Canadian Wine Insider – January 2024

And a Very Happy New Year for Ontario Wine
Big changes in wine retailing and taxation are coming to Ontario by January 1, 2026. Meanwhile the next generation of winemakers is multiplying, co-operating and dramatically raising the quality bar, defining Ontario wine as they go.

By David Lawrason

I have followed Ontario wine for more than 40 years. I have chronicled the struggles of course, but there have always been moments of progression. The establishment of VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) in 1988. The first grads from winemaking programs at Brock University and Niagara College entering the workplace in the late nineties. The 2005 infusion of big money into quality winemaking by Tawse, Hidden Bench and Stratus, to name three. The first National Wine Awards victory for an Ontario winery by Tawse in 2011, followed by more wins by Tawse, Redstone, Peller Estates and Malivoire, with Hidden Bench winning in 2023.

But there has never been a more positive moment than right now, the dawn of 2024. On December 13, 2023, the Ontario government announced a package of beverage alcohol reforms for January 1, 2026, that will have significant impact on the industry. They were buried in the mass media reportage of “wine and beer in convenience stores.” I will detail them in a moment, but merely focussing on convenience stores underplays what is about to happen in terms of retail distribution and availability of Ontario wine.

Wine in convenience stores

The Ford government has been politically strategic and as quiet as possible on its roll out of alcohol reform in Ontario. But from the beginning of their tenure at Queen’s Park, the privatization agenda has been there for all who cared to look.

The announcements in December came just two days after my tastings at four new wineries in Niagara, which followed visits to other wineries in September and in May. I have been floored by the quality, commitment and depth of “new” projects like Lailey/Stonebridge, Dobbin, Kirby, Mason, Kern, King + Victoria, Black Bank Hill, On Seven, The Long Way Home and the Niagara Custom Crush Studio.  More in a moment, but this quality surge combined with much wider distribution creates the perfect wave for Ontario wine.

The Key December 13 Announcements

I don’t really focus on the wine ‘business’. But I do know that to survive wineries need to make and sell good wine and make money, eventually — especially the smaller new wineries. And the better the wine the better the reputation and long-term viability. But it must happen within a market climate that is free and open, which has definitely not been the case in Ontario for the last 90 years.

So here are some measures announced by the provincial government on that will certainly result in improvements for the most over-taxed and regulated industry in the province

As of January 1, 2026, about 8,500 retailers will be able to sell Ontario wine. This is three to four times the number of retail outlets doing so now and includes LCBOs, supermarkets and winery retail outlets. These new locations — including convenience stores (i.e., stores such as 7-Eleven, Circle K), even more grocers (Rabba, Kitchen Table) and big box stores (Costco, Walmart) — are mandated to have 40 percent of their products being from Ontario, as is the case now at the LCBO. (I have had no confirmation the retailers listed above will participate but are mentioned as likely participants.)

They will also have some latitude to establish their own pricing. This is significant.

There has already been a growth in retail options for Ontario wine through a few dozen supermarkets, plus the so-called bottle shops that opened during Covid as hard-hit restaurants and bars were allowed to sell wine with takeout. These shops are free to select their wines and provide small Ontario wineries small windows into the market. They tend to be congregated in densely populated urban, downtown areas for now, but will certainly begin to appear elsewhere.

Bottle Shop

The government also announced it is removing a 6.5 percent per bottle tax that wineries had to pay while selling wine from their own premises without the LCBO even touching the stuff. This has always been one of the most galling overreaches of LCBO authority, so good riddance. And, symbolically, this is a huge backdown by government, and a victory for industry lobbyists. Will it translate into a reduction in retail prices? Some reduction would be a nice gesture for consumers. The time line is not determined for this measure, as separate legislation is required, but it will happen.

The government also announced a five-year extension to the VQA support program, as explained in an article in Niagara Now. “When VQA wines are sold at the LCBO, the program returns some of the taxes to the Ontario wineries. In addition to the extension, the government removed the current cap on the program,” the article notes. This will continue to incentivize the growing of grapes for VQA wines as the marketplace expands. And at the same time the VQA Marketing Fund has been extended.

This is important because, frankly, Ontario’s acreage may not be able to fulfill the new retail demand within Ontario. This measure will divert more grapes into VQA wine instead of the poor-quality blends with international wines that still pass as “made in Ontario.” Good riddance to them.

