Along with 13,000 other thirsty enthusiasts, I attended La Grande Dégustation de Montréal earlier this month. The event featured booths from 160 wine and whisky producers from 19 different countries, offering visitors a chance to imbibe 1,200 unique products.
The yearly event is organized by the AQAVBS, Quebec’s association for wine, beer and spirits dealers and importers, and its main partner is the Société des alcools du Québec, the only authorized seller of most wines and all spirits in the province.
This year, the event’s spotlight was on Argentinian and Chilean wines, showcasing a booming world wine-producing region. However, another booming wine region was all but ignored: Canada.
Canada doesn’t always come to mind when Quebecers think of grape terroir, but with new technologies and more favourable laws for producers, that is quickly changing. The Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and the Niagara region in Ontario are rapidly gaining praise, and more importantly, gaining tourists. British Columbia’s more than 320 wineries contribute about $2 billionto the province’s economy, and Ontario’s more than 200 wine producers boost the economy by $3.3 billion.
Even in Quebec, the relatively modest $805 million contributed by 63 wineries is growing rapidly as producers move away from traditional ice wines to more marketable whites and reds. The demand for these wines is so strong that, thanks to a new law, Quebec producers will be able to escape the SAQ’s stranglehold and sell directly to grocery stores and dépanneurs starting next month.
But if Canada’s wine was growing in quality and popularity, you wouldn’t know it by visiting La Grande Dégustation. Even though the SAQ’s website boasts 214 wines from Canada — including 112 from Quebec alone — only two producers from Canada were featured at the government-presented event: one winery from B.C., and one ice wine producer in Quebec. It was easier to find a red wine from Switzerland than from the Eastern Townships.
To be fair to the SAQ, they did recently host a tasting exclusively for Quebec wines called La Fête des vins du Québec, but it was a relatively small event held in a mall. In contrast, La Grande Dégustation de Montréal is one of the largest wine expos in the northeast and attracts tourists and wine connoisseurs from around the globe. Why not put Quebec on an equal footing with the rest of the world’s great wine producing regions?
And to be fair to the other organizers, it was up to each producer or their agent to sign up to be an exhibitor at the event. At a cost of $2,000 per booth, plus the cost of wine — which each producer sells to the SAQ at a base price and has to buy back from the SAQ, with markups and taxes and all, to sell to visitors — many might have chosen not to participate for fear of breaking the bank.
For any private organization, this would be fair game. But there’s something particularly troubling about an event sponsored by our tax dollars doing nothing to showcase the local flavours.
This should put the whole concept of a government liquor monopoly into question. What are we really maintaining the status quo for? Is it to control consumption and promote a responsible drinking culture? With $15 million spent on developing a loyalty points card and millions more on mass-marketing, that’s clearly a no.
Is it to promote local products? Absolutely not, as we have already seen.
It’s bad enough that many Canadian wines appear at the SAQ in the “autres pays” section.
No, the SAQ exists solely as a cash cow for the government — a $1.6 billion boost to the coffers that increases every year.
The Quebec government is on the right path with its recent reforms allowing the sale of Quebec wine outside the SAQ, but it needs to go farther. If the SAQ isn’t forced to become more efficient and benefit consumers, there is no reason left for its existence.
Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.
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