Since Masa Shiroki launched Canada’s first sake brewery in Vancouver in 2007, he has won many fans. Selling Osake, his artisanal Japanese rice wine, to British Columbia’s Asian restaurants and liquor stores, he went from producing 3,000 bottles a year at first to about 12,000 today.
But tourists from Ontario and Quebec who sample the wine at his tasting counter are often disappointed. “They say, ‘Oh, this is great. Can you send a case to me?’” says Shiroki. “I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not permitted to do so under the current laws.’”
Shiroki hopes the passage of federal Bill C-311, which received royal assent on June 28, will change things. Known in wine circles as the “Free My Grapes” bill, it removes an archaic restriction on interprovincial wine trade from the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, a 1928 law intended to stop bootleggers. For the past 84 years, it has prohibited oenophiles from taking bottles of wine (including sake) from one province to another.
“In France, that would be laughable,” says B.C. lawyer Mark Hicken, who advocated for the law. “Can you imagine a winery in Bordeaux not being able to ship wine to Paris?” Conservative MP Dan Albas, who introduced C-311 as a private-member’s bill, says it is meant to take the chill off the industry. Consumers are restricted to the narrow variety of domestic labels stocked by provincial liquor boards, he says, and should be able to order directly from small producers.
While the bill lifts one barrier at the federal level, however, lingering provincial restrictions may limit its benefits. Ontario, for example, does not allow the direct shipment of wine from private sellers to customers over provincial borders, as it could damage provincial revenues, says Liquor Control Board of Ontario spokesperson Julie Rosenberg. Ontario and B.C. allow people to transport a limited quantity of wine over the border only if it’s on their person. A rule change that B.C. announced the day after C-311 passed in the Senate declined to lift restrictions on Internet sales.
A Harris/Decima poll in June found that 82% of Canadians feel they should be able to buy wine online from other provinces. E-commerce wouldn’t add much to big wineries’ bottom lines, but it could be a game-changer for small ones, which don’t have the resources to market their product to provincial liquor boards. Shiroki estimates he could more than double his sake output in just a few years if he is allowed to sell to the rest of Canada. And there are more upstarts like his on the vine. B.C. has 40 new wineries going through the permit process, an increase of almost 20%, Albas notes.
Legalizing direct-to-consumer selling wouldn’t dampen liquorstore sales, Hicken says. Because of shipping costs, online wine buyers tend to be after cellar-ready, higher-end vintages, not $15 bottles, and most wine drinkers will still opt to buy from their local store. Allowing connoisseurs to buy online would be a logical next step to help nurture the industry’s green shoots.