The 2000’s: Challenge and Change
The 2010’s: A Decade of Growth and Consolidation
Tom Greensides, centre, explains the technicalities of grape vine pruning to the Honourable Elmer Buchanan, Minister for Agriculture and Food. At right is then Premier Bob Rae.
Andy Brandt, Chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, responds after receiving the Board’s Award of Merit.
Chairman John Neufeld and the Honourable Norm Sterling, Minister for Consumer and Commercial Relations, at the 1995 Celebrity Luncheon.
John Neufeld, hosting a Queen’s Park reception, with the Honourable David Tsubouchi, Minister for Consumer and Commercial Relations, and the Honourable Noble Villeneuve, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Tom Greensides makes his point on grape and wine issues with the Honourable Frances Lankin, Minister for Economic Development, Trade and Tourism, at Queen’s Park.
Yes! On Sundays Too
The Tanner Task Force encouraged growers to keep their close working contacts with government. The Free Trade negotiations gave further proof of the value of this direction.
Chairman Art Smith moved swiftly. The Board issued an invitation to the Wine Council of Ontario and the Provincial government to restore their three-cornered partnership. This had to be a win-win for all.
Behind the scenes Art continued the quietly planned campaign launched by the Board in 1987 to change the rules of wine retailing, as compensation for the subsidies enjoyed by competitors. Two specifics were targeted; one for Ontario’s wine stores to be allowed to accept credit cards, the second for Sunday openings of on-site winery stores. These would be safe from GATT attacks and Free Trade complaints alike.
Letters to MPPs were followed by caucus meetings. Growers had emerged from the bruising Free Trade Act fight as honourable people, respected in government circles.
The ideas seemed well received.
The Honourable Greg Sorbora, responding to Board pressures, wrote: “The Ministry is in the process of seeking Government approval to allow both Sunday openings of on-site winery stores and credit card sales at (Ontario) Winery Retail Stores.” Early in 1990, accompanied by the Honourable Jim Bradley, the Minister travelled to St. Catharines to announce these two initiatives.
Overnight the popularity of winery stores soared.
The wineries in Niagara and southwestern Ontario strengthened their grip as tourism magnets. For most, on-site sales on Sundays moved from zero to rank as one of the two top sales days of the week.
Six years passed before the credit card approval was extended to the LCBO.
The NDP success in the election of September 1990, brought Bob Rae into the premier’s office at Queen’s Park. Most of the MPP’s the Board had worked with were no longer around. The Legislature was filled with first-time members, many of whom formed the Cabinet.
With the co-operation of the Speaker, the Honourable David Warner, the Board hosted five wine evenings for all MPPs in the early months of the new government’s tenure. For the first time ever MPPs selected by their ballots Ontario’s official red and white “House Wines.” The annual media information programs, started under Ron Moyer’s regime, were moved into Queen’s Park through the backing of the Government Caucus. Now called the “The Legislative Wine Tasting” these practices persist today.
Art was the Board’s youngest Chairman. He served three active and productive terms, before deciding to stand down in 1992, when he was succeeded by Tom Greensides.
In just five years, 1987 - 1991, annual sales of Ontario’s wines slumped by an alarming 13 million litres and showed few signs of revival. “We’ve never had such wonderful grapes,” Chairman Tom Greensides commented of the 1991 harvest. The perfect vintage made hardly a blip on sales charts. Much was at stake. Vineyard expansions and upgrading had not faltered. The only varieties planted for several years now were specifically “in demand” by processors and additional investments by growers were running at $10 million a year.
The Board stepped up its marketing. A nine minute video was produced that was shown by almost all Ontario television stations; made available to all wineries and provided widely to other wine-marketing groups. It remains a staple in tourism promotions for wine-country. The Ontario Grape Grower newsletter got a new look, with full colour, and a wider audience outreach. Unused funds of $3.2 million from the surplus budget of the Grape Adjustment Program were transferred to the Wine Council for marketing campaigns.
