By: Catherine Porter
If Bert Andrews gets his way, you’ll be able to pick up a bottle of white currant wine to complement that free-range chicken you buy at a farmers’ market next spring.
Andrews is among a group of farmers and vintners lobbying the province to let them sell fruit wines alongside their vegetables at farmers’ markets as a way to expand their small sales and give them some of the advantages enjoyed by their big brothers, the grape wineries. It’s also a perfect fit for the growing local food movement.
“You don’t get more local than this,” says Andrews, scrawling the date on boxes of blackcurrant wine made on his fruit/vegetable farm near Milton. “There’s an LCBO in every small town throughout the province, and most of the wine they sell comes from foreign countries.”
But the idea has got caught in the gears of Queen’s Park bureaucracy. It’s been under “active consideration” for more than a year by the perplexity of ministers who have a stake in the issue, but no ultimate command. In letters, they cite concerns about everything from international trade barriers to potential Liquor Control Board losses and the possibility farmers would sell their booze to underage kids.
For fruit wine makers, it’s the last in a long chain of slights from a government that sees grape wine as a high-brow industry deserving of promotion while dismissing fruit wine – which has a venerable tradition in Europe – as plonk.
“They think fruit wine is something their grandma brings out from the kitchen cupboard,” says Jim Warren, executive director of Fruit Wines of Ontario, a non-profit association representing 15 of Ontario’s 20 fruit wineries.
The smellS of bubbling blackberries and warm apples waft from the doors of Andrews’ two barns. The first barn houses his farm market, where – beyond the tables loaded with squash and pumpkins – apple pies bake in a giant oven. One barn over, a vat of blackberry wine is being filtered and bottled. This is Andrews’ Scotch Block winery, where he sells 35 different types of wine. The front half serves as the winery’s store, while the back half is crowded with vast steel vats, which today are loaded with different fruits – red currants, raspberries, gooseberries. Four people squeeze between them as they bottle one of their best-sellers – the Black Currant Cassis.
Scotch Block, like most Ontario fruit wineries, is a cottage industry. Andrews opened it eight years ago to help draw customers to his pick-your-own farm, and as a way to keep day-old and blemished fruit from going to waste.
A stumbling block for fruit wine makers is the perception that their products are invariably sweet. While there are dessert varieties, fruit vintners have long been creating drier wines meant to be sipped like merlot or chardonnay over dinner. “From the beginning,” says Andrews, “we went two ways – making a drier version and dessert style.”
The truth is, there’s more natural sugar in grapes than fruits such as raspberries and apples that can be made into wine. Fruit vintners have to add sugar – the yeast eats sugar to produce alcohol. They usually have to add water too, as most fruits don’t produce as much liquid as grapes – another reason why many say fruit wines are more challenging to make.
“Specific varieties of grapes were bred 5,000 year ago to make wine from, whereas almost all fruit that goes into fruit wine was originally bred to eat on a table,” says Bill Redelmeier, chair of Fruit Wines of Canada and owner of Vaughan-based Southbrook Winery, where he makes both grape and fruit wines – two of the latter have won the gold prize at the world’s premier London International Wine Fair.
It’s often more expensive to make, too. Compare the prices of a pint of grapes and one of blackberries at the supermarket, and you’ll get an idea.
Another problem is access to potential customers. Andrews has tried to get it into the LCBO, but the government-mandated margins are so slim – fruit wine makers and non-Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) grape wine producers get about 40 per cent of the LCBO price).
You have to search around an LCBO outlet to find bottles of Ontario fruit wine. Often, they’re way in a back corner – past the displays of VQA wines – tucked on a shelf of “dessert wines” or next to the vermouth. The LCBO stocks only “four or five” varieties of Ontario fruit wine, compared to the more than 300 of Ontario grape wines, says spokesman Chris Layton.
It’s reflective of public demand, he explains. “We can’t very well take shelf space from a product that would be a much bigger seller.”
