The sale of wine at farmers markets was a welcome change for Ontario vineyards — increased access to the local market and more face-to-face interaction. But makers of other fruit wines say the restrictive pilot is a missed opportunity to boost the province.
“The fruit wineries have been lobbying for 20-plus years to be able to sell at farmers markets; they were outraged when this announcement came out,” says Thomas Wilson, chair of the four-year-old Ontario Craft Cider Association (OCCA) and proprietor and cider maker at Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon.
The situation started in 2014, when the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario launched a two-year pilot program that allows VQA wines (those made from Ontario grapes and upholding certain quality standards) to be sold in farmers markets. For smaller producers unable to afford sales through the LCBO, the move created a valuable new sales outlet. For the bigger players, it was an invaluable chance to present their products directly to consumers. But the program excludes ciders, pear wines, other fruit wines and mead.
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The pilot has led to the bizarre situation where Ontarians can buy grape-based wines at farmers markets and can even sample other fruit wines and ciders, but cannot buy them. The government will be evaluating the pilot this year and Ontario’s cider-makers are critical of its restrictions.
“We can give it away and then point to an LCBO. Only in Ontario would there be a law where we can give it away, but not make any money at it,” says Nick Sutcliffe, founding chair of the OCCA and co-owner of Caledon’s Pommies Cider Co.
Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville produces grape wines and mead made with honey from its vineyard bees.
“We and many other producers in the area are very excited by the fact that the government allowed us to sell at farmers markets. Given that it’s a very, very regulated market, that was a great frontier,” says William Roman, Rosewood’s operations manager and bee master.
But Roman can’t sell his mead; only his wine.
“In the rest of Canada, if you have 100 or more bee colonies, you’re allowed to make and sell honey wines wherever you see fit. In Ontario, that right was removed when the LCBO was formed,” he says.
The pilot of the two-year VQA Wines at Farmers’ Market initiative ends officially in May 2016. “We are continuing to evaluate the pilot, and will be able to make recommendations on continuing or expanding the program when the evaluation is complete,” says Brendan Crawley, spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.
Other jurisdictions are moving faster to support their craft beverage industries. Last October, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced a series of reforms to support the craft beer, wine, cider and spirits industries. The impact of this move will likely be felt in Ontario, where cider is the fastest growing category at the LCBO, but 77 per cent of the product sold is imported. Ontario craft ciders account for only 8 per cent of sales. Out-of-province producers and multinationals account for the remainder.
“Once the dollar levels off a little bit, you are going to see an inundation of U.S. ciders, and we’ll all be out of business,” Sutcliffe says. “We have the best apples in the world and we have the potential for making the best ciders in the world.”
A flourishing cider industry would make it profitable for apple growers to diversify their crops. Ontario farmers grew about 84 apple varieties in the 1880s, but now it’s down to fewer than 20 commercial varieties, with just three (McIntosh, Empire and Red Delicious) accounting for most of the harvest. Ontario is the largest apple producer in Canada.
Cider makers are hungry to get their hands on other varieties. “We’re looking for varieties that haven’t been grown in 100, 200 years: apples that have a lot of tannin,” says Wilson, listing apples such as Micheline, Dabinet, Muscadet de Dieppe, Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, Foxwhelt and Chisel Jersey.
“We will be buying 10 per cent of all the apples grown in Ontario by 2018—and that’s just the small craft cideries,” Sutcliffe says. “If we get any kind of assistance from the government whatever, we could get thousands of acres of russets going into the ground.”
"The Ontario cider industry has a huge potential right now, both on its own and as it relates to the apple industry,” Wilson says. “Unfortunately, we’re being ignored.”
“The world didn’t fall apart when we sold VQA in the farmers markets,” Sutcliffe says, “and the world wouldn’t fall apart if we sold cider.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and author of Sure We Can! – a book on how jams and pickles are affecting the local food movement.