Are Ontario wines overpriced?
By Veronica Leonard
In Prince Edward County most of the wineries price their wines between $15 -35 a bottle or higher. You can pick up a bottle of Chilean or Argentinean wine for far less. You can also get good tasting European table wines for low to mid teens, so why should you pay more for Canadian wine? Are we being ripped off?
During an interview with Dan Sullivan, winemaker and co-owner of Rosehall Run in the Prince Edward County, I learned a lot about the costs faced by Ontario winemakers that have to be remembered when you look for that bargain bottle.
First the start-up costs. even the smaller county wineries report that the start-up costs for a winery is over a million dollars. Vines take at least three years to establish themselves before they can be harvested. New vines taste new, it takes eight to ten years before they are mature enough to start to provide the heavier yield and the more complex full-bodied taste of mature vines that experienced wine lovers look for. Meanwhile, winemakers are experimenting to find the right oak barrel, the maceration time, the right fermentation process, the right maturation time, the right blend of oak and unoaked, to suit the varietal and terroir of their grapes. It’s expensive and labour intensive process and it will take over ten years for a winery to even break even. No one during this time can offer cut price wine, even though the wine is still new. Instead, they make it the best it can be.
The -30º C cold snap that Ontario often experiences in winter would instantly kill off the vines if they weren’t specially hilled with earth each year to protect the vines. Sometimes even that isn’t protection enough and there is extensive winter kill. This is a labour intensive process both late fall and early spring that adds to the cost of the wine. Our cooler climate also results in a smaller yield per acre of fruit.
A number of the smaller wineries like By Chadsey’s Cairns and The Old Third rely on volunteer pickers, but the larger ones like Rosehall Run, Huff Estates, Closson Chase, Casa Dea Estates Winery and others bring in experienced farm workers from South America or Asia. Canada’s labour laws for migrant workers insist that the wage must be the same as would be paid to a Canadian, that they be provided with housing, and healthcare insurance. Dan pays his workers $11 per hour. One of his workers informed him that in one hour at Rosehall Run he makes more than he makes in a 12 hour day in Chile.
Add marketing as another cost, established names sell, high volume sells, regional reputation sells, and relaxed marketing rules sell. In France, local wines are sold in the local supermarkets so they are easily picked up with the groceries. In Ontario, only a fraction of the wines produced are sold through the LCBO. Even in Nova Scotia you can buy local wines at farmers’ markets, but in Ontario you have to go to the winery’s onsite or online store to buy many of their wines. Once the tourist season has closed down for the year, sales drop to a trickle as no one wants to face winter roads for a bottle of wine. and most consumers are not into the mindset of going online to order a bottle of wine. It’s far easier to go to the LCBO and grab a bottle of Chilean.
In hot wine growing regions, where the vines are established, the crop is is often as high as 6,000 tonnes per acre, the labour is cheap, the industry is subsidized, it’s easy to make wine, sell it cheap globally and still make a profit. In Prince Edward County, Ontario the cooler climate limits crop yield to about 2,000 tonnes per acre.
For those of us who choose fair trade coffee, organic foods, and local produce, we have to see local wines in the same light. We do spend more but we are paying a fair price for the efforts of Ontario wineries struggling against start-up costs, weather, labour costs, and restrictive marketing regulations. Considering all this, it’s a bargain bottle.
This blog was first published inVeronica Leonard’s Prince Edward County Wine Examiner column on Examiner.com Are Ontario wines overpriced? January 25, 2011. To see all of Veronica Leonard’s Prince Edward County Wine Examiner columns click here