The B.C. government faces another trade concern over its liquor reforms.
The chair of the Australian Grape and Wine Authority has written to Premier Christy Clark raising objections to reforms that favour B.C. wines.
Brian Walsh stated in his March 5 letter that B.C. VQA wines had a 20.9 percent market share last year in B.C., generating gross sales of $217 million.
He noted that this was 12 percent up from the previous year. Australia, had a 7.9 percent market share in B.C. wine sales last year, according to his letter.
Then Walsh described ways in which B.C. wines enjoy "preferential treatment" over other products, including Australian wines:
• B.C. wine that's delivered directly does not go through the Liquor Distribution Branch system and bypasses LDB fees and markups.
• B.C. wineries deliver wine directly to consumers at wineries.
• "Cellared in Canada" wines (imports bottled in this country) may be delivered through the B.C. wine-distribution system without being B.C. wines.
• VQA's support program offers rebates for B.C. wines sold through government-owned liquor stores.
"In light of this, we query why the BC wine industry requires further preferential support as it clearly already competes very strongly in the BC market," Walsh wrote.
He declared that the government's proposal to allow B.C. VQA wines to be sold on grocery-store shelves after April 1 should be "withdrawn or modified to ensure a level playing field is afforded to the domestic and imported wines alike in accordance with Canada's obligations under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules".
[Click downloads at the top left of this article to read Walsh's letter to the premier.]
Walsh's letter echoes points made earlier this year by the California Wine Institute in a separate letter to the premier about B.C.'s liqour-policy reforms.
The B.C. Wine Institute subsequently came to the B.C. government's defence, claiming that California's industry representives are "misinformed if they believe B.C. is working outside trade regulations".
The NDP's liquor-policy critic, David Eby, said the letters from Australian and California wine producers shouldn't come as a surprise in light of how the government has been advancing its liquor reforms.
"Every aspect is being challenged—certainly by existing businesses in B.C., by craft brewers, by wineries, by importers, by restaurants," Eby told the Georgia Straight by phone. "It's also being challenged internationally."
He quipped that one of the strengths of the government's plan is that "nobody likes it".
On a more serious note, Eby said it's "silly" that for the B.C. government to think that Australian and California wine producers would sit back and allow a regulation that allows B.C.-only products to be sold through "the dominant retail outlet in the province". And he suggested that government staff would have alerted B.C. politicians to this before the changes were announced.
“The unfortunate thing,” Eby said, “is when these challenges are successful to this initiative by the government, that means that we’ll see shelves stocked with Yellowtail instead of shelves stocked with B.C. products.”