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How the Grinch stole Christmas from Ontario wineries at the LCBO, and how to get it back

By Rick VanSickle

If alcohol is your thing, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, especially at Ontario’s booze monopoly, the LCBO.

Also in this Niagara Wine Report: Local wines to grab at Vintages stores on Saturday, including Southbrook Vineyards, Hidden Bench, Henry of Pelham, Le Clos Jordanne and a treat from Spain’s Campo Viejo we can highly recommend.

Ontario wine

Walk into any of the 670 cookie-cutter LCBO stores in the province, that all essentially stock the exact same wines, a mega wall of yuletide gift ideas greets consumers with all manner of enticing elixir screaming “PICK ME!.” It’s a giant-sized HO-HO-HO to the season with “gifts for all” at all price points.

It is truly a glittering array of boozical comfort and joy with Christmas packages that include the likes of the Nearly Nude Smash Pack, the Mateus Rose Original, White Claw Megawatt Mixed Variety Pack, The Ugly Mulled Wine, Mike’s Hard Freeze Pack, the 19 Crimes Snoop Dogg Cali Gold Sparkling, and Freixenet Italian Rose. Some are elaborately adorned for the season with various trinkets and enticements included, while others, well, not so much.

There are over 200 Christmas-themed (some very loosely tied to the season) packages and “special” bottlings of spirits, wine, cider, and beer to choose from. There’s a 40-page “Gift Guide” if you prefer to shop from your couch at home or do your planning in advance, and if that’s not enough, the ginormous Christmas themed Food & Drink magazine, with 258 pages of advertorial, holiday recipes and full page after full page of advertising that long ago sucked the life out of independent wine magazines in the province, and laid waste to a drinks freelance writing community in the process.

A quick look inside this slick, extremely-costly-to-advertise-in tome of 258 pages shows a total of 67 or so full-page ads (not including product placements) paid for by foreign-owned companies compared to five (FIVE!) ads from Ontario wine companies including Hidden Bench, Foreign Affair (owned by Corby), Gretzky (owned by Peller), Henry of Pelham, and Peller Estates. There are 12 other ads from Ontario businesses. Let those lopsided numbers sink in for a minute. Ontario wineries are nothing but a blip on the radar when it comes to the LCBO. Ontario farmers, grape growers, winemakers, cellar, retail and serving staff are simply not worthy of the LCBO’s attention. Is there any other place in the world more attractive than Ontario LCBO stores for imported wines to find a friendly environment to push their products at the expense of domestic wines?

There’s an ad feature, cleverly disguised as editorial, that profiles not one single Canadian product, over several pages. To wit:

• Splurge Gifts Under $50 — Cesari Amarone
• For the Wine Collector — J. Lohr Hilltop
• Gifts Under $20 — Cecchi Chianti Classico
• Vintages Fan Favourite — 7 Deadly Zins
• For Any Occasion – Josh Prosecco Rose
• For the Movie Buff — Coppola
• Gift a Classic Sauvignon Blanc — Villa Maria

This is not a holiday frenzy of over-indulgence that most local Ontario wineries, breweries, cideries and spirits makers get to take part in. They just don’t have the money or marketing behind them to compete with international brands or large agencies that dominate LCBO shelves. There wasn’t one ad that I could find promoting VQA or Ontario wines as a whole in the entire magazine. Are we that broke? Have we thrown in the towel?

Oh, there are a few who take part, especially in the Gifts for All magazine. There’s the Girl’s Night Out Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, Saintly The Good Sparkling VQA, Kittling Ridge Icewine and Brandy 2-Glass Gift, Inniskillin Icewine VQA Holiday Gift Pack, Dillon’s Old Fashioned Gift Pack, and the Steam Whistle Retro Wall-Mounted Opener Gift Pack, but Ontario, for the most part, sits of the sidelines for this most wonderfully profitable time of the year, unless you are backed up by a giant-sized company with a marketing budget to match.

In the glossy Gifts for All magazine, I counted 152 boozy Christmas gifts, including (get this!) a German Riesling from Moselland Ars Vitis with a painted hockey scene on the label, because, you know, Germany is such a hot bed for hockey, right? On the Ontario side, there are four wines featured — Tragically Hip, Rush, Trius Red, and Pelee Island, with 23 other boozy things mentioned such as Canadian beer, spirts, ciders and seltzers.

