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UPDATED (2): Dearest Astrid Brummer, it’s all about pride, pride in authentic 100% Ontario wine

ontario wines

Dearest Astrid Brummer, can we talk for a minute about an issue that is near and dear to a lot of  hearts in this province — authentic Ontario wines, you know, the kind made with 100% VQA approved Ontario grapes?

As you well know, you are perhaps the most important person there is in Ontario for the future growth of this category of wines at LCBO/Vintages stores. As Ontario Wines Product Manager of the provincially-controlled LCBO you have the power to move the needle on 100% VQA wines up or down as you see fit just by tweaking things one way or the other at your 660 stores throughout the province.

Note: Astrid Brummer has responded to this open letter.
Her response is at the bottom of this post
Note 2: On March 26, the new LCBO store at Winona opened its doors with the CIB wines removed from the VQA shelf to another location in the store. No explanation, no comments, they were just gone. It’s a victory for all those who complained, all those who expressed displeasure and all those who value what means to make honest, authentic wines made with 100% Ontario grapes. 

But your response to a query last week about the product placement of VQA wines under a sign reading: Our Wine Country, 100% Ontario on the same shelf as non-Canadian (foreign grapes blended with a touch of Ontario grapes, so-called International Canada Blends) is concerning for me and, let’s be honest here, an embarrassment to all the VQA wineries who are sharing that shelf alongside the ICB wines at the new Winona LCBO store in Niagara wine country.

Niagara wines

I could be wrong, of course, but I’m pretty certain that Niagara’s Fielding Estate Winery doesn’t appreciate being sold alongside French Cross Rosé, made from a blend of who knows what from who knows where, under a banner that reads 100% Ontario. I do not need to ask Vineland Estates, PondView or Megalomaniac how they feel about their carefully-crafted 100% authentic Ontario wines finding a home right beside the Jackson-Triggs’ White Label wines, wines that are described by the company itself as a product that “showcases our winemaker’s skill at blending premium wines from the most renowned wine-producing regions in Canada and AROUND THE WORLD.” That “around the world” part can be up to 75% with only a minimum of 25% the Canada part.

So, for those ICB wines to share a shelf with VQA wines is dishonest at best, and plain wrong at the very least.

VQA wines

Of course, and you know this (as we all know), these ICB producers are trading off the quality, authenticity and good name of VQA wines. They are right there on the shelf looking like VQA wines all glowing pink and pretty and beckoning consumers to save a couple of dollars and “buy me … because I’m sorta-not-really Canadian.” The majority of consumers have no idea it’s not real Canadian wine and buy these ICB wines with a clear conscious believing they are making a good decision not only for their wallets, but also supporting local VQA wineries.

For you, Astrid Brummer, to respond to a simple challenge asking why VQA wines need to share shelf space under the banner “Our Wine Country, 100% Ontario” like this on Twitter for the world to see …

Canada wines

… is shocking to me and I assume many others. It is a fail and it’s a big fail that you appear to have no interest in rectifying even though this situation occurred under your watch as the LCBO’s top person in charge of VQA Ontario wines.

The sign over the entire shelf of wines that you have placed together (both VQA and ICB wines) says to the consumer that everything on that shelf is “100% Ontario,” which is pure crap. They simply aren’t and the signage clearly says they are.

I did make another trip out to the new Winona store to see if any changes have been made since the error was first pointed out to you. And, no, of course not, because it’s up to you to make the change, yet you see nothing wrong with the placement of ICB wines beside VQA wines.

It goes against the grain of everything I have read about you, including this bio on the LCBO site:

“Ontario Wines Product Manager Astrid Brummer (seen far-right above during a panel discussion on Ontario wines)  has been immersed in the wine world for years, as an LCBO product consultant, a guest on TV talk shows, a member of the VQA grading panel, and an educator. Trained at WSET and at Brock University’s oenology and viticulture program, she’s considered a local wine expert.”

