A Momentous Month of May for Ontario wine

The Ontario Wine Report
by David Lawrason

The month opened with a bang! On May 1st the LCBO’s 90-year grip on wine retailing loosened when it became legal to sell VQA wines in over 100 farmer’s markets. The next day, on May 2nd a provincial election was called for June 12. On May 6th the Wine Council of Ontario launched a social media and radio advertising campaign to put private wine stores on the electoral agenda. Not that it has succeeded in that directly, but the momentum continues. And finally, to keep us focused on what’s in the bottle as opposed to how to buy it, we bring you news of three new varietal releases never before seen in Ontario. Curious?

VQA Wine Sales at Farmers Markets

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

On Saturday May 3rd at farmer’s markets across Ontario – and at Prince Edward County’s annual Terroir Festival – wine was allowed to be sold over the table, or hay bale, for the first time. No longer were winemakers left in the infuriating and embarrassing position of having to say “sorry, you can only buy it at the winery but we could deliver you a case (that you probably can’t afford to buy)”. They could sell a single bottle right there and then, and process the payment in cash, or with those new credit card chip readers that plug right into smart phones. The world is a wondrous place!

No need to go deep into the history of wine in farmers markets in Ontario. For years wineries and wine consumers had thought it a good measure to help local wineries, but timid politicos did not. It was announced about a year ago, not long after Kathleen Wynne was placed as premier of the province, that the two-year pilot project would proceed, along with an LCBO experiment to put ten express kiosks in supermarkets, perhaps to mollify the importers who could not sell in farmers markets. Both are fairly safe, feel-good baby steps by politicians who know that wider availability is very popular among consumers, but that outright privatization of the LCBO is still a hot button union and motherhood issue that no politician would dare risk in an election – Timid Hudak included (see below).

There are of course myriad regulations to which wineries must adhere before showing up at 6am at farmers markets. The silliest is that wine must leave the winery the day of the market, and unsold bottles must be returned to the winery the same day. Given that many of the markets are hours from producing regions in Lake Erie, Niagara and Prince Edward County, this measure – ostensibly to enforce “locality” – is very limiting to the expansion of distribution and education of consumers across the province, especially in the north. And I feel badly for weary winery reps driving through the darkness when they would be much safer in local hotels.

What’s a remarkably good idea however, is that wines can be sampled at the markets beginning at 8am, which is three hours before the hour at which it was once legal to begin serving in Ontario. But I can see pubs and bars lining up to challenge this precedent. As they should. There is no question that farmers markets create several precedents and open up other arguments for liberalization of all retail wine sales. That is the real significance of farmers’ market initiatives, as well as implanting the notion in consumer’s minds that wine is a natural, agricultural food product. A cultural shift is underway, making a political shift inevitable too.

Ontario’s Wine Council Pushes Privatization, Again

Last year, you may recall, the Wine Council of Ontario launched an engaging on-line and social media campaign at www.MyWineShop.ca to promote the idea of private wine shops in Ontario. In an unexpected display of courage and smarts, they argued that private shops should sell both Ontario and imported wine. MyWineShops generated a lot of mainstream media discussion around the issue and yes, even PC leader Tim Hudak, was openly talking about some degree of privatization of the LCBO.

Fast forward to May 6, 2014. A provincial election had been called three days earlier. And along comes the Wine Council with a follow-up social media and radio campaign to lobby for privatization. It is slick and timely. You can check it out at www.pairsperfectly.com, (a name I find too obtuse). But the program does pick up the baton by encouraging consumers to contact their local MPPs during the election campaign.


Within two days of the launch however PC leader Tim Hudak announced that he was not making LCBO privatization a campaign issue, having “bigger fish to fry”. He had just announced a plan to reduce the public sector by 10% and create one million private sector jobs. Transferring about 3,600 full-time and over 4,000 part-time jobs at the LCBO to private retailing (and increasing the number of jobs at the same time) fits this objective like a glove. But of course there are many other emotional and social issues in the privatization discussion.

For the past 30 years provincial leaders have always shied away from this debate at election time – not because there are “bigger fish to fry” but perhaps because it’s actually a whale of an issue. There is virtually no topic that is more politicized and more divisive, or in one sense more tangible. It’s my view that politicians can’t afford to take a stand during an election campaign. Much better to get elected first, hopefully with a majority, then make the moves mid-term. Which is what I expect will happen here, whether Hudak or Wynne are elected. The union-backed NDP won’t touch it.

