Mail-order wine with Dr. Booze

About a year ago Dan Albas, an MP from BC got a private members’ bill through Parliament allowing the interprovincial shipment of wine.

I was so pleased I immediately ordered a few cases of wine to celebrate. And I found some great stuff from all sorts of places, including, believe it or not, Nova Scotia.

I regularly order wine from the Okanagan and from Ontario.  I’m a bit careful ordering November through March, as I have had a couple of cases turned into popsicles. (Shipping firms often load trucks between 5 and midnight. And in the next few unheated hours…) However other than a lecture from one stern, and doubtless Presbyterian driver, I have had no problems.

Meanwhile alcohol bureaucrats, cabinet members and Premiers having thought deeply about the situation, decided they much prefer the status quo. Following the lead of Iran, China, and other stalwart defenders of um, something or other, their joint goal is to shut down those parts of the internet that offend them, in this case the horror of mail order wine.

In short Dr. Booze had damn well better start toeing the line and drinking from the provincial liquor store or there will be hell to pay.

I found this surprising as only BC and Ontario have industries to be protectionist about, and both are trivial as GDP is counted. When I asked various people why they were spending a scintilla of capital, monetary and political on the issue I was given a number of fascinating reasons. One Ontario bureaucrat told me she was protecting children. Apparently she believes grade school children will be ordering crisp Nova Scotia sparkling wine to accompany their PBJ sandwiches. (“Hints of Joosy Froot, don’t you think Ethan?”)

In Saskatchewan the SLGA is a little more honest. They say revenue will fall and they are protecting “equity”. (A lesson from decades as a journalist: when a bureaucrat or pol needs to defend a stupid idea, happy words like “equity” and “fairness” will crop up in every second sentence.)

When the ostensibly capitalist, trade encouraging Sask Party rewrote the liquor regulations this year, the new regulations specifically say you cannot bring wine into the province unless you accompany it. Oh, and make sure you stop at one case. (We know about you poets and your minivans! We’re coming for you!)

Meanwhile Manitoba, run by a bunch of pinko protectionist NDP allowed mail order, and their government liquor store wine sales have risen. The SLGA is unfazed by concrete evidence, and tell me they are protecting provincial brewers and distillers from the predatory BC government; and that the Manitoba situation needs to be “clarified”.

Alberta, that land of Capitalism with a capital C, red in tooth and claw, has decided that mail order wine from BC is just dammit, well, undemocratic.  Or supporting the Wild Rose party.  Or something.  Even though their laws make defending this position rather tenuous, they have stuck to their prohibitionist, evangelical roots and declared mail order wine is the work of the devil and They Will Prosecute!

None of this is sensible, and all of it is both expensive and open to legal challenge. The Liquor Boards hope their vastly deep pockets (the “…our money, your and my money…” the SLGA tell me they are protecting) will let them brow beat, bankrupt and otherwise intimidate any Canadian vintner who dares disagree with their somewhat legally tenuous point of view.

Case in point, one shipper winery I thought to use for this column was not just contacted about their wine club but had their provincial liquor board contacted by another province’s in the hope that the winery should suffer as much grief and expense as possible at the hands of a sister liquor board. Another great allocation of resources. (AKA “our money, your and my money.”)

Mail order wine has been going on for well over 30 years. In the bad old days I would phone the winery of my choice and they’d courier the bottles in suitably nondescript brown paper packages. Nowadays it is a couple of clicks away… as long as the liquor boards don’t get wind of it. Despite all of the above, including the deeply funded legal chill, a couple of Canadian startups have decided to get into the mail order wine trade. Time, the law and e-commerce are on their side after all.

But it will come down to a long, bruising, and expensive fight, almost certainly requiring a constitutional challenge to the Supreme Court. The LCBO has no intention of giving up their very lucrative fief. Neither does Alberta nor the SLGA nor any other Liquor Board. This despite the Manitoban experience. They all love their work, even when it means keeping me from drinking wine. (Maybe especially when it keeps me from drinking wine.) The reason is obvious. Ontario Cancer Care has 93 employees earning more than $100,000; LCBO has 243. It’s always good to understand government priorities.

At some point the provincial liquor boards will be dragged into the late 20th Century, maybe even into the 21st century. Judging by the recent “modernization” of Saskatchewan liquor laws they won’t go there without a fight. As the Sask Party, stout defenders of free movement of goods, aren’t paying attention, I intend to nag the NDP. They need the votes. Maybe suggesting a sane policy they could add as an election plank will help things forward.

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If you live in Manitoba enjoy.  I particularly point you to Henry of Pelham’s Baco Noir Reserve, and Nova Scotia’s L’Acadie Vineyards sparkling wines.  If you live elsewhere on the prairies, you’re a damned scofflaw and bootlegger if you pay attention to the above notions.  And next time you curse a union or the NDP stop and lift a glass and add “Except for Manitoba of course.”

James Romanow writes about wine and all things boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.