A New Age of Quality, Consultation and Co-Operation

While lobbyists and bureaucrats have been doing their work to make the significant financial changes noted above, the grape growers and winemakers of Ontario continue to up their game.

Above I mentioned ten “new” Ontario winery projects that have come on stream in 2022–23.  In May last year I profiled another eight new ventures. The proliferation of new wineries could be a sort of pent-up, post-Covid phenomenon, but it is impressive and, for the most part, the quality is very good to excellent. 

The people behind these projects tend to be in their prime. Most are highly educated in viticulture and winemaking, with degrees from local oenology programs and years of experience working in Canada and internationally.

And, if lacking experience and expertise, they have had the wherewithal to hire top consultants like Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling, who are steering no fewer than six projects in Niagara. These business and life partners have been making wine in Niagara for as long as I have been writing about Niagara and their wealth of experience, positivity and marketing smarts have been crucial to raising the quality bar. Their current projects include Dobbin, Kirby, On Seven and Lailey/Stonebridge.

Niagara Custom Crush Studio Brands

The other very positive trend is a pooling of experience and talent, and the creation of so-called virtual labels, which don’t have a home base. The most obvious manifestation is the Niagara Custom Crush Studio in Vineland. It opened in 2023, rising out of the infrastructure of Stoney Ridge Winery to become a production and retail “home” for four brands: Rennie, Stoney Ridge, Horseshoe Wines (backed by the members of the Tragically Hip) and The Long Way Home, by Marlize Beyers. A fifth, the eclectic Therianthropy that makes low intervention “natural” wines, will call the Crush home in 2024, with others in the queue.

“Crush” was founded by Graham Rennie, an investment banker and owner of a prime Twenty Mile Bench vineyard that supplies local wineries. Rennie has made his own small production of appassimento reds (from dried grapes) for years, formerly at Malivoire. He has hired veteran Niagara winemaker Marco Piccoli from Arterra to oversee wine production and Matt Loney, formerly of Creekside, to direct marketing and expansion of the facility, which is now underway. A bank of concrete fermenters has just been installed.

Literally 500 metres up the hill on Victoria Avenue to the south sits the tiny Cloudlsey Cellars, founded by former wine importer Adam Lowy. He and his winemaker Matt Smith have long been specialists in pinot noir and chardonnay from the Twenty Mile Bench, showing a fixation on terroir that is helping pundits and consumers define our appellations. But quietly, Lowy and Smith have provided winemaking space and guidance to significant new wineries that have broken out last year, notably neighbouring King + Victoria, Kirby Estates and Kern & Co.

Wismer Vineyard

Crush, Cloudsley and King + Victoria are all virtually adjacent the large Wismer Vineyard, which has become the most-seen single-vineyard designation on Niagara wine labels. For years the Wismer family has been organically farming their prime Twenty Mile Bench site and selling fruit from smaller plots within, such as Foxcroft and Wingfield. The most notable client is Thomas Bachelder, who bottles at least six (its hard to keep track) Wismer wines. But they sell to many other “serious” winemakers as well, providing a kind of co-op viticultural experience as they go. They have been instrumental in the growth of confidence in Ontario wine.

Coming Up

Throughout 2024 I will continue to highlight the new energy and ambitions of Niagara and Ontario wines — and Canadian wines — both here at WineAlign and on my own Instagram account @davidlawrason.

And I am very pleased to report that five wineries named above are now signed on to The New Ontario Winery Showcase at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Ottawa Feb 2 and 3. They include Black Bank Hill, Kern & Co, King + Victoria, Lailey/Stonebridge and the Niagara Custom Crush Studio.

This finale of Canada’s Great Kitchen Party brings 10 top Canadian chefs, who won events in their cities in 2023, together for a three-event showdown. The first event is the Mystery Wine Pairing on February 2 where they create a dish to match one Canadian wine I have selected. It will be tasted blind by the chefs and guests. In all, more than 30 Canadian wines will be tasted over this weekend, with the crowning of the CCC Wine of the Year at the Grand Finale on February 3. 

Details and tickets can be found at Canada’s Great Kitchen Party. WineAlign subscribers can use the following promo code WINEALIGN24 for a $25 discount to the Mystery Wine Pairing.

I hope to see you there, and if not, please stay tuned.