When I spoke recently with Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario, she said the Pairs Perfectly program has been brought to the attention of MPPs in 88 ridings, and heard by tens of thousands through the radio campaign. She said it will continue past the election and had not been prepared specifically as an election program, although she did say “I am glad we were ready when the election was called”.

She is more concerned about being heard by and perhaps influencing an LCBO review process now underway headed by Ed Clark, president and CEO of TD Bank Group. He leads a blue ribbon panel investigating ways to maximize the value of several crown corporations and will report later this year. But even if that does not yield results, she is satisfied that the tone and depth of the ideas in the campaigns are receiving very positive attention from government and consumers.

“The long term goal is to present a sensible vision of a system that offers more choice and selection. Consumers are not happy with the status quo in this regard” she said.

And whatever happens, the public and political discussion of privatization has never been as prominent as it is now. And it won’t go away. One might hope that Ontario follows the Alberta strategy of overnite, outright privatization, but I don’t think that will happen in Ontario. There will be a gradual unravelling, as we are now witnessing with the arrival of wine sales in farmers markets.

Stratus Unveils New Varietals for Niagara

Stratus tastingWith all the discussion around wine politics this month, it is almost refreshing to get back to what’s new in the bottle. On May 25th Stratus winemaker JL Groux surprised a group of local pundits by presenting three new varietal wines he says have never before been commercialized in Ontario – sangiovese, tempranillo and tannat. It happened during Stratus’ annual spring media launch at Momofuku/Daisho at the Shangi-La Hotel in downtown Toronto.

Stratus, as you may be aware, was founded on the idea of making one white and one red based blend from the many varieties planted on its 50+ acre site in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But given the number of single varietal wines presented this day, including three new ones, it is obvious that JL Groux is equally fascinated by pushing the boundaries and experimenting in Niagara.

“I am so happy we have a free hand to try these things” said Groux, a Loire-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker first hired by Hillebrand in the early nineties. “It is not the reason I came to Ontario to make wine, but it is the reason I stayed”. Stratus has adopted a slogan “The Right to Free Assemblage” that picks up neatly on this theme.

A tasting with one of the most experienced winemakers in Niagara always reveals interesting observations about Niagara itself. In discussing his three new red varietals – all made in the warm 2010 vintage from small plots of vines planted in 2006 – he indicated that all three “new varieties” have a viable future in Niagara.

“They are varieties that we can pick fairly early – even earlier than the cabernet varieties. Niagara is warm enough” he said. Later he went on to say that some cool years like 2011 make the Bordeaux varieties a difficult proposition in Ontario, so difficult that he decided not to make a 2011 Stratus Red.

Stratus grapesI was impressed by the varietal authenticity of three newcomers, although all three lacked some depth due their young vine provenance. The sangiovese captured the same sinew that gives Chianti its nerve, and nicely replicated the red currant, herbal, slightly meaty/leathery aromatics. The tempranillo also caught this Spanish grape’s, softer and fruitier side, although I found the balance awkward and oak heavy. The tannat – which is the deeply coloured tannic grape that flourishes in southwest France and Uruguay – was the most pleasant surprise – deeply toned, firm, elegant and cellar-worthy. “I will be planting more tannat” said JL Groux.

The downside to the experiment is the pricing – with all three lined up at $42 a bottle. Stratus has always pushed the upper limit on pricing and for the most part wine quality has been good enough to be a legitimate factor in the calculation. With these three experiments however, only one – the tannat – might tempt at $40. I have always had a problem with wineries overcharging for their experiments, just because experiments have cachet – and that is my take here as well.

Stratus Sangiovese 2010

Stratus Tempranillo 2010

Stratus Tannat 2010

Among other Stratus wines tasted this day, I was very impressed by the classic whites – Semillon 2011, Chardonnay 2012 and Gewurztraminer 2012.

And that’s a wrap for this edition. Watch for our next Ontario Wine Report toward the end of June by Sara d’Amato that will focus on new releases from Prince Edward County. We have tasted a ton in recent weeks. And don’t miss the Niagara New Vintage Festival coming up June 14 to 22. Check out the events at http://www.niagarawinefestival.com.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Photos: Stratus Vineyards on Facebook