So much has been written and said about the archaic booze laws in Ontario that it’s hard to believe we still live under the dark, menacing shadow of two massive monopolies — the LCBO and The Beer Store.
But we do. And we continue to suffer with limited choice, uninspired shopping, high prices and two systems that are built to discourage and punish small, craft brewers, local wineries, fruit wine makers and cideries.
The Ontario government could fix this quickly, of course, by dismantling the two mega-monopolies and opening up the system to competition from the private sector.
The curious case of alcohol retail and distribution in Ontario caught the attention of two former Blackberry employees, Peter Lenardon and A.J. Wykes, who decided to do something about it or at least bring the issue to the forefront in a feature film documentary called Straight Up.
It has been screened by a few industry insiders and will be released in its entirety on Thursday, Nov. 13 here on Wines In Niagara and on the Ontario craft beer blog Mom ‘n Hops. You can watch the trailer for the movie below.
Allan Schmidt, chair of the Wine Council of Ontario, who viewed the film this week in Niagara, said:
“This is the first time we have ever had such a concise, user friendly, and even entertaining portrayal of the evolution of alcohol distribution in Ontario.
“The timing of this documentary is also perfect given the government’s recent indication that they will be acting upon Mr. Ed Clark’s recommendations (see story here) of the Premiers Advisory Council on Government Assets. Recommendations that include the establishment of private wine stores to operate along side the LBCO and the other two private monopolies of the Beer Store and 300 private wines stores controlled by a couple of the largest wineries in Ontario that have excluded over 150 other Ontario wineries.”
Lenardon and Wykes set out to make a straight-forward film about the issue of booze retailing through a KickStarter campaign that raised $11,752 from 132 backers. Lenardon is a photographer and videographer while Wykes is a sound engineer.
“We’ve travelled all over the world, and we are fans of good wine and especially tasty craft beers,” they say on their website Homebrew Pictures.
“We came to make this documentary with a lot of the same simple questions that many people have about the alcoholic beverage retailing system in Ontario. Why does it seem like there are a lot of products we see elsewhere that you simply can’t get in Ontario? Why is the same product in Ontario often so much more expensive than just across the border in New York or Michigan, or even Quebec? Why can’t we open a craft beer store of our own? Why does the Ontario government allow three foreign-owned companies to operate a near monopoly on 80% of the beer sales in the province?”
They interviewed dozens of interested parties about the Prohibition-era system of booze retailing in Ontario and discovered that there literally are hundreds of small and medium sized wineries and breweries in Ontario creating thousands of unique, tasty, interesting, locally-made products, the majority of which will never see the inside of an LCBO or Beer Store outlet.
They admit that they don’t “really know how to untangle the issue, but “we want to tell you what we found out.”
I asked Peter Lenardon five questions in advance of the release of Straight Up. Here’s what he had to say:
Wines In Niagara: What was the motivation for making the movie Straight Up?
Lenardon: When we started, we approached the subject as consumers. We’ve both travelled quite a bit, and it’s pretty obvious that a glass of wine or bottle of beer is cheaper just about anywhere outside of Canada, especially Ontario. You go to a specialty wine store anywhere in the U.S., and there are a lot of interesting products the LCBO doesn’t carry. You can buy a single beer in a convenience store in Montreal and drink it in the park. Ontario really seems like the outlier, the oddity, so we wanted to know why. Also, we wanted to communicate the issue in a more comprehensive way. The media tends to focus on small pieces of the issue, like ‘Should we have beer and wine in convenience stores?’ which I think misses the larger point.
Wines In Niagara: It appears you come at this movie as lovers of craft beer and the poor selection available to Ontario consumers, but this would also apply to Ontario wineries that share some of the very same concerns, access to consumers, that beer lovers face, correct?
Lenardon: I think Ontario wineries have it just as bad as breweries. Maybe worse. Andrew Peller and Constellation Brands get a very similar advantage to Molson and Labatt, but the Beer Store must carry products from other breweries. The Wine Rack or the Wine Shop don’t have to carry anyone else’s wine, they just carry their own wines, most of which are international Canadian blends.
Wines In Niagara: What do you see as the end game for making the movie Straight Up? Are you trying to start a revolution in Ontario for consumers to rally behind or to shine a light on what you feel are injustices in the system?
Lenardon: It would be great if we could raise some awareness and help initiate some change to make the system fair, but I think Ontario’s temperance history still makes people sheepish about demanding change on this issue. The entrenched interests have a lot of pull with the government. The regulatory system is a rat’s nest that no government has any appetite to untangle. I think the best we can hope for is for the government to issue a few hundred licenses for private liquor stores so Ontario beer, wine, and spirits producers can have an alternate channel. It could be done fairly easily by using the agency store model with some tweaks, so the government doesn’t need to spend a decade overhauling the AGCO and the LCBO.
Wines In Niagara: Was it easy or difficult to get principals to discuss the issue of modernizing booze laws in Ontario? Many feel there could be retaliation if they went public with their true feelings on the government monopoly of both beer and wine in this province.
Lenardon: We couldn’t get the LCBO and Brewer’s Retail to talk to us. They are old, fearful organizations who only see what they have to lose from any kind of modernization. There were definitely a number of wineries, agents, and breweries who wouldn’t talk to us for fear of retaliation from either the Beer Store or the LCBO. They all said the same thing: I can’t risk my business by talking to you. I’m not sure how much of that fear is justified. We didn’t hear any stories of retaliation actually taking place, but obviously you don’t have a real competitive market when two entities have so much power.
Wines In Niagara: So many have fought over the years for the modernization of booze laws in Ontario and have failed miserably to get any change from the various governments voted in and out of power. Do you feel Ontario is any closer today to making important changes in the way consumers shop for beer and wine?
Lenardon: I think we are getting closer to making some changes as awareness of the inequities of the system grows and consumers continue to seek out local products. The Premier’s Advisory Panel on Government Assets also seems to signal a shift in how the government is viewing the issue. It’s not about ideology as it was when Mike Harris said he would privatize the LCBO. This time it’s about pragmatism. The government needs more revenue. The manufacturing jobs that the province lost over the last decade aren’t coming back, but a new brewery seems to open up every month. With a few small policy changes the government can stimulate the Ontario beer, spirits, and wine industry so it creates jobs and more government revenue. The entrenched interests that have stood in the way of change don’t have a better offer.