Even Ontario and British Columbia leave the French-speaking province in the dirt.
But the provincial government is taking steps to close that gap with legislation unveiled ahead of the Christmas break that could heap some well-needed sunshine on Quebec-made wines, as well as artisanal beers and ciders.
The bill would allow those alcohol producers to bypass the government-run liquor store and sell directly to grocery and convenience stores, giving them more choice in how and to whom their products are available. It would also allow microbreweries and brew-pubs to sell directly to customers at the place where the beer is produced.
Leon Courville, president of the Brome-Missisquoi Wine Growers Association in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, said the legal changes would allow alcohol producers to increase their visibility and profit from “buy local” shopping trends. He said it would also allow him to sell his product in stores specializing in things like cheese or charcuterie — things that are best washed down with a glass of wine.
“It’s a way to catch up because we’ve been so late in doing so,” he said. “We’re laggards here in Quebec. Ontario took the bull by the horns a long time ago. So did B.C. They’ve done it more or less as a gesture to the local products. Nova Scotia even has a law now that they promote it directly.”
The fight for the rights that are proposed in the Quebec legislation has been long and costly.
It dates back to June 2004 when the Rosa Parks of retail alcohol sales in Quebec, an IGA owner in Magog, Que., named Annick Gazaille, was busted by undercover agents selling fruity local liqueurs and cider drinks in her store. Gazaille, the president of the province’s food retailers association at the time, told the investigator “it was illogical that she was obligated to sell imported wines while local products were pushed to the side,” according to a 2007 judgment from Quebec’s Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux.
The law was the law, though, and Gazaille’s permit to sell alcohol was suspended for 14 days, a penalty she estimated at the time cost her $50,000.
In the ensuing years, Quebec’s alcohol producers began to organize and lobby politicians for favourable treatment. That resulted in Quebec’s then-opposition Liberal party presenting a 2013 bill giving Quebec vintners, distilleries and beer markers preferential access to buyers as well as allowing them to sell their bottles directly to restaurants — a measure that was left out of this week’s bill.
In the intervening years, the provincial liquor store, the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), has made a greater effort to promote Quebec-made products, but they continue to make up a tiny fraction of overall sales.
Courville estimated it may take 20 years to reach the level of success that wines in Ontario — which account for about a quarter of all provincial wine sales — have achieved.
Quebec’s spirit makers may have to wait even longer. Distillers were omitted from the provincial law and will remain at the mercy of the SAQ for sales.
“Cider, beer and wine makers made some important gains for their industry but the industry that is the most popular right now is micro-distilleries and the government has done nothing for it,” said Nicolas Duvernois, who has developed local and international fame for PUR Vodka, an award-winning spirit made with water from north of Quebec City.
“It’s the status quo. It’s unfortunate. We would have liked to have created jobs at our distillery in Montreal, sell on site and get things moving. But it appears the government isn’t all that interested in new jobs in Quebec.”
The wine industry in Quebec and Ontario
Total annual sales in 2013:
Quebec: 1.4 million litres
Ontario: 13 million litres
Quebec: Fewer producers and smaller vineyards, with the largest being 20 hectares
Ontario: Seven producers have vineyards that are 50 hectares or larger
Annual consumption in 2013:
Quebec: 22.6-litres per person, first among Canadian provinces
Ontario: 14 litres per person
(source Gilles Proulx , “L’Industrie du vin au Québec,” Quebec Association of Economists)