image from Jancis Robinson, www.jancisrobinson.com
Some of you, especially those of you paying attention to the wine world, or perhaps the food and restaurant industry, or attentive consumers of liquor, may have been hearing about the increasingly heated debate surrounding the concept of “Cellared In Canada” which pertains to Canadian wine.
Here’s the deal. You, Joe and Jane Canadian, wander into a BC Liquor Store, or a Liquor Depot, or an LCBO or Vintages store, looking for a bottle of inexpensive Canadian wine. As usual, you find quite a number of selections on the “Canada” racks, but most are at the upper limit of what you’re prepared to spend. Typically in the $16 and up range. $20 and up for a bottle of red. But there are a few – very few – that are in the range of $6 to $12 per bottle for red or white, that are also in the “Canada” section. These are invariably wines labeled Jackson Triggs (those with a white label; black and gold labels are entirely Canadian), Esprit (the official wine for the Vancouver Olympics), Naked Grape, Sonoma Coast, Wild Horse Canyon, and a couple of others. Of course, the labels are pretty and the information on the bottle is clear and concise. Shiraz. In the Canada section. $12. Done deal. You take your new friend to the cashier and buy it. You take it home, open it, serve it with dinner and probably like it. Maybe a lot. You say to your partner and all your friends thereafter how much you liked that wine and what a bargain it is for a Canadian wine.
Here’s the problem. That wine is not from Canada. Whereas every wine on every shelf in your liquor store contains fruit that is indeed from that specified country, these cheap wines are on ‘Canada’ shelves but are not from fruit grown in Canada. Reading the fine print on the back of the label, usually in about 5 point font, is the notice: “Cellared In Canada.” This statement, contracted in loc al, natio nal and international media criticism recently to “CIC,” usually contains no further explanation. Further investigation on the part of the consumer (which usually never happens, mind you) would describe how this wine was made using imported juice from faraway places like Chile, Argentina and Spain. This juice is merely concocted into wine and bottled in Canada, and sold in volumes that would not be physically possible if the fruit was Canadian.
This helps justify the wine’s low price: first, the juice is being brought in from a place where the expense of growing grapes (cost of labour) is fractional in comparison to the cost in Canada. Second, countries such as Spain grow exceptional amounts of grapes, thus bringing their volume-based purchase cost down even further. The opposite is true in places like BC’s Okanagan Valley, where despite the hype of this burgeoning wine region, the actual amount of grapes grown is tiny. In fact, one California winery – E&J Gallo – has more acres of vineyard themselves than the entire Okanagan Valley.
So the question must be asked. Why do we care? We (consumers) are getting a pretty good wine at a good price – a price that actually competes with wines from other world wine regions, whereas no other Canadian wines do.
Well, the consequences and ramifications of this practice are multiple:
1) it’s fraud, plain and simple. Both the wineries and the retailers are independently complicit in selling the ignorant public on the fact that this is Canadian wine when it is not. Similarly, only the few (less than six) wineries who import juice for CIC wines can thus make enough product to satisfy every Canadian market. Therefore, they grow in brand recognition which perpetuates the fraud.
2) it is deceitful in consideration of the fact that wine in essence is an artisanal product. The fundamental basis for 95% of all the wine made in the world for the last 2,000 years is that it is meant to be representative of its place of origin and the climate for the year the grapes were grown (vintage). That’s why merlot from BC is entirely different than merlot from Napa, Bordeaux and Tuscany. People who love wine love it because of the unique properties of a wine’s self-expression. Wine making is intrinsically hands-off. In fact, only in the English language is there such a job as “wine maker.” There is no translation for that position in Spanish, Portuguese, French or Italian.
CIC wine is instead another example of the parasitic commodification of wine that is entirely oriented towards profit margins and shareholder expectations. Worst-case examples of this trend are some enormous Australian wine conglomerates whose wine is made in refineries, not wineries, where “winemakers” wear lab coats and do chemical analyses instead of taste tests. The wine tastes the same year after year, and some go as far as to include additives in their finished product so it meets specific consumer tastes. It is essentially stripping the art from the wine and turning winemaking into nothing more than chemistry.
3) it is a disservice to all other Canadian wineries who are seen by an unassuming public as too expensive. There are over 400 wineries in Canada and less than 1% of them participate in CIC wine making. That means there are more than 396 whose wines are skipped past in liquor stores and suffer from the misinformation that they are over-charging for their product. They also lose out on shelf space at liquor stores because CIC wines, which sell very well, dominate prime shelf real estate. Again, this is a problem perpetrated by both the CIC wineries and the liquor stores themselves who are focused solely on the almighty dollar rather than service to their customers and industry.
4) you’re being taken for a ride. You’re receiving a wine made with grapes from Chile that probably weren’t good enough to make wine labeled as being from Chile. Argentina, Spain and Chile surely aren’t exporting their best grapes – they’re saving those for their own wines, which, keep in mind, are about the same price as these CIC wines. If you’re going to be sold Argentinean grapes, you might as well go to the Argentina shelf, where you will undoubtedly find better wines for about the same price.
5) it is fundamentally embarrassing for a growing Canadian wine industry that demands recognition and attention. We are the only wine-making country in the world engaged in this practice. International critics who visit Canada upon hearing about our maturity and worthiness of being paid attention to, find out about CIC and laugh aloud. Guess what makes the headlines in their newspaper columns the next day? Not the great rieslings or pinot noirs in BC, no, it’s the laughable Cellared In Canada controversy.
But besides the altruistic reasons for avoiding Cellared In Canada products, again, why should we care?
Well, let’s draw some parallels:
If I mix a martini that uses foreign liquor, can I call it “mixed in Canada” and feature it on regional cuisine drink menus?
If a shirt is made in China but I’m wearing it, can the tag say “worn in Canada” and be offered for sale in a local-products store? Would it be allowed to dominate prime shelf space?
If I were to mate two Mexican chihuahuas & produce puppies, can the pups be called “bred in Canada” and shown at dog shows for Canadian breeds? What about the breeder that dedicated her life to maintaining the lineage of historic Canadian breeds like Nova Scotian Duck Tolling Retrievers?
If I import cheap milk from France and make cheese with it in Canada, can I call it Canadian Cheese? Can I sell it as such next to authentic Canadian cheese at half the price? What does that do to the Quebec cheeses next to it?
There are hard and fast industry and governmental laws and regulations against some of these practices, and yet none exist for wine. Thus the impetus falls on us to follow our own principles. I can only ask everyone to pay attention and help nurture your mostly-responsible Canadian wine industry. Look for VQA on the label – in BC that means that all the fruit came from BC. It’s time that these special CIC wines earn their own independent space in liquor stores or stop being made at all.