Okanagan wineries send message in bottles

A parade of tractors made their way from the Naramata Bench to MLA Dan Ashton’s office, one of them holding aloft a case of wine.

David Enns of Laughing Stock Vineyards leads a convoy of tractors from the wineries of Naramata Bench through Penticton to MLA Dan Ashton’s office

David Enns of Laughing Stock Vineyards leads a convoy of tractors from the wineries of Naramata Bench through Penticton to MLA Dan Ashton’s office

All along Westminster Avenue Thursday morning, people were stopping to watch as a parade of tractors made their way from the Naramata Bench to MLA Dan Ashton’s office in Riverside Plaza, one of them holding aloft a case of wine.

The wine was a gift, not for Ashton, but for him to pass on to B.C. premier Christy Clark, who is to take it to the July 24 Premier’s conference at Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont.

“This is our Best of the Bench collection and our hope is we can get Premier Christy Clark to pass this on to the other provincial premiers at the upcoming Council of the Federation,” said Miranda Halladay of Elephant Island Winery.

It seems Clark is going to have a lot of wine to pass around at the conference. Besides the dozen bottles from Naramata wineries, Clark already had four bottles she planned to give to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Clark will be breaking Ontario law in order to get them there, though. Despite the federal government dropping regulations preventing the shipment of wine between provinces a year ago, only B.C. and Manitoba have relaxed their provincial laws.

That, said Halladay, was the purpose of the tractor parade and the gift, to attract attention to how little has changed since Bill C-311 was passed in June 2012.

“I think most Canadians don’t know this is something illegal and it is something so simple, from our perspective, to change,” she said. The ability to ship wines anywhere in Canada would be a huge boost for the many small- to medium-size wineries along the bench and throughout the South Okanagan, few of which produce wines achieving national distribution.

“Because we are small, a small opportunity is a big opportunity for us. It was something that needed to be addressed,” said Halladay, who thinks the resistance comes from retailers and provincial monopolies fearing opening borders will cut into their business.

It doesn’t come as a surprise for Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas, who sponsored C-311 as a private member’s bill. There were indications of resistance to change from groups like the Liquor Control Board of Ontario even as the bill was going through committee, he said.

“It’s not overly surprising to see there is still a general reluctance from some of these liquor monopolies. I believe firmly this is a case where it is going to take political leadership,” said Albas, who said the wine trade is already on the agenda for the premiers’ conference. Clark told Albas she plans to call on both Premier Wynne and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois to open their borders to the free movement of wines.

“I feel good knowing the federal government is doing what it can to see it on the agenda, but also to see our very own premier asking her colleagues, premier to premier, to see the value in the Canadian wine industry,” said Albas.

It’s also good news to Cynthia Enns of Laughing Stock Winery. She thinks part of the slowness to change is because the LCBO lacks motivation; Ontario wineries can ship to B.C., but not the reverse.

“Those are your two main wine regions, so if we are okay with having Ontario wineries shipping, why aren’t they okay with B.C. wines?” said Enns.