There was more.
Tom met regularly with ministers and policy makers at Queen’s Park. One result was that vineyards and wineries became highlighted attractions in Ontario’s tourism promotions.
In addition, the Wine Content Act was revised in response to the Free Trade Agreement’s 12-year adjustment package. Key provisions included:
In parallel with the wine promotion thrusts, Tom had been pursuing the opening of memberships in the National Grape Cooperative, in New York, for Ontario-based growers. He was Chairman of the Board when agreement was reached.
National needed more grapes for white Welch’s grape juice and agreed to offer memberships at no charge in return for new plantings of the Niagara variety. The ceiling was set at 500 acres.
Only 27,800 tonnes of grapes were harvested in 1993. It was a year short on rain and long on quality. It stands out as the lowest tonnage harvested in the first 50 years of the Marketing Board. Just 16,500 tonnes were available for wineries, with 11,200 tonnes for juice. The five year average sales to wineries had been 27,200 tonnes.
The Wine Content Act had already been reversed as part of the Free Trade deal, allowing up to 70 per cent imported content in a bottle of Ontario wine, with importations limited to no more than 25 per cent any of winery’s output. In 1992 this imported content quota was revised to 75%.
In 1993, growers supported the appeal by wineries for permission to import additional supplies for this one year in response to the short Ontario grape crop. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) ending Janaury 31, 1995 resulted in wines with 90 per cent imported content on the retail shelves carrying Ontario labels.
Also in 1993 the Wine Retail Store Policy was introduced by the LCBO (and later transferred to Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) in 2001). On-site wine retail store eligibility criteria was developed for new grape wineries to avoid a proliferation of “store-front” wineries and support the government’s viticultural policy – wineries established after this date must manufacture wine only from 100% Ontario grapes.
In Tom’s final year, 1994, wineries bought 6,200 tonnes of viniferas and 16,200 tonnes of French hybrids. Just 4,200 tonnes of these were for red table wines which had soared swiftly in market ratings and were now in crucial demand. De Chaunac had fallen to 600 tonnes from its peak of 8,000 tonnes ten years earlier; for Marechal Foch the story was similar - to 467 tonnes from 3,000 tonnes.
In 1995, after a gap of six years, John Neufeld returned to the board of directors to succeed Tom Greensides as Chairman. The timing of his return seemed impeccable as it coincided with the finest Ontario vintage of all time.
The tonnage sold for processing advanced by 19 per cent from the year earlier, bringing $27.3 million for growers in farm gate prices.
For the first time the average price per tonne broke through the $600 ceiling, at $614, with a fresh record of Vitis viniferas of 8,400 tonnes. This new benchmark, which a few years earlier would have seemed beyond probability, was seen as a mere steppingstone for the waves of younger plantings which would continue to mature as year followed year.
In 1984, when the harvest peaked for processing sales at $30.4 million, the average price per tonne was $411.
John, the second Chairman from Niagara-on-the-Lake, is a leading grower of grapes for premium table wines.
The vine census of 1995 underlined the total turn-around completed by growers, showing close to eight million vinifera and French hybrid vines plus four million labruscas.
In this year the COPI program closed out after a two year extension. Since 1981, 344,000 meters of wood had been sold, mainly to nurseries, for the propagation of vines free from all known viruses.
The quest for quality continued, with seven more varieties being included under quality standards, meaning that 80 per cent of grapes sold to wineries were now part of this system. The wines of Ontario, grown 100 per cent from Ontario grapes, have long been recognized for excellence. Now, at last, there were stirrings that this reputation would start translating into significant sales gains.
The Board acted to widen the informational and advisory systems for growers.
A better understanding of the micro-climate patterns around the prime Niagara vineyard region was now to come on-stream through a network of 12 solar powered weather monitoring stations detailed weather reports from select locations provided an important guide both for vineyard management and site-suitability for specific grape varieties.
