VQA okays first cold-hardy hybrid grape in years; only 40 more to go, says E. Ontario grower still seeking ‘level playing field’

Smokie Ridge Vineyard proprietors Paul 'Smokie' and Debbie LeBlanc. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

SOUTH MOUNTAIN — The trumpeted rare approval of one “cold-hardy” grape variety by the VQA does very little to help Eastern Ontario vineyards exclusively growing a multitude of northern hybrids — use of which still subjects their wine to more than double taxation and bars it from farmers’ markets.

That’s according to Paul ‘Smokie’ LeBlanc of South Mountain, president of the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers Association, whose members generally plant only cold-hardy grapes to ensure survival over the colder winters at this end of the province.

“This is not what we’ve been asking the Ontario government to do for the last six years,” says LeBlanc of today’s announcement by Government and Consumer Services Minister Lisa Thompson

While he concedes the Vintner Quality Alliance organization’s official recognition of the Marquette grape is “a good first step,” LeBlanc asserts the achievement only came after the applying Ontario vineyard “jumped through the hoops” and put three years of effort into the process.

And in the end, he points out, Marquette is just one of 10 or 12 cold-hardy grape varietals grown and turned into wine by the 16 members of the Association — and one of “nearly 40” they could theoretically have planted. All but Marquette and one other cold-hardy type — approved by the VQA years ago but not popularly grown in Eastern Ontario — remain excluded from the approved list.

Using or blending the juice from those unrecognized grapes results in wine lacking VQA status. And that wine, LeBlanc complains, is taxed at a rate of 53 percent — versus 19 percent for VQA wine — and is prohibited from being sold at farmer’s markets, unlike VQA wine.

“All we want is a level playing field,” he says, noting the current tax rate on Ontario-grown non-VQA wine is even “much higher” than foreign wine and higher, for that matter, than Ontario wines made from other fruits. In addition, Leblanc says the rules would allow him to sell, for example, strawberry or blueberry wine at farmers’ markets without the intermediary say-so of a body like the non-profit VQA.

Given the timelines involved in Marquette’s approval, seeking the same for the other hybrids would take much too long, he maintains, also noting the irony of the situation as the Ford government touts the cutting of red tape. “I’ll be dead before I get the process done,” adds LeBlanc.

“The addition of the Marquette hybrid grape variety will help small and new wineries experience easier entry into Ontario’s VQA wine market,” asserts Minister Thompson in today’s announcement. “It particularly supports wineries located in emerging regions where cold winter temperatures are a challenge for traditional grape varieties, like Huron-Bruce.”

“My riding of Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry also exhibits the same growing season challenges, so our local wineries will stand to benefit from these positive changes,” says local MPP Jim McDonell.

“Our government is making Ontario Open for Business by removing obstacles in investment, growth and job creation sectors right across the economy – including the wine and grape industry,” the minister says. “We’re working hard every day to modernize government and make it simpler, faster and better to do business in Ontario. We’re working to put Ontario back on track as the economic engine of Canada.”

But if the province really wanted to promote an expanded local wine industry, it would embrace the producers in Eastern Ontario and their plethora of cold-hardy grapes, according to LeBlanc.

Ontario “missed out” when Nova Scotia recently forged ahead with a multi-million-dollar research facility dedicated to wine made from such grapes, he says.

Something similar should have been undertaken in Eastern Ontario through the University of Guelph, he suggests, noting that institution still maintains a major crops research station in North Dundas Township even after the closure of its campus in nearby Kemptville.

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