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Buying local: the war over wine

Quebec grocers can sell Cabernet from France and Merlot from Argentina. But local wine? No way

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From cheese to jellies to meat and bread, La Belle Province grocers offer a bounty of local products.

Yet, one thing Quebecers can’t find on supermarket shelves is local wine. But it’s not because of a lack of availability; grocers simply aren’t allowed to sell it.

Now, many grocers are urging the Quebec government to change legislation they say makes no sense.

“We can sell all of our artisanal products, except for alcohol,” says Pierre-Alexandre Blouin, vice-president of public affairs at the Quebec grocers and food stores group, the Association des détaillants en alimentation du Québec.

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The association has launched an ad campaign showing how Quebec wine could be paired with artisanal foods that grocers sell, from cheese to lobster. It has also released a public opinion poll by Leger Marketing that found 72% of Quebecers want to see Quebec wines in grocery and convenient stores.

Since 1978, grocers and c-stores have had the right to sell wine shipped to Quebec in bulk and bottled in the province. However, Blouin says the legislation is outdated, given Quebec’s growing winemaking industry. The province now has five major winemaking regions.

The problem is that most Quebec winemakers are small, ma-and-pa operators whose production isn’t high enough to make it onto the shelves of the SAQ, Quebec’s liquor retailing monopoly. Only about 170,000 of the 200 million bottles of wine sold in SAQs come from Quebec vintners.

Blouin says getting listed in grocery stores would help these small winemakers. For some vintners, supplying five grocers would be a sufficient volume to make a living.

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Annick Gazaille, owner of the IGA Extra Marché Gazaille in Magog, Que., is so passionate about the issue that she defied the law.

She used a loophole in provincial regulations that allowed the sale of homegrown wines in “public markets.” But she paid the price for selling Quebec wine without a permit and lost her alcohol sales permit for 14 days in 2006.

“We were ready to sell the product to advance the cause,”says Gazaille, whose store is located in the Eastern Townships, one of Quebec’s primary wine producing regions.

Gazaille is building a new store in Magog and plans to devote a lot of space to Quebec microbrews. She hopes to do the same for Quebec wines.

Late last year, the Quebec government announced $4.3 million in financial incentives to wine producers over three years to boost the presence of Quebec wines in SAQ stores. Grocery stores were excluded from the announcement. In a statement, SAQ spokesperson Renaud Dugas noted the liquor board aims to improve its offerings of Quebec wines. The SAQ says Quebec-produced wine sales grew by 40% in 2013.

Blouin says the issue does not represent an attack against the SAQ, which already takes a cut from wine sales in supermarkets. Only grocers can pair artisanal food with artisanal wine, he says. His association will meet soon with the SAQ and producers.

“People are prepared to see if there are potential solutions. It’s a logical next step.”

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