Let’s be honest here. It costs a lot of money in fees and levies to make a little money at the LCBO and the vast majority of VQA wineries in Ontario, already working on tight margins, cannot even begin to compete with heavily subsidized international wines in their own province. The LCBO treats local wines the same as (or worse) than international wines with punishing taxes and added levies making it nearly impossible to make money at LCBO stores. It has led to a market share for 100% Ontario wines stuck forever at just over 7% at LCBO stores, lagging far behind IDB (international domestic blends, 75% foreign grapes, 25% minimum Ontario grapes) and international wines, which are heavily subsidized by their own marketing associations. These are the grim stats:

• Only 12.1% of all wine sold in Ontario is made with 100% Ontario grown grapes;
• 32.3% of wine sold in Canada is IDB;
• 55.6% of imported wines dominate the market share in Ontario.

That’s the sad reality. No other wine producing region in the world has such poor market share for its own domestic products or would allow that to happen. On top of that, a 6.1% “sin” tax is levied on every bottle of VQA wine, but not on imported wines, and an additional 35% markup the LCBO charges as an “importer” on domestically produced wine.

It’s a desperate situation and the wide-spread uncertainty for the future of 100% Ontario wine has contributed to the largest grape surplus in the province since 2008 as wineries scale back production waiting for the province’s next move, which Ontario wineries hope will, at the very least, even the playing field for local wines.

That’s why during this season of merry making it is more important than ever to skip the trinkets and tinsel from LCBO Christmas-themed gifts and go local.

The Liebling team, from left to right, Alison Oppenlaender, dad Matthias and sister Jessica.

In a passionate letter to their subscribers recently, Alison Oppenlaender, on behalf of her family’s winery Liebling Wines, urged readers to “show some love for local” as the festive season approaches. “I want to shine a spotlight on Ontario’s grape and wine industry, which could really use your support. There are several reasons for the struggles, and you can dive into the complex details here – it’s a bit of a long read, but seriously informative,” she writes.

Oppenlaender writes that “one of the biggest challenges our industry faces is that not enough people are choosing local Ontario VQA wine. Is it a matter of perception? I don’t think so as Ontario produces stellar wines that are receiving global recognition. Is it about price? No, Ontario VQA wines are not only affordable, they are (also) delicious! Or could it be limited access? Most likely. Access is a significant struggle, especially given that our primary distribution channel in the province is the LCBO. For small, family-farm wineries like Liebling Wines where the focus is always on quality, these products may never land on the LCBO shelves.”

Oppenlaender, who has quickly become a strong and vocal advocate for 100% Ontario wines in a region desperate for leadership, says the solution is simple and never more important than this Christmas to support local wineries in Ontario. “Supporting local this holiday season is easier than ever. Many of these small, family-run wineries offer direct shipping to consumers – how convenient is that? All you have to do is hop onto their website, place your order, and your wine will be delivered straight to your doorstep. And guess what? Ordering from a local family business, like Liebling Wines here, not only brings a smile to your face when you see that order at your door, but it also puts a big smile on the faces of those hardworking grape-growers and winemakers. So, let’s make this festive season a little more special by sipping and gifting local Ontario VQA wine and supporting the families behind the label. Your support means more than you’ll ever know!”

How you can help Ontario wineries

As Oppenlaender details so eloquently above, make shopping local your top priority. Take a pass, as enticing as they are, on the 19 Crimes Snoop Dogg Cali Gold Sparkling and the like and buy directly from an Ontario winery right at the cellar door, online, or if you can’t make it to one of several Ontario wine regions, search out what local wines that do find their way to the LCBO or your favourite bottle shop.

Here are a couple of great initiatives for shopping local this Christmas, followed by some tasty Ontario wines coming to Vintages stores this Saturday. Shop with confidence and just add your own bow or glittery trinket.

Sip and Shop Wine Market

Shop over 50 Niagara wines from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Dec. 10 at the Holiday Inn and Suites in St. Catharines. This event is being staged by When in Niagara, a community-based directory and blog to help consumers discover Niagara just like the locals do.

The event includes:

• Over 50 local wines and holiday goodies to shop from
• Exclusive wine sales and gift baskets
• Free entry
• Wine samples ($2 each, all proceeds go to Community Care
• Tapas-style food available for purchase

“We have assembled a nice selection of wineries from the Bench and NOTL to offer everything from fresh whites to heavy reds and lots in between,” said When in Niagara founder Marcel Morgenstern.

Barbea Holiday Taste and Buy

The Barbea Wine Shop and Snack Bar is conducting a unique taste and buy event at its wine bottle shop in Niagara-on-the-Lake this Friday, Nov., 17 from 2-6 p.m. with Northern wine Merchants, The League of Farmers, MW Cellars and BOTL Niagara.

This is an opportunity to sample complimentary wines from these local producers and do a little holiday shopping and gifting while enjoying some pintxos, courtesy of Chef Crawford and his team.

Niagara wines at Vintages stores (plus one Spanish gem)

A tasty collection of Niagara wines is part of the holiday-focused Vintages release on Saturday. Here’s what we can recommend, along with a gem from Rioja.

