In February of this year, the owners of the Old Third winery in Prince Edward County received a strange email from Ontario’s Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA), the quasi-government body that regulates and enforces rules for wineries in the province. The VQA had taken umbrage with the header on the Old Third’s website, which read: “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County.”
According to the VQA’s email, listing “Prince Edward County” on the website was illegal. An official cease and desist order followed two months later, warning of possible fines between $5,000 and $100,000. The Old Third’s owners, Bruno François and Jens Korberg, were shocked at the notion that they were – apparently – prohibited from listing their winery’s location on their own website.
The Old Third is a five-acre vineyard with a beautifully restored 150-year-old barn. It produces some of the most ethereally gorgeous Pinot Noir in the province and is one of Ontario wine country’s hidden gems.
François and Korberg had left successful jobs in software development and interior design to chase their dream of making wine in bucolic Prince Edward County. They bet on the region’s potential for winemaking long before it was designated a viticultural region.
Their vineyard was planted with Pinot Noir on a sloping hill full of rocky glacial till from the ice age. François took this route of winemaking not for yield or ease of farming, but because when stewarded and gently pushed, the vines would compete for minerals and would dig their roots deep, allowing you to taste, feel and smell their little corner of Prince Edward County. The very definition of terroir.
In a handful of years they built a fervent following among Pinot-philes who travel to Prince Edward County to grab the winery’s diminutive production before it sells out. The journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Just a few years ago, a late frost practically wiped out the Old Third’s entire crop, leaving virtually nothing to sell from the remarkable 2012 vintage – widely considered Ontario’s best ever. But overall, things had been going quite well.
That was, of course, until the VQA sent that email.
“If they [the VQA] had won, it would not have been possible for us to continue to operate without joining VQA.”
At the heart of the matter were issues of origin and labelling. While Prince Edward County is a place, it’s also a designated viticultural area and the use of that name for wine is governed and protected under the VQA Act. Non-VQA members, like the Old Third, are prohibited from using the term to describe their wines, despite the fact that the Old Third has operated there since before the region received designation.
François and Korberg felt the cease and desist order was stepping beyond the act’s scope of powers. They informed the VQA they weren’t going to take their website banner down.
The matter went to Ontario’s Licence Appeal Tribunal, which ruled in the Old Third’s favour this July. The tribunal rejected the VQA’s arguments that a website banner is a modern-day extension of a wine label and that using the term “Prince Edward County” violates labelling laws.
It also ruled that the VQA’s position would result in “an unreasonable if not an absurd” conclusion by not allowing the business to reveal its location, and that the VQA’s interpretation of what constitutes a label would give it too much control over the use of the term “Prince Edward County.”
The decision could still be appealed, but VQA Ontario’s executive director, Laurie Macdonald, said she could not comment beyond saying that the VQA is “looking into the implications and determining what we should do and what the options are.”
François actually agrees with the VQA on one of its core principles: respecting the value of origin. Wineries should join VQA, he says, “if they believe in the soil they grow their vines on and that their vineyard and the region are worth something.”
Macdonald views “VQA as shorthand for origin and quality.” She is proud of the organization for having built a system of appellations, regulations and rules to assure the consumer that the grapes in a VQA-certified bottle of Ontario wine are 100 per cent grown in Ontario, in some cases down to a single vineyard.
The whole system “comes back to the integrity of the wine,” and that’s assured by “making sure the labels are truthful, so the consumer is protected,” she says.
Where they differ is that François believes there shouldn’t be a financial incentive tied to being a part of the VQA. Currently, non-VQA Ontario wines are subject to additional fees when selling to restaurants through the LCBO.
While the case was a matter of survival for him, it was equally a matter of principle.
“If they [the VQA] had won, it would not have been possible for us to continue to operate without joining VQA,” he says. “We could have easily removed the ‘Prince Edward County,’ but it came at a time where there were a number of things we were dealing with and we thought, ‘that’s it, we’re not putting up with this bullshit.’ ”
“The system exists for us, so we should be able to change it,” François says.
Smaller wine operations are burdened with extra work and extra costs. At his small, 1,000-case-a-year winery, François is also vineyard manager, winemaker and general manager. Little things – like an out-of-the-blue cease and desist order – can add up to a lot of hassle and lost money for an up-and-coming winery.
