The decade opened with the World Health Organization declaring an outbreak of a new strain of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) – shuttering businesses, forcing emergency stay-at-home orders and establishing unprecedented safety protocols.
The 2000’s: Challenge and Change
The 2010’s: A Decade of Growth and Consolidation
In 2020, the miracle performed by the grape and wine industry was having to harvest and produce quality wines in the face of a global pandemic responsible for the deaths of thousands of Canadians and countless millions around the world. Debbie Zimmerman and staff participated in weekly adhoc government committees to help establish health and safety protocols for farm and agri-food production facilities. Pandemic travel restrictions and quarantines strained the arrival of agricultural workers. On the retail side, tourism and hospitality were shut down – no winery tours, no winery restaurants and tasting rooms, no gift shops. Various government programs partially offset these losses, but the strong winery tourism and hospitality sector that had taken decades to nurture and grow had evaporated. Decades of momentum were lost. Many wineries were able to pivot to on-line sales as consumers embraced internet shopping.
In spite of COVID-19, 2020 was a good year to grow grapes. The winter was unseasonably warm, followed by a hot and sunny summer with short regular blasts of rain; and the fall was perfect, resulting in an exceptional vintage.
Social distancing and masking were the new norm in 2020 with grape cheques picked up outside the GGO office.
GGO held the Annual General Meeting virtually by video conference.
In business terms, the GGO was able to negotiate an overall price increase of 1% for the 2020 crop, but even this relatively normal development was impacted by the pandemic, as negotiations now took place virtually. At every level, the pandemic’s risks and dangers altered the usual course of business. The GGO board met virtually, the GGO’s full time staff all worked from home, and all promotional events – including the annual Grape and Wine Festival and the Annual Celebrity luncheon that launched it, were cancelled.
A partial agreement was reached between the industry and the federal government on Australia’s World Trade Organization challenge. GGO along with OCW continued to press for replacement programs both federally and provincially that help build on the reputation of the Canadian wine industry. Wine Growers Ontario pressured growers to sign on to their proposal that would extend the benefit to IDB wine. Growers continue to be concerned that government policy should focus on supporting local grape production and authentic Canadian wines.
Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development met with Matthias Oppenlaender, MP Vance Badawey, Debbie Zimmerman, Carolyn Hurst Chair Ontario Craft Wineries, MP Chris Bittle, Bill Schenck and Richard Linley President Ontario Craft Wineries.
“I know what my colleagues in Europe, they’re on their own. They don’t have half the support from government that we have. That speaks to the strength of our organizations, whether it’s the Grape Growers of Ontario or the other organizations that represent the horticulture sector and agriculture, in Ontario and in Canada. Just building on this, obviously, I’m proud to pick up on the legacy from John and Ray and Bill, we have grown the industry. We are still growing it and I’m really proud of that. Despite all the challenges and the issues in the industry, the growers are still trusting this organization, are still knowing this is the way we need to keep on going to promote and protect the grape growers of Ontario.” - Matthias Oppenlaender
2020 also saw GGO launch a new, real time weather network to replace the previous aging weather stations. It included 49 weather stations that refresh their data every minute.
The Clean Plant Extraction Sequencing Diagnostics project (known as CLEANSED) led by CGCN received $6.35 million in federal funding to commercialize high-throughput sequencing for the certification of virus-tested propagation material.
GGO and OCW worked together to simplify sustainability certification, incorporating it fully into eGrape, and provide clear direction for both sustainable wine making and grape growing.
An agreement with Australia regarding their WTO challenge was announced with the elimination of the federal excise duty exemption on wine made of 100% Canadian grapes by June 30, 2022. The number of VQA wineries in Ontario had grown from 86 to 183 since the exemption was introduced in 2006 – wineries that have operated without being subjected to the excise duty. Wine, including cider, relieved of excise duty in Ontario had grown from 14.4 million litres in 2007, the first full year of the exemption, to 95.1 million litres in 2019. The exemption had been a significant driver of growth of the domestic industry.
In Provincial terms the WTO challenge changed the definition of small winery upward; reduced dedicated shelf space in grocery stores; eliminated grocery stores restricted to small wineries and quality assurance wine; and eliminated the difference in basic tax charged on 100% Ontario versus International Domestic Blend wine sold in off-site winery retail stores within three years of the agreement (June 2023). This last point is referred to as tax harmonization and the GGO is concerned that this change needs to be neutral in terms of its impact on VQA and 100% Ontario wine
A highlight in the GGO’s ongoing community involvement and support was its donation of $66,000 to the Niagara Health Foundation to assist in the purchase of essential ventilators for patients stricken with COVID-19, and a social media challenge to others to do the same.
