Wines In Niagara

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Ontario Wine Council pushes for private wine stores, a plan that just might work


It’s a plan that has the potential to bring about the most important change in Ont

ario wine buying since Prohibition was repealed in this province in on Oct. 23, 1924.

On that date the barbaric Ontario Temperance Act was buried forever and a new beast was born. The LCBO has held a monopoly on sales of alcohol in Ontario since that time.

But now, after so many failed attempts and grassroots efforts, there is the greatest hope and chance that the LCBO could be forced to relinquish its monopoly in favour of private wine stores in Ontario.

A campaign was launched Monday, a soft launch that will grow in intensity as the weeks and months go on, by the Ontario Wine Council called

It advocates for an unlimited number of private stores in Ontario that would be permitted to sell whatever wines they so choose.

logoSo, let’s say you are businessperson and want to open a wine shop. You would apply for a licence (one per person, no chain stores would be permitted and no wine manufacturers would be allowed to apply) and stock your shelves with the wines you think you can sell. If it was me, for example, and I opened a store in downtown St. Catharines, I would have nothing but Ontario wines on my shelves. If I were, say, in downtown Toronto, I would make sure I stocked the shelves with hard to find treats from around the world with a good selection of Niagara, Prince Edward County and other hard-to-find wines from Ontario.

The point is: Choice. Freedom of choice to sell what you think will sell. What a concept!

The wine council-sponsored website,, opens with this simple question:

“What if you could build your dream wine shop in your neighbourhood?”

And the answer:

“Now’s your chance to envision an Ontario with greater consumer choice.”


Wine Council president, Hillary Dawson, says her group, which represents most of the wineries in Ontario, has been in discussions with the government for a long time about private retail wine stores.

“We have developed a model we think will work,” she told me Tuesday.

The point of the campaign, which asks consumers to show their support by getting in touch with your local MPP and letting your voice be heard, is to show the government that consumers want more choice in their wine buying in Ontario. Just like in B.C. (600 private stores as well as government-run stores), Alberta (totally privatized), Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and most of the free world.

The problem in Ontario, says Dawson, is there aren’t enough opportunities “to get our wines to market.”

She points to the numbers: Only 200 different VQA wines make it to the shelves a year at the LCBO/Vintages when thousands, 120 different wines every two weeks, are produced in the province. The only outlet for those wines is direct to consumer sales or they have to get in their cars and drive to the winery.

faq-vineyardWhile Dawson acknowledges that the wine council’s plan is all-inclusive, in that there are no restrictions on what retailers can stock their shelves with, she believes that stores will find plenty of space for good Ontario wines.

She said the only way the plan would work, because of free trade concerns, is to open it up to all wines from around the world. The idea for 100% VQA-only stores, such as they have in B.C., is not part of the concept.

“But that wouldn’t stop someone from having 100% VQA wine in their store. That would be great,” she says.

Dawson says she has met with the Ontario minister of finance several times and showed him the wine council plan. He hinted that it would help a great deal if the government knew there was support from consumers for private stores.

And that is the point of There are buttons to build your own wine shop and how you can help get your message across to your MPP. There are also answers to important questions. Such as:

Q: Don’t wine shops already exist?

A: While it’s true that stores like the Wine Rack sell wine, they are owned and operated by large wineries and offer only a limited product range.

Q: Don’t wine shops already exist? What would be the difference between a wine shop and a store like the Wine Rack or Vineyards Estate Wines?

A: Along with greater convenience, wine shops will offer a much wider selection of wines from across Ontario and around the world.

Q: Why don’t we just allow corner stores to sell wine?

A: Just like you wouldn’t buy tires from a clothing store, your wine shouldn’t come from the same place you get a lottery ticket or a chocolate bar. Wine shops will be dedicated to offering Ontarians a vastly wider selection of wines while still offering greater convenience and responsibility.

Q: Can anybody open a wine shop?

A: Just like opening a bar or restaurant, any person would be able to apply to the AGCO for a licence to open a wine shop.

Q: With the number of LCBO stores across the province, do we really need wine shops?

A: The LCBO does an outstanding job of offering a variety of wines to Ontarians, but its stores have only so much shelf space. Wine shops will be a complementary service to the LCBO and provide greater selection, convenience and specialization.

There is a button on the website that helps you find your MPP and takes you step by step through the process of showing him or her your support for private stores in Ontario.

