If there is hope, any hope at all, of someone leading us out of the Dark Ages in terms of access to 100% Ontario-grown and Ontario-made wines, and antiquated booze laws in this province in general, it is the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Tim Hudak. In an EXCLUSIVE interview with Wines In Niagara, the Niagara West MPP, who lives in Wellandport, a 20-minute drive to most of the wineries in Niagara, is dead serious about his pledge to make Ontario wines more readily available to ALL Ontario residents despite all the roadblocks that are right now impossible to overcome. Hudak, the first politician in a very long time to take this issue seriously, is sincere in his often stated vow to “increase access for Ontario’s VQA wines.” Here is what Hudak told me today in telephone interview:
When Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak barbecues in his backyard at his home in Wellandport here in Niagara, he likes nothing better than to match his burgers and steaks with a good local, 100% made-in-Ontario Cabernet Franc. And on a hot summer’s day, on the deck with friends and family, he reaches for a dry crisp Niagara Riesling.
Yes, Hudak likes the wines made in his own backyard. “Probably a little too much,” he says over the phone in an exclusive interview with Wines In Niagara.
It’s easy for Hudak to get Niagara wines.
But not so easy for the “vast majority” of Ontarians who are left to pick over whatever the LCBO may or may not decide to have in their stores. And, increasingly, that’s not VQA Ontario wines.
Imported wines are on the increase at the LCBO, says Hudak, and VQA wines are decreasing. He uses the 61.4% foreign imported wine number compared to 38% for VQA wines. And, he points out, demand has never been higher for wines made in Ontario.
Hudak says that it’s clearly time for change in Ontario to allow greater access to local wines.
If chosen to lead Ontario as premier in the Oct. 6 election this fall he vows “to open up more VQA avenues” and to do what it takes to create a “parallel” system to the LCBO.
Hudak says the demand is there for Ontario wines but it’s tough for people in Ottawa, Sudbury or any other city or town outside of wine country to find it.
Hudak says the current Liberal McGuinty government is unwilling to change from the antiquated system that now exists in Ontario. He should know.
In opposition he has introduced bills designed to increase access to Ontario wines for consumers and has been shot down by the Liberals consistently. The Liberals have shown they have no stomach to make the hard choices for changing the monopoly system of selling booze in Ontario through the LCBO or allowing privatization of any way, shape or form to exist in this province. Living under a cloud, born out of Prohibition, is perfectly fine with the Liberal government despite industry frustration and, perhaps more importantly, a growing legion of consumers asking for change.
“I’m a huge fan of VQA wines,” he says. “I’m blessed to live within a half hour of 50-60 wineries. But the vast majority of people in Ontario don’t have access. The bottom-line? I will do whatever it takes to give better access to Ontario wineries. We just have to do a lot more.”
Hudak doesn’t just talk the talk. He has put his desire and will to change in his leadership pledge book, called the Change Book, posted here.
There is one simple sentence, on Page 10 of his Change Book, that he has promised to follow through on: “We will also increase market access for Ontario’s VQA wines.”
Simple and to the point.
In my interview with Hudak, he said he prefers a model like B.C. where a series of VQA stores sells nothing but B.C. VQA wines in 21 different locations. That idea has upset some foreign wine regions, such as California, that has a huge vested interested in keeping Ontario a backwater province when it comes to wine accessibility outside of government channels.
Recent overtures from the California Wine Institute, challenges Hudak’s comments about VQA stores, citing the North American Free Trade Act that prohibits preferential treatment for trading partners. California says it will fight to prohibit anything that gives Ontario an advantage over California. You can read my thoughts at that outrageous statement here.
Hudak scoffs at the California Wine Institute threats. “I’m not backing down,” he says. “I’ve heard the threats before.”
Hudak says he’s a realist and is committed to changing what needs to be changed to make it easier to buy local wines. If VQA stores isn’t the answer, he’ll sit down with the wine industry and find a way to open up the markets. He says he’ll listen to all ideas and come up with the right solution that serves all Ontarians. But, make no mistake, he says: “I will act and will open up more VQA avenues.”
These are promises from a politician I have not heard before. Words that will be backed up by action should Hudak and the Tories be successful at the polls this fall.
I can definitely see light at the end of the tunnel for Ontario wine lovers.