In other newsworthy developments, two esteemed members of the grape growing community, John Peller and Len Pennachetti, were named members of the Order of Canada for their outstanding contributions to the grape and wine industry; and GGO CEO, Debbie Zimmerman, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Brock University.
2020 was a year like no other. Grape growing has always been dependent on the contributions and cooperation of mother nature, but in 2020 the natural world tossed a lethal pandemic into the mix, illustrating that while frosts and droughts can seem like catastrophes, she has much more powerful tools at hand should she choose to use them.
The year 2021 was as badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic as 2020 – if not more so. Stay at home orders and industry shutdowns continued to scatter obstacles and dangers in every direction. Safe vineyard workplace techniques remained in place, and with the exception of a few short weeks in the summer, winery stores, restaurants and tasting rooms remained shuttered.
For the first time in the GGO’s history, the Grape King John Fedorkow admirably served a third year in the annual honorary position.
Other challenges presented themselves in the growing season: in particular, there was 49% more rain in September and October than the ten-year average. Combined with the hot, humid weather for much of the growing season, and a late fall frost, the harvest was a long and difficult one. Despite this, the continuing sophistication of the growers produced 82,415 tonnes of grapes with a farmgate value of $111.5 million.
The GGO, on behalf of the province’s grape growers, negotiated a positive 1.76% price increase for all grape classes and varietals. One of side effects of the pandemic that demand for local beer, wine and spirits grew sharply amidst lock downs and stay at home orders.
The GGO continued to work with government and other industry partners to meet the challenges of a difficult time. In particular, the Australian WTO challenge and subsequent agreement by Canadian Government to eliminate the excise duty exemption on 100% Canadian grown wines resulted in both the provincial and the federal governments stepping up their grape and wine industry support. The Federal Government announced a $101 million two-year support program. The GGO worked tirelessly to ensure the new winery support program maintains the competitive balance in the sector, protects the industry that produces 100% Canadian wine and invests in the future of the sector. Further, the GGO in partnership with the Ontario Craft Wineries and Wine Growers Ontario, made a joint pre-budget submission to the Province proposing the elimination of the 6.1% basic tax on VQA and 100% Ontario grown wines sold through on-site winery retail stores, a permanent uncapped VQA support program, and reconvening the Government Grape and Wine Secretariat with measurable targets and view for long-term growth for both grape growers and wineries.
Started decades earlier, GGO has continued working closely with government to gain support for all our members; pictured are Chair Matthias Oppenlaender with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Also in 2021, the ongoing irrigation project led by GGO Vice Chair Bill Schenck moved closer to identifying potential viable water sources particularly in the Lincoln/west St. Catharines area. A pilot project for St. Catharines was considered as part of the next steps. Navigating the numerous government agencies and garnering government infrastructure support remained ongoing at year’s end.
Regulations related to the Liquor License and Control Act, 2019 were passed with a move to provide more transparency to “Ontario wine”. “Ontario wine” is now defined as wine produced from agricultural products grown in Ontario, and can no longer be blended with imported wine.
As with 2020, 2021 was a year without the aid of several of the GGO’s time tested promotional events. There was no Annual Celebrity Luncheon or the Harvest Festival that it kicked off every year, and no Wine & Food Show to introduce new products to consumers. While this hurt the province’s grape growers, the ongoing effects of the pandemic were far more harmful to the province’s wine producers, who experienced a second year with little or no income from their winery stores, restaurants and tasting rooms. Industry and government worked together on the development of support programs to assist wineries through the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues through 2022, however with vaccinations now available, lockdowns and business closures have ended. Tourism is slow to return with travel restrictions remaining in place for much of the year.
The federal Wine Sector Support Program announced in 2021, was launched with increased funding to $166 million over two years, and all wine produced from Canadian-grown grapes in the program year are eligible for the program.
The 2021 August drought, heavy fall rains, and late harvest proved to stress grape vines, particularly in the Niagara region, resulting in significant winter injury when temperatures fell in January. The full extent of vine loss to date is still to be assessed as vines are continuing to collapse throughout the summer months.
Premier Doug Ford together with Honourable Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs toured vineyards to witness the winter injury sustained in 2022, and identify potential solutions for impacted growers.
“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see” – Winston Churchill
Growing grapes is the highest value-added land use in agriculture. Our growers have deep roots not only in the land that they work, but the communities that they live in. Ontario grape growers not only add monetary value to the land, but they also enrich the landscape and add culture to their communities.
Change is the only constant in our industry. Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. Building on the strong roots we have established in our fields, communities, and our province we will continue to work hard to secure a sustainable grape growing industry for our next generations.
As we reflect on the past, our challenges, success, and the strong roots that we have established, let’s keep on cultivating and nourishing the plans we lay for the future to provide the fertile environment that will set up future generations for success.
– Matthias Oppenlaender, Chair, Grape Growers of Ontario