A further progression to widen the knowledge base was the establishment of the Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute at Brock University. The Board committed $216,000 over a five year period to become a partner with the Wine Council of Ontario, Brock University, and the federal government in funding this program.
If 1995 proved idyllic, 1996 was a different sort of year. Canada’s dominant processor of grape juice announced its St. Catharines plant would close after the grape harvest. This brought a speedy damage control response from the Board. John invited three former Board Chairmen, Brian Nash, Art Smith and Tom Greensides, to join with him and Wayne Lockey in finding a long term and positive solution.
Negotiations were opened with National Grape in New York State which, in Tom Greensides’ term, had agreed to take Niagara grapes from Ontario.
National Grape, North America’s largest grape juice processor, agreed to open full memberships, with all privileges to Niagara based growers.
A second major and long term buyer was sourced with Cliffstar in New York State, where the Working Group negotiated contract opportunities for growers not wishing to join a co-operative. Finally, Cadbury Beverages Canada Inc. restated its own position, announcing their intent to remain in the domestic grape juice business. They offered growers seven year contracts, matching those offered by Cliffstar.
A potential disaster, placing 15,000 tonnes or more of juice grapes at high risk each year, had been reversed. With more major and active buyers the market had been widened and stabilized as never before.
Full credit goes to the Working Group.
1996 proved a “late” year and growers accepted a delayed harvest to allow grapes to ripen fully. It proved a lengthy wait when September’s rainfall teemed down at double the normal average. Still, John Neufeld was able to report: “The performance of the premium table wine varieties under such extreme weather was surprisingly good. Our expansion plantings of viniferas have continued aggressively. The grape-wine tourism market is stronger and will strengthen further with the influence of so many more new wineries. Our rapport with government is positive and important, as we prepare ourselves for the challenges to come.”
The 50th anniversary year (1996) of the Ontario Grape Growers’ Marketing Board opened with optimism, bringing processing sales of 41,620 tons, including 8,520 tons of vinifera grapes and farm gate income of $24.6 million, for an average of $591 per tonne.
Sales to wineries were 94.5 per cent Vitis vinifera and French hybrid varieties for table wines; varieties not known in Ontario in the year of the birth of the Marketing Board.
“This is an agri-business with deep roots in the soils of Niagara and Essex County.
“Many remarkable people contributed to the years of survival and building, and we are fortunate that this is an industry rich in human talents and resources.
“Ontario’s grape growers are proven team players. We work with the processors who buy our grapes just as we work in partnerships with governments. Through providing some 10,000 full time and seasonal jobs, Ontario’s vineyards contribute substantially to Canada’s economic health. “Remarkable eras of change have unfolded during the past 50 years; we’ll keep building upon that foundation with our vision, skills, and courage in the 50 years that are ahead of us today.” – John Neufeld, Chair 1996
“I’m very optimistic, yes, because it’s a very simple thing. For instance, we are growing Cabernet Franc, and Ontario has done very well with Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is one of the biggest grape varieties in Bordeaux. We never tried to copy Bordeaux reds, but we found our own style, which is the most important thing, that the region has to be identified with their own style. Otherwise, you are just a copycat.” - Albrecht Seeger
The final two years of the 1990’s, the 51st and 52nd years of the marketing board’s history, saw the investments made earlier in the decade begin to pay off, to the relief of growers and producers across the region.
In addition, fluctuations in the weather continued to prove unpredictable, with 1998 being the warmest and driest year on record, to date. Thankfully, because there had been sufficient snow melt and rainfall early in the year, this hot dry weather resulted in a large, healthy harvest, with sales to wineries and juice processors exceeding 44,000 tonnes. Sales to wineries accounted for 32,650 of that total.
The decade-long effort to shift the harvest to higher quality grapes was showing positive results, with Viniferas leading the way with a harvest of 14,000 tonnes, an increase of 4,000 tonnes over the previous year, and more than double the years preceding that. Farm gate prices, reached $40.9 million, easily setting a new revenue record for growers. This effort demanded the planting of new, young Vinifera vines earlier in the decade and at considerable investment risk to growers. To see this gamble pay off, was both a relief and an encouragement to growers and processors alike.
