Alberta tries to put a cork in BC wine sales

The politics of wine and trade topped newscasts today after it was announced by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley would suspend the importing of British Columbia wines into her province. It is a retaliation for the B.C. government’s attempt to stall the construction of an oil pipeline expansion to the west coast.

The trade action will hurt larger producers more than it will most smaller wineries in the short run. If the boycott continues it could have a larger impact on the industry as a whole.

Last summer, the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys (where the majority of wine is produced) were hit hard by challenging spring floods, then followed by weeks of smoke-filled skies that impacted tourism and drove down visits to tasting rooms.

The Alberta boycott if sustained therefore could compound the financial hit felt by many wine producers in 2017.

The first reaction online was to find the humour in the bizarre dispute between provincial leaders. The tweet of the afternoon went to BC wine leader and bon vivant Sandra Oldfield, noting it would be hard to “put a cork” on BC wine.

The runner-up prize goes to this tweet by Laughing Stock Vineyards co-founder David Enns — “Make wine not war”.

There was a reaction from several BC wine producers, such as this interview on the 980 CKNW Lynda Steele Show with Liquidity Winery (Okanagan Falls) CEO Ian Macdonald.

Macdonald makes some important points in his interview. Firstly, it is frustrating that in Canada that we are actually still talking about the movement of legal goods for personal use between provinces. He condemns both provincial and federal politicians for the mess we’re in.

Second, Macdonald points back to the Comeau decision that went to the Supreme Court of Canada in December. This dispute between B.C. and Alberta makes it clear that the free movement of wine and beer should not be impeded by provincial laws.

And the biggest irony is that Liquidity Winery is owned almost entirely by Albertans.

The public must understand how this move by Notley takes direct aim at the B.C. government during the final days of a by-election in the Okanagan. The BC Liberal stronghold of Kelowna West goes to the polls on February 14th to elect a new MLA. The candidate most likely to win the seat is Ben Stewart, the founder of Quails’ Gate Winery.

You have to give Rachel Notley credit, she knows how to get the attention of a fellow politician. B.C. wine has been held hostage because it has maximum political impact right here, right now.

I spoke to a couple of media outlets today, and as I am wont to do, I tried to describe the glass as “half full”. This is because the reaction of Albertans against the trade action was just as ticked off as we BCers. In fact, some of the most droll reactions were from Albertans begging for their Premier to choose another product instead of BC wine.

In other words, people on both sides of this border dispute are affected.

As Global News reports, there are scores of small business operators in Alberta that import and sell BC wine who will be impacted by this trade action.

While there are no hard numbers available on the financial impact of B.C. losing one of its biggest customers, some propose it could be as high as $70 million worth of product. Oldfield, however, was skeptical about that number.

According to wine producers I have spoken to, it has become harder for Albertans to get BC wine since the province has cracked down on direct to consumer (“DTC”) sales — the part of the market where the biggest sales growth is happening.

So, if there is something good to come from today’s news, it is that it shines a light on the ridiculousness of trade barriers within Canada. This was highlighted in a thoughtful interview with winemaker Mark Simpson at BC Wine Studio on CBC Early Edition with host Stephen Quinn.

More importantly, however, news generated by the trade dispute highlights how much B.C.’s reputation is now connected to its bourgeoning and bountiful wine industry. A few years ago no one would have batted an eye if you stopped wine shipments to Alberta.

The pipeline of BC wine to flowing into Albertan homes may be now on hold, but we should not ignore the fact that this dust-up proves how important our wine industry has become in identifying who we are as a province.


Read more from CBC News (includes BC Wine Lover quote): Take us to court over pipelines, but don’t hurt business, John Horgan tells Alberta

Also, commentary from Jen Gerson: Weaponizing wine: Notley’s engineering a federal crisis in her battle with B.C.