Hidden Bench Terroir Caché 2019 ($45, 93 points) — The Terroir Caché is made every vintage at Hidden Bench as a Bordeaux-varietal red blend that is the little sister wine for the top La Brunante made only in vintages the estate feels makes the cut. It’s a blend of all three vineyards – Rosomel, Locust Lane and Felseck Vineyards — consisting of 50% Merlot, 34% Cabernet Franc and 16% Malbec. It’s aged in 100% French oak (31% new) and the rest in older barrels for 20 months. It has an attractive nose of dark berries, brambly raspberries, dark cherries, plums, anise/licorice, leathery notes, dark chocolate, and fine oak spice accents. It’s generous and smooth on the palate with a heady broth of red and dark berries, anise, cedar, rich spices and a juicy, lifted finish.

Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche Estate Blanc de Blancs 2017 ($50, 95 points) — I recall when this was first released into the world many years ago. It was (to my knowledge) the first sparkling wine made in Ontario that spent 54 months on its lees. It was radical at the time and thrilling to taste such a beautiful sparkling wine from Ontario. Henry of Pelham is not alone any longer in that arena, but it continues to turn heads. The 2017 vintage of Carte Blanche is easily among the best sparkling wines made in Ontario that I have tasted. Such an intriguing nose of brioche/autolytic notes, lemon cream, apple/quince fruit, an elegant bead in the glass and citrus zest. The crackling bubbles on the palate are invigorating with notes of baked bread/biscuit notes, lemon tart, pear, fresh salinity, and mouth-watering acidity keeping it clean and fresh through the lifted finish. Wow, just beautiful! It’s a wine that will continue to delight for another 6+ years.

Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2020 ($48, 93 points) — The Speck Family Reserve wines are the top expression of the estate’s specific vineyards’ terroir in the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation. It’s quite rich and expressive on the nose with savoury red berries, cranberries, anise, and fine oak spice notes. It’s juicy, structured, and bold on the palate with fine-grained tannins, an array of dark cherries, black raspberries, woodsy/spicy notes, anise, and lovely texture all leading to a long, lifted and finessed finish. Can cellar 7+ years.

Southbrook Triomphe Organic Chardonnay 2019 ($27, 91 points) — The fruit for this Chard is sourced from various organic growing partners in Niagara and aged in 300L neutral French oak barrels for 10 months. It’s highly aromatic on the nose with ripe pear, golden apple, pear, bergamot, and freshening salinity with a touch of flint. It has a creamy texture on the palate with ripe orchard fruits, lemon curd, understated oak spices and a juicy, lifted finish. Delightful now or with a bit of cellaring. Drink through 2024+.

Le Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Pinot Noir 2020 ($50, 93 points) — Compared to the Claystone single vineyard bottling, this shows more elegance and less muscular qualities with a more delicate, perfumed nose of wild red berries, rose petals, mulberries, seamless spice notes and subtle earthiness. The black raspberries, dark cherries, mulberries, and rhubarb fruit are bolstered by fine grained tannins on the palate providing an elegant structure, integrated woodsy/spicy notes with a long, finessed finish. This should cellar for 6+ years.

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:

• Magnotta Venture Series Starlight Sparkling Riesling Vidal ($30)
• Lakeview Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine 2017 ($50 for 200 mL)
• PondView Gold Series Vidal Icewine 2021 ($20 for 200 mL)
• Stratus Riesling Icewine 2022 ($45 for 200 mL)
• Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Vidal Icewine 2018 ($40 for 200 mL)
• Cave Spring Estate Grown Chardonnay 2019 ($22)
• Henry of Pelham Lost Boys Limited Edition Bin 106 Baco Noir 2021 ($40)
• Organized Crime Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($25)

Our pick from Spain

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2016, Rioja ($34, 93 points) — Spain continues to represent one of the most attractive regions in the world for QPR. I have long been attracted to these wines, especially those from Rioja, because they are generally released late after a long élevage that can either be consumed when you buy it or left to cellar for even further development. This tidy Rioja Gran Rerserva from 2016 comes from a solid producer located in the north of Spain, in the Ebro River Valley. It’s a blend of Tempranillo and Graciano y Mazuelo that’s aged for five years in total (36 months in oak barrels followed by at least 24 months in the bottle). It’s quite dark in the glass with a nose of plums, blackberries, cassis, black olives, smoky/toasty notes, dried tobacco, woodsy spices, earthy notes and just a hint of eucalypt. It’s nicely integrated on the palate with smooth, ripe tannins that caress savoury dark berries, plums, aniseed, toasty/smoky vanilla beans, wild blueberries, olive paste and lavish spice notes that all come together on a long, lifted, and finessed finish. Can drink now or cellar 5+ years.