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Ed Clark, you have failed us miserably on modernizing the booze business in Ontario


I’ll be generous and give Ed Clark’s plan to modernize the retailing of beverage alcohol in Ontario a D-minus instead of an F.

The only reason his plan, months and months in the making, doesn’t get an F is simply because soon I will be able to get a six-pack of Blue Light at the No Frills down the street instead of going ALL THE WAY to The Beer Store or the LCBO, at least another half-minute drive away.

Hallelujah, brother! High fives all around.

(Sarcasm alert)

Ontario has made great strides thanks to Clark, the man appointed by Premier Kathleen Wynne to listen to stakeholders and devise a plan that makes buying alcohol in Ontario a better experience for all involved.

When the big plan was announced, in advance of the Ontario budget being released, Ontarians, starved for change and wanting more and better access to VQA wine (and all wine, by the way) and craft beer, got the sale of six-packs of beer in Ontario supermarkets beginning this Christmas.

(Sarcasm alert end)

Beer, with a provision for some shelf space devoted to “craft beer,” will eventually be sold in 450 of the province’s 1,500 or so grocery stores.

“It’s a good day for our economy and for job creation. It is also a good day for the people who like their beer cold because it will be easier to buy it,” the premier proudly said when announcing the plan.

Yes, what a moment for Ontario. Pardon me while I don’t perform a jig in the streets of St. Catharines.

No longer the most backward, out-of-date jurisdiction for alcohol retail in the free world, with its brutal LCBO, “grandfathered” independent wine shops, and Beer Store monopolies left fully intact, it is now tied for the worst in the free world with the other dinosaur still stalking the planet, Quebec’s similarly antiquated SAQ and beer in corner stores.

NewImage6Here’s the big takeaway: Ontarians living in Ottawa will no longer have to cross the bridge to Hull after The Beer Store and LCBO close for the day. They will just have to pop over to Sobeys for that six-pack of cold beer. In Ontario, we call that progress.

What the hell happened?

As I wrote here on Jan. 2, “Rest assured, it’s a done deal, friends. You’ll have to take my word for it. I know that’s a lot to ask, but, trust me, it’s going to happen and the announcement will likely come this spring.”

I was referring to private wines shops, where both VQA and international wines (and possibly craft beer and cider) sit side by side in a free and open environment, curated by independent retailers devoted to making your wine/beer buying a more pleasurable experience. It was to be a few stores to start, 25-50 licences, as a pilot project that, with success, would be expanded.

0217clarkOntario wineries had that assurance from Clark after a series of meetings and I was told in no uncertain terms by those who would know that it was going to happen.

As time marched on, the grocery stores became more and more interested in alcohol retailing and the plan changed from private retail stores (at one time in conjunction with) to wine and beer at grocery stores, with space for VQA wine and craft beer guaranteed. I know this because a source not only told me that but also told the Toronto Star. We both wrote stories saying that.

OK, so a beginning, not the best result, but a start. And the grocery stores seemed excited to showcase local products in certain stores. A step in the right direction, right?

Then things fell completely off the rails.

Wine became persona non grata, the white elephant in the room, swept away from the discussion, discarded like yesterday’s news.

Enter beer; six-packs in grocery stores, and a promise from Clark to make The Beer Store a more friendly place for Ontario craft beer.

And that was that (well, there was a vow from Clark to figure out how to get wine on grocery shelves sometime in the future … don’t hold your breath on that front).

The dream of Ontario modernizing the retailing of alcohol is but a distant memory. Another pretender, this time a former banker and a big talker, will go down in history as not having the stomach to do what’s needed to be done: Taking power away from the LCBO, The Beer Store and those absurd private licences from Peller Estates and Constellation Brands.

Ed Clark, you failed us. You gave us hope, but in the end, you were a disappointment.

Like all the others before you.