That’s why disruptors like François and Koberg have been crucial to the development of Ontario’s lauded wine culture. And the province has a long and strong history of them. In the 1930s, Harry Hatch turned the failing T.G. Bright and Company winery into a powerhouse by taking a chance on unproven vinifera hybrids.
More recently, Inniskillin founders Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser kick-started the modern Ontario wine industry in 1972 when they had the moxie to ask for, and get, the first new winery licence since Prohibition by proving they could grow and make world-class wine.
Today the industry has a $3.3-billion economic impact annually, employs 14,000 people full-time and attracts nearly two million visitors per year. Things are pretty good, but Ontario’s disruptors have quietly made the case that things could be better.
“The system exists for us, so we should be able to change it,” François says.
He has received support not only from customers and wine lovers, but from winery owners in Ontario and B.C. who consider him an inspiration for standing up to bureaucracy.
Another VQA process – the tasting panel – has been a massive point of contention in Ontario. The VQA uses trained LCBO product consultants to taste prospective VQA wines in a blind test and evaluate them as “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” While the VQA and the LCBO try to make the process as objective as possible, there is some subjectivity involved – and that’s the controversial part.
According to a 2015 report, one in five wineries that submitted to the panel saw a failure that year – but no winery has generated as much discussion and public support for its challenges with the panel as Pearl Morissette, the Niagara winery that has developed a cult following for its small-production wine.
“We try to do as little as we can to the wine as late as possible,” says Brent Rowland, Pearl Morissette’s associate winemaker, “so that the vintage, the variety and the region speak loudly in the glass.”
Pearl Morissette has been fighting an ongoing battle to have its Cuvée Blackball Riesling approved by the VQA’s tasting panel. It’s a dry, austere and textured approach to the grape that contrasts vividly with its peers.
“Making wine is a privilege. There aren’t a lot of things that people do in this world that have that kind of mystique.”
Of the four vintages, only the 2013 Blackball has VQA certification. All vintages were made in the same way and all passed VQA’s lab test, which helps determine whether a wine is safe and not faulted. The other vintages failed the panel multiple times, which has made Blackball a rallying point for wine critics, sommeliers and wine lovers who feel that as long as a wine is safe to drink, only the market should determine its quality.
Of course, a wine that fails the tasting panel can still be sold as non-VQA wine, but as a consequence it would no longer be exempt from additional fees when selling to restaurants. This effectively acts as a financial penalty.
Winemakers often say their wines fail for being “atypical.” In fact, Blackball is promoted by the winery as made in “classically ‘atypical’ Pearl Morissette style.”
But Macdonald says it’s a misperception that the panel tastes for typicity.
Still, the VQA has recognized frustration with the tasting panel and has done a number of things to help, including putting out a comprehensive industry report last year and allowing winemakers to see the process for each winery. The result is that the pass rate now sits at 97 per cent, while one in five passed 16 years ago.
Looking west to B.C. might provide answers for dealing with the tasting panel and helping small wineries thrive. B.C. has decoupled many of the financial incentives from VQA certification and has moved to more of a defect panel than a tasting one. This has given wineries an escape valve from the system. And the failure rate there is just 1.5 per cent, according to Tinhorn Creek CEO Sandra Oldfield.
The government is also reviewing an industry-supported proposal that calls for a flat fee to cover grape levies, wine certification costs for small wineries and membership in the B.C. wine authority – which would help small wineries grow and be profitable.
Luckily, the VQA was built for change. It has successfully incorporated draught wine, canned wine and appassimento – the process of making wine with dried grapes – in the last five years, and it’s ready and receptive to more change.
“It really should be a living system,” says MacDonald. “We need to keep trying to make it better and responsive to industry.”
There is action backing this statement. The VQA has reached out to Pearl Morissette, for example, and invited Rowland to join a special committee to investigate how to incorporate the rising trend of skin-fermented white wine (a.k.a orange wine) into the VQA framework.
But the best sign that Ontario is poised to continue its growth is the positivity and resilience of even its disruptors. Knowing all the battles he’d have to go through, François would start the Old Third all over again.
“Making wine is a privilege,” he says. “To make money off of grapes you grow and to be lucky enough to count yourself in an industry that people view with a sense of awe – there aren’t a lot of things that people do in this world that have that kind of mystique.”