Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why Grapes are Being Freed While Hops Remained Shackled

Over the past month BC wine consumers and the BC wine industry have had several reasons to pop champagne corks in celebration of changes to both federal and provincial laws which have benefited both groups.

First Bill C-311, a Private Member's Bill  introduced into the House of Commons by Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas, prompted an amendment to the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (IILA) of 1928 which now allows, under federal law, that wine, and wine only, may transported or shipped across provincial borders by consumers.

Spirits and beer are still illegal to ship or transport across provincial boundaries as they have been since the introduction of the IILA.

Next the Provincial Liberals got in on the act by allowing consumers to buy direct from Canadian wineries and as an added bonus, they did not have to pay the BC Liquor Distribution Branch's (LDB) 123% mark-up! Even though the feds had allowed for cross-border shipments of wine, it is the provincial governments that ultimately have control of what alcohol gets imported into their jurisdictions so this move was critical to give Bill C-311 some meaning.

Again, these allowances were made for wine only, leaving laws unchanged in regards to spirits and beer.

If that weren't enough,  Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for all thing liquor in BC, next announced that BC wine lovers could now take their favourite bottle of wine to participating restaurants, pay a corkage fee and enjoy it with their meal. The allowance for Bring Your Own Wine (BYOW) was immediate and restaurants have been taking advantage of the freedom to allow BYOW since the announcement was made mid-July.

All of these great freedoms and allowances for wine lovers have craft beer drinkers crying into their sleeves. The moves definitely give the appearance that the BC wine consumers and  wine industry get favoured treatment from the BC Liberals, the LDB and the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB), and in many cases this is true, but in these cases I would argue that these wine-centric changes have been well-earned by the consumers of wine in this province who have organized, lobbied and gained the support from the industry to back their fight to change laws.

Groups like #freemygrapes, who Albas thanks on his website for their essential support, and Modernize Wine have been working hard to bring wine consumers together on issues and form loud, strong voices that the government and the wine industry have not been able to ignore. They have a small core of very dedicated people who are adept at creating a buzz, educating other consumers about the importance of supporting their movements and catching the attention of politicians. They are good at defining, ahead of time, exactly what it is that they want, creating an action plan and then going out and getting the results they want..

And contrary to popular belief, these movements are not heavily funded by deep-pocketed vineyard owners, at least not in the beginning.

#Freemygrapes and Modernize Wine are consumer-driven, grassroots movements. They use social media  to the maximum to create a buzz and focus attention on themselves. They often organize on-line chats, to discuss the issues at hand and keep people focused. They have email write-in and Twitter campaigns which target politicians and bureaucrats who are in positions to influence the changes they seek and put pressure on the various private sector groups to support them. More importantly than organizing these awareness-raising events is that they get participation in large numbers which is essential. They are determined and have been organizing for years now, which is one of the major reasons they are now seeing successes.

These movements being consumer-driven makes sense because many, if not all manufacturers, vendors and importers of alcohol in BC are afraid to stick their heads up and speak out about problems and demand changes due to the atmosphere of fear and the widely-held belief that voicing complaints and concerns will result in reprisals from the LCLB and LDB. I don't know how many times I have heard from licensees they feel both government agencies are "vindictive" when challenged either privately or publicly. You only have to look at the RIO Theatre saga, where RIO ownership publicly challenged the Liberal Government and LCLB in the media and paid the price with the process dragging on much longer that it needed to, almost costing RIO ownership their business, before Mr Coleman finally did what he should have done straight off, which is make changes to a decades-old liquor policy that had no place being enforced in the 21st Century.

It is a widely-held belief by many that the process involving the RIO's licensing issues was purposely delayed to make the RIO ownership pay for their direct public challenges. These are, of course, just rumours....

So it is up to us, the consumers, to lead the charge as we have less to lose in regards to what the LCLB and/or LDB can do to us. They cannot suspend our liquor license or hit us with some arbitrary fine for "contravening" liquor laws. They cannot lose our liquor order of products that fill our shelves. They cannot lose our paperwork, delaying payment for products sold weeks before.

They can ignore us, but in the end, if consumers make enough noise, with enough people, politicians, who ultimately call the shots for the LCLB and LDB, will listen because consumers are voters and in the end, politicians are all about getting votes so they can stay in power.

The craft beer consumer is not without options and does have CAMRA BC, and their branches in Vancouver, Victoria and the Fraser Valley, to rally around but CAMRA BC does have numbers, with close to 1,100 individual members and over 80 corporate supporters, but those numbers mean nothing if the majority of members are silent and/or unwilling to get involved. I made recent calls to individual members to write emails to LCLB General Karen Ayers and minister Rich Coleman in support of CAMRA Vancouver's Bring Your Own Craft Beer Campaign and out of the 250 or so who had signed our petition and our 700+ members, about 20 people responded (and my thanks to all who did respond).

A group like CAMRA and movements/campaigns are only as effective as those supporting it and until craft beer consumers learn to get as organized, vocal and supportive as wine consumers are, they are going to be like poor kids standing outside the candy shop with their noses pressed up against the window, jealously watching the rich kids inside the store sampling and buying their sweets.

So, craft beer consumers, if you want to #freemyhops, Bring Your Own Craft Beer or are against the LDB privatization of distribution, get active, get involved and support those groups out there, like CAMRA BC/CAMRA Vancouver, who are actively trying to make a difference. Write letters to the editor, get involved in tweet and email campaigns, sign petitions, get friends and family interested in supporting the cause.

And if you are waiting for the person next to you to fight your battle, don't because I have news for you, they are probably waiting for you to fight their's.

1 comment:

  1. I think the average citizen doesn't believe their individual effort can change government. Individually, that is probably true. However, individual efforts applied collectively in an organized fashion can change history. CAMRA's role is creating the organized framework to make this happen.