A concise and thought-provoking article by Master Sommelier John Szabo over on WineAlign has certainly opened up the floodgates for people to call into question the legitimacy, fairness, and overall relevance of the current Vintners Quality Alliance or VQA system.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the organisation has fallen foul of certain contingents of the winemaking/drinking community. Having Szabo shine an informed (and calculated) light onto this much-misunderstood facet of Canadian wine regulation is like a breath of fresh air.
These conversations simply need to be had, as currently we find ourselves stuck in a bureaucratic/political rut akin to a knot of vipers, that is in my mind acutely impacting the evolution of winemaking culture throughout Ontario.
We sat down for a chat with proud Prince Edward County Winemaker, Bruno Francois of The Old Third to speak about his recent run in with the VQA, and the reason for this particular bone of contention betwixt the two may surprise you…
Good Food Revolution: Hello there Bruno. Great to see you again. We are here to talk about a little run-in that you just had with the VQA.
Just to put things into context for our readers, would you mind breaking down exactly why The Old Third has chosen not to be part of the VQA?
Bruno Francois: Hello Jamie, Great to be here and talk a little about my view of the wine world and our run-in with the VQA ‘words police’. However, the issue is deeper than just Kafkaesque bureaucracy. It goes straight to the heart of what role, I believe, VQA should play
Before I answer this, I will get back to your questions. Why have we chosen not to be a member of VQA? There are a number of reasons, but the most important I believe that it is the consumer who ultimately decides if the wine is good or not and most importantly if it is worth the price it commands. And the consumer WILL decide this despite what VQA has to say about a wine.
We have very high customer loyalty and a great connection with them. I am proud to say many have become our friends. However, we would have long since dried up and disappeared, like the rains in August, if our wine was junk. No one would buy it. VQA needs to realize that wine buyers are savvy. They figure out which wines they want and do not take much heed in a little gold VQA logo.
Secondly, despite their huffing and puffing to the contrary, I can tell you that many exciting wines are wrongly rejected and that word on the ‘street’ is that all they want are bland, characterless wines which have been filtered and fined to within an inch of its life. These first two points are beautifully explained by John Szabo in his Wine Align article.
Which all brings me to my third point, their so-called guarantee of authenticity. A guarantee that is essentially worthless. With all the time VQA spends worrying over labels and website semantics, I wonder how many of them take the time to drive down from Toronto and walk the vineyards, pre-harvest, to estimate fruit charge. Lets be fair, any time during the summer even. How else can we possibly guarantee origin? This way a winery who declares 20 tons of pinot noir at harvest actually had an amount reasonably close to 20 tons hanging on the vines in question. Even this is no guarantee, but at least it is a start. The only VQA employee’s I ever see are the one who arrive in the tasting room, unannounced, to check my labels for compliance.
Really, there is only one solid reason to join VQA. Money. It costs money to join and test wines, true. Stupidly high fees, in fact, but the tax break Ontario gives to VQA wines sold to restaurants can make it worthwhile. This is where the other bull in the china shop makes an appearance, namely, the dark angel of Ontario. The LCBO. VQA, it can be argued, exists solely because Ontario gives wineries a tax break who sell VQA wines. And when I say ‘tax break’ what I really mean is ‘usury tax break’.
How many wineries would bother to be VQA members otherwise?
This is Ontario’s dirty little secret. If I want to sell a bottle of wine produced from 100% Ontario grapes to a restaurant, I can’t. Not directly. Not technically. This is LCBO territory and like the mob, they hold aggressively to this monopoly with an iron fist. What I have is an authorization which allows me to sell to restaurants on the behalf of LCBO. The scam is as follows: I get a call from a restaurant who wants a bottle at $40 all tax included. I ship it to them direct and they have it the next day, happily doubling or tripling my price. The restauranteur pays me $40. Then, I write a check to the federal government for HST collected. So far all good and fine. But then, like the good patsy I am, I write out a nice fat cheque to the LCBO for $15.51 ($15 of which comprises their healthy LCBO Mark-up and LCBO Wine Levy. Out on a $40 sale, I get to keep $21.51, and the LCBO walks away flush with my cash having done zero work.
