by SUSAN MANN
Fruit wines and cider sales can start at farmers’ markets in the spring and at grocery stores beginning in the fall, says Jeff Leal, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“By the fall of this year, 70 stores across Ontario will carry Ontario wines, cider and fruit wines,” he said in a telephone interview. “We want to make sure that all sales are conducted in a socially-responsibly manner. But this is great news for Ontario’s agricultural sector because our cider and fruit wine producers use 100 per cent Ontario product.”
Leal made the announcement Friday at fruit winery Kawartha Country Wines in Buckhorn, in his riding of Peterborough, one day after Premier Kathleen Wynne made a similar announcement in Toronto. In December, the Ontario government announced beer could be sold in grocery stores.
The changes are part of recommendations made by the Premier’s Advisory Council on government assets, chaired by former TD Bank executive Ed Clark, and accepted by the government.
Similar to beer sales in grocery stores, there will be restrictions on wine and cider sales to “ensure safe and responsible retailing,” including restricted sales hours and rigorous staff training, a Feb. 19 agriculture ministry press release said.
Eventually, Ontario will be making fruit wine, cider and wine available at up to 300 independent and large grocery stores, the release said.
For the past two years, the Ontario government has run a pilot project looking into the sale of VQA grape wines at farmers’ markets. Leal said fruit wines and cider weren’t included in that pilot because “we wanted to go ahead with the VQA wine pilot at farmers’ markets to see how that would go and to see what success it would have. Indeed, it was a great success.”
The pilot project “was the basis on allowing us to move forward today with fruit wines and ciders,” he added.
Spokespeople for fruit wineries and cider producers welcome the changes.
Bert Andrews, who produces fruit wines at his Scotch Block Country Winery in Halton Region, said it’s good news the government extended the sales of fruit wines to farmers’ markets and grocery stores. There will now be more places the wines can be sold and that “should boost sales.”
Thomas Wilson, chair of the Ontario Craft Cider Association, said along with allowing the sale of craft ciders at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, the government has listened to the association’s input this year that “craft cider is really more like a craft beer than wine.”
Wilson said cider producers are “licensed as wineries but we’re competing with craft beer.” The change in designation “that we’re more like craft beer is huge for us,” he added.
The association represents more than 20 cider producers in Ontario and its mission is to ensure Ontario is recognized as a centre of cider excellence and innovation.
In Ontario, cider is currently sold through the LCBO, wine retail stores and directly to bars and restaurants, the association’s Feb. 18 news release said. Ontario-produced craft cider sales are about $4 million annually.
Cider is one of the most rapidly growing beverage categories with overall growth of 40 per cent last year. Wilson said the growth is due to its popularity among people looking for gluten-free products. Furthermore, university students and millennials see it as a cool, new beverage and are drinking it.
Wilson, who farms near Caledon, said there is a huge interest from the association’s members to sell cider at farmers’ markets and in grocery stores. “Half our members are fruit wine farm operations so they’re at these farmers’ markets, my operation included, to sell fruit and fresh juice.” Wilson noted he goes to the Brampton market and sometimes to the one in Orangeville.
Ontario cider is made using 100 per cent juice from Ontario apples. It usually has a five to seven per cent alcohol content, according to the agriculture ministry release.
The addition of new sales locations for cider means the industry will be increasing its demand for juice apples. “Our industry is going to start soaking up all the juice apples in Ontario. There will actually be demand for juice apples,” Wilson noted.
“What our industry has the potential to do is replicate the grape industry as far as grape growers and the wineries, and look at not only higher prices for the fruit but also forward contracting, multi-year contracts,” he explained. BF