Ontario consumers can raise a glass to the news that wine should finally be available in some grocery stores later this year. Or should that be a glass of watered-down wine?
From what we know so far about the long-planned rollout, consumers are in for a disappointment. The Wynne government won’t announce details officially until later this month, but according to an exclusive report by the Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn, it may initially be more difficult for consumers to find wine in grocery stores than beer. Further, half the new outlets will carry only Ontario-made wines for the first three years they are open over a six-year introduction phase.
Why so slow?
The government appears to be placing a higher emphasis on protecting its own bottom line and appeasing local wine interests than in meeting pent-up consumer demand for convenience and choice.
It should go further. It should broaden this restrictive approach to wine sales in grocery stores while still promoting local wine. It can do both.
First, wine will only be rolled out over six years in 150 grocery stores, while beer will eventually be available in 450.
Future wine licences might be issued, but it’s a very long introduction period.
That’s a difference that seems aimed more at protecting the government’s interest in selling wine through its 651 profitable LCBO outlets, which bring in roughly $2 billion in wine sales a year, than in meeting consumer demands to be able to conveniently buy it at their local supermarket.
Further, while the government protected the province’s craft breweries by requiring grocery stores to devote 20 per cent of beer shelf space to them, it has come up with a much more complicated and less convenient way to protect Ontario wineries.
Of the 70 initial licences to be granted to grocery stores to sell wine, half will be for locally produced wines only during a three-year phase-in period. When the next 80 licences are granted, 40 of them will be restricted to Ontario wines, with protectionist provisions not being phased out until 2022. That’s six years from now.
Understandably, the government wants to nurture the province’s valuable wine industry. And so it should. The province’s 150 wineries employ 3,500 people directly, and another 10,500 indirectly.
But why not go with something closer to the very good plan it came up with to protect Ontario’s craft breweries by regulating the amount of shelf space that must be devoted to provincial wines in each licensed store?
Indeed, that plan showed that Ontario’s craft breweries could hold their own against the foreign-controlled beer giants when Loblaws announced it was going to give a full 50 per cent of its beer shelf space to small Ontario beer makers.
The same could hold true for award-winning Ontario wineries.
In the end, it appears the planned rollout of wine in grocery stores will be a glass half empty.
Opening up the market after decades of strict control was never going to be easy. But now that it’s finally being done, the province should be going further in offering consumers more choice at all the stores licensed to sell wine. And it should increase the number of those licences much more rapidly.
This reform is long overdue, and Ontarians are ready for something bolder.