Continuing the tradition of honouring a grower each year for viticulture excellence, Albrecht Seeger was chosen as 1998 Grape King.
“So, a guy like Seeger, who’s German, I sold him my vineyard where I planted those 30,000 vines to finance the winery. And because he was working for me and he kept saying, “Donald, my dad and I would really like to farm, and you got this vineyard right behind our house.” I’m like, “No, I’m not interested in selling,” until one day I woke up and thought, I don’t need to get up every morning at sunrise and do the vineyard and then go into the winery. So, they bought it. Now they have 200 and some acres. I sold them 60 acres, 30 planted. And they are excellent growers.” -Donald Ziraldo
For the rapidly expanding Icewine harvest the conditions could not have been better, with the selected grapes being of the highest quality, and with the weather obliging by providing an early cold spell before Christmas. The result was a strong, high quality harvest completed by the new year. Icewine grapes are yet another example of a sizeable gamble taken by growers, with grapes harvested after a sustained -8o C; this harvest was further relief to the industry.
These improvements in grape quality and harvest size continued in 1999, with the Vinifera harvest leading the way, coming in at 18,000 tonnes – fully 300% larger than the 1995 harvest just four years earlier.
Niagara grapes and wines were receiving increased respect around the world, with increased grape sales to American wineries.
“During my tenure the opportunity in the industry was Icewine, which came to be very, very popular. Really, when you stop and think about it, the Icewine business certainly generated a lot of enthusiasm, and also a lot of money for the growers to reinvest. That really did help.” – John Neufeld
In addition, 1,000 new acres of wine grapes, planted several years earlier and at considerable risk to the growers, contributed significantly to this harvest. 1999 also benefited from 25% more rain that the previous year – a second year as dry as 1998 would have been devastating to growers and wineries alike.
These increases in production required corresponding increases in sales. Here the marketing board’s activity was key. Board chairman John Neufeld issued a challenge to Ontario Premier, Mike Harris, to alter existing provincial regulations to allow wineries to make direct deliveries to their licensees. Premier Harris agreed, removing yet another of the outdated restrictions on alcohol sales that burdened the industry.
The Province created the Ontario Wine Strategy Steering Committee, a tripartite group of government, growers and wineries. This group included Andy Brandt, chairman of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). In combination with a second high level committee chaired directly by Brandt – the Project 50 Group – the result was a targeted effort to increase sales of Niagara wines in Ontario by 50% within five years.
As part of this effort, Grape Growers chairman John Neufeld made solid inroads with the LCBO’s employee union, with the result that he was afforded space to educate and promote Ontario wines in the union’s newsletter. Adding to this development was the agreement that the Union would distribute the Grape Growers’ own publication, The Ontario Grape Growers, directly to each of its 4,500 employees, resulting in a targeted program to introduce and educate the front line retail staff of the quality and opportunities of promoting and selling Ontario wines.
“But Donald Ziraldo – an energetic salesman – found he couldn’t sell his wines in France without a formal government appellation. And of course, that caused him to go to our government and say, "What the hell?" Like, "You got to fix this." And it turned out, the only way to fix it was to create an Appellation system so that they would be obliged to accept our products. And that led to the VQA.
The goal was to create an Appellation system that would allow us to differentiate the genuine article of 100% Ontario-grown wine from all the other stuff, which you don’t know what’s in the bottle, it’s a blend of stuff from anywhere, planet earth, plus all kinds of winemaking shenanigans like sugar, you name it, every chemical in the book to turn a sow’s ear into a silver purse.” - Len Pennachetti
The 1990’s came to a close with positive indication that investments and risks undertaken earlier in the decade were beginning to pay off handsomely, with strong inroads in the effort to increase Ontario wine sales by 50% by the year 2004.