresome to say the least, which has me wondering if I should go back to spending more time outside of the country in 2016. I have to say it is tempting. At WineAlign we spend an inordinate amount of time covering a lot of overtaxed dross bought and sold by the monopolies and I wonder whether we shouldn’t be going in another direction. It could be fun to report on the real wine world with tips on how to exploit the vast underworld of wine delivery needed to get those bottles into your homes.

I’m going to think about all this in Hawaii and get back to you soonest. Aloha, and Cheers to 2016.

 


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