It also reflects the size of the industry. The 20 fruit wineries in the province moved only $2.2 million worth of product last year, compared to the $159 million sold by Ontario’s 111 grape wineries.
But, they haven’t received the tender care the Ontario government has bestowed upon the grape industry to help it grow.
Since Canada signed the Free Trade Agreement, the Ontario government has shaped and promoted the provincial grape wine industry. To help create a world-class wine region, where chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon would wipe out bad memories of Spumante Bambino, the government funded wineries to rip out the old Ontario grape vines and replace them with European varieties.
The province has even created a “wine secretariat” overseen by the tourism minister. Last year, it announced another $20 million to promote and increase sales, but of grape wines only.
“It totally stinks and sucks,” says Gerald Goertz, owner of the Sunnybrook Farm Estate Winery. “We pay all the same taxes. We’d like the same privileges.”
While grape wineries get a 30-per-cent rebate for selling VQA wines to the LCBO, making the government pricing formula less punishing, fruit wineries don’t. VQA producers can sell directly to restaurants as if they were selling off their farm – meaning no LCBO fees. Not so for fruit wineries, despite the fact they pay the same licensing fees.
“Fruit wineries are working at a competitive disadvantage,” says Warren, former owner of Stoney Ridge Winery and now a consultant to wineries and a viticulture professor at Niagara College. “Since 1993, we’ve had many wineries open with talented, educated people making world-class fruit wines, and we can’t seem to get the government to understand that.”
To try and get their just desserts, Fruit Wines of Canada released the “quality certified” (QC) standard a few years ago. Modelled on VQA, it has set out to legitimize the industry by monitoring everything from alcohol content and production methods to labelling and taste – giving its mark to only the best, as determined by a tasting panel. But that hasn’t helped, Redelmeier says. “We’re not big enough to scream loudly enough.”
It’s not just a victim story, he concedes. Every year, the grape wine industry spends millions to promote itself. Every member of the Ontario Wine Council – the grape wineries’ industry association – pays $7,000 in annual membership. “Yet, we tried to raise the fee of Fruit Wines of Ontario to $500, and everyone shouted us down,” Redelmeier says, adding that its budget is a paltry $15,000.
“It’s become a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If we’re going to be successful, we’ve got to spend the money.”
That’s exactly what fruit wineries are now doing.
Two months ago, Fruit Wines of Ontario hired a lobbyist to work the halls of Queen’s Park and promote the idea of sales at seasonal farme
rs’ markets. The association cites New Brunswick, New York and Iowa, which allow the practice. The list of supporters is long and impressive – including everyone from Ontario Farm Minister Leona Dombrowsky and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which sees the idea as another lifeline for the industry, to Farmers’ Markets Ontario, which believes it would be an added enticement to customers.
But Public Infrastructure Minister David Caplan worries in a letter the idea would “in the long-term, harm the domestic industry” and if expanded to foreign wineries, could “overwhelmingly lower sales at existing retail outlets, including the LCBO.”
But with 1.3 per cent of the market now, what kind of threat could fruit wine be?
And finally, there’s concern “within the social responsibility community,” Caplan writes. The implication is that farmers’ markets might not “guide the responsible use of beverage alcohol.”
“The last thing the farmers will want to do is be in the situation they’re accused of selling alcohol to minors,” counters Burkhard Mausberg, president of the Friends of the Greenbelt, which supports the association’s idea. “They’ll be even more responsible because they have the most to lose.”
Originally, the pitch included grape wine makers too. But they were dropped, as many were deemed too big.
It’s not of interest to most anyway, according to Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario.
If the grape wine producers were going to sell their bottles at the St. Lawrence Market, that would be one thing. But from inside tents at weekend farmers’ markets set up in parks around the province?
“That’s less appealing,” she says. “We’re trying to build a certain brand of wine.”
Which brings up a good point. By selling cranberry wine at farmers’ markets, will fruit wineries only reinforce the stereotype that they make plonk?
Andrews doesn’t think so. “If people taste it, they’ll buy it,” he says. “That’s what will build the image.”