Cellared in Canada

Understanding this Value Category

Cellared in Canada (CIC) wines were created by commercial wineries to, at best, take advantage of the consumer’s loyalty to our local brand and, at worst, to deliberately confuse shoppers into spending money on a grossly misrepresented product.

They are mostly large format bottles or bag-in-box (BIB) wines sold at a low price and prominently displayed in stores. They are featured as house wines on wine lists at many pubs and restaurants, including those bars patronized by tourists.

This category was created to incentivize the replacement of Vitis Labrusca vines with higher quality Vinifera varieties. It gave producers a stream of income while awaiting the new Vinifera plantings to become productive, which usually takes 3–5 years. The problem is that these wines contain little or no Canadian-grown grapes, yet they claim to be Canadian and are displayed in the BC Wines’ section of government stores and many private stores. The laws state that CIC wines produced in Ontario must contain at least 40% Ontario grapes but in BC there is no such requirement. They are often made with lower quality wine from regions with surplus inventory, which is often shipped in bulk at fire sale prices.

Some changes regarding wording on labels have been implemented and consultation is ongoing since the issue garnered global attention in 2009. However, change has been minor and slow. Consumers may still think these wines are produced locally with grapes grown here.

Following public scrutiny, the BCLDB relented and began to separate the CIC wines from VQA wines (barely) and the signage has been changed. These are changes in the right direction, but the industry no longer needs these wines to survive, the only motive is profit. Only a few commercial-sized wineries benefit from their continued existence.

Now, that doesn’t mean that for as long as the wines are available to operators they could not be a valid part of any operator’s wine program. These wines are often much less expensive than their Canadian counterparts and can offer consumers significant value. They come from countries where the wine styles and grape varieties are well-known and regarded, such as Malbec from Argentina, Chardonnay from Australia, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and South Africa, even Cabernet Sauvignon from the US. All these wines have a style that is easily identified by consumers and they enjoy a large and loyal following.

Their packaging also makes them very attractive. Large format bag-in-boxes (BIB) are easy to store and quick to serve for operators and consumers. BIB also keeps the wine at its freshest as the bag collapses as the wine is removed, keeping the oxygen contact to a minimum.

CIC wines can be utilized as value offerings in LRSs and can play a big part in a by-the-glass (BTG) program. They can also be used for larger serving formats like 1/4, 1/2, and 1 litre offerings. Their low cost adds value to presentations where they are utilized as an ingredient. Using CIC wines where they don’t have to stand alone can offset the lower quality and help keep costs low, so you can offer more competitive value for consumers. Think wine-based cocktails, mulled wine, spritzer-style drinks, and sangria.

If you do choose to offer these products, then you owe it to the local industry to make sure signage is clear in retail situations and people realize that the CIC wines that are being offered are made from wines produced in other countries, shipped in bulk, and packaged here. That’s what makes them Canadian. Try asking your customers if they are happy supporting CIC wines or would prefer to support BC wine growers. It’s a choice consumers make every day for a wide variety of other products and services.

Publicans who decide to use CIC wines as part of a house wine program should train staff to inform consumers of the true origin of these wines. Your guests may even think that makes them more attractive. Consumers are loyal to the wines of other countries too.

Misrepresenting CIC wines only continues to dilute the local wine market and takes away potential income from these small artisans working hard to push the envelope and establish our Canadian brand at home and abroad. They deserve our support and consumers deserve the truth.

Tim Ellison is a Certified Sommelier and Chef-de-Cuisine with almost half a century of industry experience. Kenny Tse has worked as a chef and sommelier. He holds his WSET Level 3 and is currently the Cellar Master at the prestigious Vancouver Club.