To be clear, I am not talking about the normal tax on wine. We all can agree that they are necessary. This is pure unadulterated theft. Wine regulations in Ontario allow the LCBO to take what is not theirs by charging a markup on wine they did not sell, transport or store.
For VQA wines, the $15.51 LCBO fee drops to $5.00. So, herein lies the real reason why VQA exists in Ontario. It mitigates the rape by LCBO thugs on wine sold to licensees. What a racket.
GFR: And have you ever attempted to have any of your wines VQA approved? Out of interest, how do you feel they would fair against the tasting panel?
BF: For the reasons above, I cannot bring myself to play this game and pretend VQA is relevant. So we have never submitted any wines for VQA approval nor attempted to join VQA.
Do I believe my wines would be approved? Yes, definitely. Although some of my wines could fail for stylistic reasons. I regularly make a white wine from pinot noir by gently pressing the berries to extract a juice with little to no skin contact. The panel could easily say it is atypical for pinot noir. With regards to faults, I am perfectly capable of judging whether my wines are faulty with excessive volatility, oxidized or without merit. I would never sell a wine I was not proud of.
GFR: So, let me get this straight. Your wines are all non-VQA, and all of your wine labelling is compliant as per the VQA’s demands?
BF: Yes I am proudly 100% non-VQA and I comply with VQA label standards which can basically be summed up as, “Don’t put Prince Edward County on your label”. We don’t and never have.
GFR: I’m glad you saw John Szabo’s thought provoking piece on Wine Align. I felt that it was truly excellent and drew attention to the fact that the VQA has to evolve, and fast!
BF: I most certainly did read the article and agree with what he so eloquently explains. This is no longer the 80’s when Canadian wine was mostly good for cleaning floors. VQA was created to help the industry learn to tie their laces. Now it is time for them to get out of our way.
GFR: So, with that in mind, what’s this little issue that has popped up recently regarding your use of the term Prince Edward County?
BF: Yesterday, we received a terse email from a VQA ‘Compliance and Information Officer’ who, citing provincial regulations, basically told us to stop using the term ‘Prince Edward County’ on our website intro page. Specifically, they didn’t like “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County” and helpfully suggested we replace Prince Edward County with “local”, or “Canada.” My vineyard and winery is located right in the middle of Prince Edward County, and all my wines are made from grapes grown in my rocky soil. So it is quite nervy of them to demand me to stop saying this. We do not believe they have the right to dictate beyond the wine label.
GFR: Hmmmmm, I have to say that this all sounds a bit ridiculous to me. How do you plan to move forward with this?
BF: We have received interest from constitutional and regulatory lawyers but this is early days. For now we will circle the wagons and hunker down.
GFR: Well, we wish you all the best of luck with everything there… and I do hope that you’ll keep us up-to-date on what transpires.
BF: Thank you, Jamie. I certainly will keep you abreast.
On a cheerier note, I believe that your vineyards are all looking pretty good this year?
BF: Yes, this winter has so far been quite mild. Though we always bury a good fruiting cane with the trunk for insurance reasons, it looks like all the areal buds have survived. Perhaps a great vintage is ahead?
GFR:Fingers crossed, Bruno! And, VQA nonsense aside, what do the two of you have planned for 2016 at The Old Third?
BF: We will be releasing our 2014 pinot noir and cabernet franc (non-VQA of course) and continue to sell our traditional method cider.
GFR: Superb. We look forward to sharing a few glasses with you in the near future. Thanks for your time, Bruno!
BF: Thank you, Jamie, for giving me some of your time. You are always welcome at The Old Third Vineyard. Cheers!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he apologises for the typos earlier… he’s at the tail end of an awful bug.