I asked Dawson if there is a timeline to get this done. She said she’d like to have this wrapped up “yesterday” but understands that there is still a lot of work left to do to convince the government that this is what the people want.


A private wine store at the airport in Kelowna, B.C.

The website launch is the first step. And Ontario wineries are starting to push the campaign on Twitter (#mywineshop) and Facebook and are in the process of linking their websites to the webpage.

Two weeks from now Dawson will start visiting influencers and those who can help with public opinion and those who have an interest in the industry.

She has already met with all three political parties and has some support from the governing Liberals (who are without a leader at the moment) and the Tories, who have backed change since before the last election.

The fight will come from the LCBO unions, which want no part of a campaign that moves the wine business into private hands.

Work still needs to done with the LCBO and convincing the monopoly that this in their best interests, with new revenue streams for them coming with no effort on their part and no infrastructure.

“The LCBO should look as this as an opportunity,” says Dawson. “It’s not about the cannibalism of sales.”

On a personal note, I have openly advocated for change to the barbaric liquor laws in this province for decades. I have written editorials in major daily newspapers I have worked for, I have criticized the LCBO and its monopoly in columns I have written in print, on websites and in blogs. And I have never strayed from believing that government has no business in the retail sector.

But what I believe right now is this: The Ontario Wine Council and its campaign is the greatest opportunity I have ever seen for change in this province.

It needs our warm embrace. To succeed, it needs our support. Consumers, wine agencies, wineries, potential retailers, politicians. They need you all to be heard.

Here are some other stories on this topic:

From, writer Michael Godel discusses the influencers critical for change.

John Szabo, master sommelier and writer for WineAlign, discusses private wine shops in Ontario.

David Lawrason, another WineAlign writer, wades into the fray.

Dan Kislenko, wine writer for the Hamilton Spectator, speaks to the wine council’s Hillary Dawson.

Paul Rickett answers the question: Who would be the losers if Ontario opened up its alcohol market.

Mike Di Caro, a writer for, makes a case for #mywineshop




  1. Glad you are leading the charge Rick. I am right beside you.


  2. Thanks, Jeff … but just reporting the news, though I am for any plan that moves this province forward in terms of access to wines. It’s a long time coming, and this plan would appear to have some momentum behind it. I hope it gets the attention it deserves from consumers who feel the same way.

  3. While I like the concept, I don’t think it will do much to sell Ontario wines unless we can have VQA stores. The most common complaint I heard while working at the Toronto Gourmet Food and Wine Show on the weekend was that Ontario wines are just too expensive. So, if the owners of these new stores want to maximize profits they’re just going to carry the cheap, lower quality imports.

  4. But it’s what they want and they drove the bus on this initiative. They think they can make it work, and, I suppose, that’s what matters. I think you will find many stores that specialize in VQA wines and many stores that will ignore the Ontario segment entirely. That is what free enterprise is all about. I believe Ontario wines can stand on their own and will find a receptive audience at private stores. And better selection than what the LCBO offers.

  5. The Wine Council of Ontario seems to be opposed to VQA stores for some reason and they have had this position for some time now. I don’t know why! They have suggested it’s against the Free Trade Agreement but BC has never been challenged neither have California only wine shops, New York State wine shops, etc.

  6. Fred, B.C. built its network of VQA stores on grandfathered licences that pre-date Free Trade. And in both New York and California retailers are free to sell whatever wines they want, including California or New York only wines just like they would be able to do in Ontario with the proposal for private stores. If a retailer wants Ontario only wines, so be it. But if they want Bordeaux only, they can do that as well. Just like California or New York.

  7. Good article Rick. I think this concept may fly!

  8. If I was a betting man (wait, I am a betting man) I’d lay down a wager that this will get done within a year.

  9. So, Rick are you saying that this has nothing to do with the Free Trade agreement? Is it only Ontario that has to agree to private wine stores? I hope so.

  10. It has everything to do with free trade. That’s why the OWC plan includes ALL wines, not just Ontario wines, so that free trade isn’t an issue and won’t bog down the process with challenges that have already been threatened from California. As already mentioned above, B.C. had licences that pre-dated free trade and therefore didn’t have to worry about it. There are none of those licences floating around Ontario to use, they are all owned by Vincor and Peller and a few others, and you can bet they are not going let them out of their hands anytime soon.

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