Yesterday I had the chance to speak on the Daybreak Montreal show on CBC radio. Host Mike Finnerty asked me a few questions about Quebec residents’ access to Canadian wine from other provinces. (You can listen to his interview with me here.) Since I only had a few minutes to express my thoughts, I thought I would explain them further here.
Why is it that I can bring 1.5L of wine home from Europe or the U.S or any other country, yet I cannot legally bring wine home from a vacation to Nova Scotia, Ontario, or B.C.?
According to a recent survey, 63% of Quebeckers were not aware of the law making it illegal to bring alcohol across provincial borders without the permission of the provincial liquor control board. That doesn’t surprise me – the law doesn’t make much sense, and since we do not have provincial border crossing control in Canada, it is rather difficult to enforce. Created in 1928, the law stems from prohibition. If it’s a crime to bring wine across provincial borders, then I’m a criminal, and I would guess that many Canadians are “criminals” too.
Recently, Terry David Mulligan challenged this law, spurring the Free My Grapes movement. When Bill C-311 passed, wine lovers rejoiced, and many mistakenly believed that the passing of the bill meant it was now legal to bring wine across any provincial borders. Not so fast. The thing is, the bill was passed at the federal level, but it was left up to the individual provinces to decide what’s allowed within their borders.
In Quebec, the law hasn’t changed. The provincial law actually doesn’t address the issue of wine from other provinces at all, but it does state that any wine coming into the province must go through the SAQ. The Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux recently issued a communication reminding Quebeckers that it’s still illegal to bring in wine from other provinces into Quebec. Theoretically, you can apply to the SAQ to be able to do so. Yet the process is so costly and complicated that I can only assume it is meant to dissuade consumers from doing so. You have to fill out the paperwork, pay various expensive fees, and could experience lengthy delays before you receive your wine. The order must be a minimum of $150 per product (not per total order), or an additional fee of $100 per order applies.
So, you might wonder, why does this matter? Our provincial borders aren’t policed anyway. Canadians will likely continue to bring wine across borders the way they did before the law was brought to public attention. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to order a case directly from a producer in British Columbia or Ontario, for example? B.C. wineries are now legally allowed to ship directly to the consumer, but unfortunately here in Quebec, we’re not allowed to receive their shipments. Those lucky British Columbians can also now order wine directly from any winery in Canada, and are allowed to bring back up to one case of wine home from other provinces, as long as it’s for personal consumption. If only Quebec would follow B.C.’s example.
When CBC Daybreak asked the SAQ for comment, the SAQ referred them to the Quebec government. The finance minister’s office said no one was available for comment, but issued a statement saying that:
1. They need to study the impact of the federal law before doing anything else.
2. Before looking into loosening up the restrictions on inter-provincial imports of wine, they need look into how they can “preserve good relations with the European Union.”
3. They need to look into how to ensure that minors wouldn’t be able to order alcohol if they do loosen up the rules.
Faced with this statement that sounds to me like, well, stalling, I’m not confident that things will change any time soon in Quebec. I’m sure a solution could be found to the age issue. How many underage kids would really have the means to order wine by the case? And how many parents wouldn’t notice what was going on? Clearly the Quebec government prioritizes its relationship with Europe over its relationship with other Canadian provinces. And as this article in La Presse points out, the Quebec government receives 68 cents of every dollar spent at the SAQ, so of course it’s not in their interest to let consumers procure wine on their own.
On the radio yesterday, Mike Finnerty asked me whether Canadian wine is really any good, and whether Quebeckers are really missing anything by not being able to order Canadian wine. “Absolutely,” I replied. Having travelled through wine country in Niagara, the Okanagan, and Nova Scotia, with Prince Edward County next on my list, I can honestly say that I think we’re missing out on some great wine. (I didn’t get a chance to mention Ontario during the interview, but I’ve also tried great wine from Ontario, of course.) As I mentioned, I think the important thing is to approach Canadian wine with an open mind, and not expect it to be something it’s not. I personally prefer the Canadian wine that expresses our unique Canadian terroir to the wine that is trying too hard to emulate another style of wine, such as French Bordeaux.
Of course, the SAQ does carry some wine from the more established wine regions in Canada, such as Niagara and the Okanagan. At the time of writing, there was none from the up-and-coming wine region in Nova Scotia, however, and only one wine from Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The selection of wine from Ontario and B.C. is small compared to the selection of European wine, and you may have to go to a specialty store to find it.
So what other options do we have? In addition to taking your chances with applying to import wine through the SAQ, there’s also the private import route. Quebec is home to numerous wine agencies, and if one of them carries a wine you want that’s only available through private import, you can contact them to arrange to buy it. You’ll have to buy by the case (6 or 12 bottles), and the order still has to be processed through and picked up at the SAQ. But this is a viable option, and it’s too bad more people aren’t aware of it.
Still, I think it’s a shame that Quebec doesn’t make it easier for consumers to support the Canadian wine industry. What do you think?