You come from a background that would suggest a great deal of respect for authentic Ontario wines made from 100% Ontario grapes.

So why the resistance to keep ICB wines away from VQA wines? Why open the store with the boss of LCBO bosses George Soleas waxing poetic about the great VQA selection at the store when CIB wines are mysteriously placed right beside them? Especially in a new store at the gateway to Niagara where sensitivities of such juxtaposition is at its highest level in the entire province. Especially with the Ontario Wine Council, which represents VQA producers in Ontario, in attendance at the grand opening. Did they not complain to you?

And all this taking place the very same week that the federal government, after decades of concern over ICB wine labelling, finally changed the rules for all wine that’s not made from 100% Canadian grown grapes.

Blended wines bottled in Canada from both domestic and international grapes will be required to make a new statement following changes announced last Monday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The new statements created by the CFIA to replace Cellared in Canada (ICB) are as follows:

  • For primarily imported wines: “International blend from imported and domestic wines”
  • For primarily domestic wines: “International blend from domestic and imported wines”

In other words, the federal government understands the importance of truth in labelling and separating authentic wine from wines made with grapes sourced from who knows where.

I believe that you, Astrid Brummer, have an obligation to be a champion to Ontario wineries, to help them in their struggle to break free of the confusion that is, in part, perpetuated by the LCBO, that IBC wines are made from Ontario grapes.

ICB wines have their place (for now). Some of them might even taste great. Which is fine. As you yourself say in this video here, there are some delicious wines in the ICB world, including this Bodacious White.

Ontario grape growers and others working in the industry need the ICB category to survive. It is a fact of life. The 25% minimum that goes into Ontario ICB wines translates to a significant amount of domestic grapes. Here are the numbers.

  • International Canadian Blends have a 32% market share
  • VQA wines have a 10% market share
  • The volume sold of domestic wine is 75% ICB and 25% VQA
  • 54% of the Ontario grape crop goes into ICB wines, the rest into VQA wines

The goal of everyone involved in the Ontario wine industry, and I include you Astrid Brummer, as I do every blending winery in the province, is to change those statistics and move towards a province that makes wines from 100% Ontario grown grapes.

That will never happen until the largest retailer in the province, the LCBO, changes its attitude on ICB wines. You can start by moving them off the VQA shelf at the Winona store and get them far, far away from any wine that is made with 100% Ontario wines.

And you can start by doing it today.

— Rick VanSickle, publisher of Wines In Niagara

Response from Astrid Brummer

“The LCBO has immense respect for and takes great pride is supporting the local wine industry, and works to showcase and promote 100% Ontario-made wines at every opportunity. When it comes to the display of our products, we also take great care to do that in a way that best showcases the products and results in clarity and convenience for customers.

“We would never want our fixed display signage to confuse or mislead our customers. In the instance of displaying wines, the standard product flow for all LCBO stores is that all VQA wines are placed on the shelf, followed by ICB wines. While we aim to have these wines on separate shelves, that is not always possible due to store layout and shelving space, as you saw at the Winona store. To mitigate confusion, the fixed sign in that store is centred above the VQA wines that occupy three-quarters of the shelf. To the eye, it appeared that there was a clear distinction between these two product groups.”

“That said, in partnership with our friends at the Wine Council of Ontario, we are reviewing the LCBO product placement plan. We have also been involved in the process that has achieved the recent CFIA labelling statement changes, and customers can look forward to revised signage in our stores to reflect those updates in the near future.”

Note 1: Wines In Niagara did follow up with an email to Brummer to ask if the Winona signage situation would change any time soon. There has been no response as of yet.

Note 2: In Brummer’s response she says the LCBO takes “great care” in showcasing products that results in clarity and convenience for customers. My question and always has been: How does putting VQA wines beside ICB blends (foreign blended wines), some with nearly the same label, offer clarity to customers? At the very least it is confusing, and at the worst, it’s shameful.