When I was recently given a bottle of red wine which included the phrase “new school wine” on the label, I wanted to dump it. It tasted like new world wine, I’ll give it that, but new world wines were established enough by 1976 to win the Judgement of Paris. “New school” sounds like marketing jargon more consistent with today’s craft breweries.
It got me thinking about how beer and wine are jealous of each other. Beer is cool and trendy, but wine still gets all the respect. People who wax poetic over beer are called snobs while wine connoisseurs are seen as cultured and classy. Despite this, the growth of craft beer can’t be matched, and wineries want in.
The big news on that subject is Colio Winery’s acquisition of Thornbury, the cider company up near Georgian Bay that recently purchased King Brewery. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that our local wineries would start acquiring craft breweries, but it’s a brilliant move. At a time when wineries are acting more like breweries and breweries are acting more like wineries, it’s natural for them to eventually become one and the same.
On the other hand, the production of beer and wine are two totally different things. This is why it’s so confusing to me that cider is generally put under the beer category. Sure, it’s a similar strength, often carbonated and served on tap, but it’s just wine made from apples instead of grapes. The production of cider is totally different than brewing beer and almost exactly the same as making wine.
I’m a fan of all three, and as much as self-important, self-conscious hip marketing campaigns make me retch, I can see why wine and beer want to be more like each other. Wineries want to get in on the growth and popularity of craft beer, while breweries dream of being able to charge the premiums that wineries do. A ten dollar bottle of wine is cheap and usually shit, but a 750ml bottle of beer at that price is a damn hard sell. St. Bernardus Abt 12, widely considered among the best beers in the world, is $9.15, and that’s at 10 per cent ABV, nearly as strong as most wines.
Last year, when the provincial government announced that beer would be going into grocery stores, it was the first time in our province that beer had some small advantage over wine. The wine industry in Ontario owes its success largely to the amount of provincial support it has received, while the success of the craft beer industry is impressive specifically because, for most of the last 30 years, the province seems to have actively discouraged its growth.
Overwhelming public support of local beer has finally changed that, and allowing exclusively beer to be sold in grocery stores was a long-overdue olive branch from the province to its craft breweries. Still, from the moment I first heard the news, I knew wine wouldn’t be far behind.
On Feb. 18 Kathleen Wynne announced that wine (and cider) would hit grocery store shelves by the fall. Beginning with an initial 70 stores and a minimum per-bottle pricing of $10.95, this will absolutely benefit local mid-sized wineries. Many winemakers, such as Tom O’Brien of Harrow’s Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards, predicted this news months ago and began ramping up their production capacity.
With the number of grocery stores carrying beer still growing, I can’t help but think that the province has opened the floodgates. As it stands, the LCBO acts like a wholesaler, so the grocery stores have to purchase beer and wine directly from them. But grocery stores chains are very large and very powerful, some of them much larger than the LCBO ever will be. I think it’s inevitable that, at some point, they will cut out the middleman, forcing the government to let them buy directly from the producers.
It’s hard to predict what things are going to look like in five years. Atrocious marketing jargon like “new school wine” and $14 bottles of beer at the LCBO are just examples of beverage producers exploring just what it means to do business in a market with more breweries, wineries and cideries than ever before. The line is blurring between “lowly” beer and “classy’ wine and everybody is adapting to that, not always gracefully.
Colio’s acquisition is a good sign and just the first of its kind. It’s an example of how scaling up within the industry can be done without falling back on the multinationals and how growing and remaining local are not mutually exclusive. Change is in the air in Ontario, and it’s long overdue.