The foolishness of B.C.'s grocery store wine model 

Try aisle eight, inside the store within a store — and pay separately

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If you haven't yet heard, grocery stores will be selling wine beginning April Fool's Day, and given the way government has handled the entire affair officials couldn't have picked a more meaningful day to launch the initiative.

I won't bore you with all the regulations, but so far only two stores qualify to sell wines based on licensing restrictions that protect all other private wine shops and government stores.

Government is feverishly working to alter its formerly sacred legislation permitting the movement of licences from around the province to allow grocery stores to acquire or engage in partnerships with those who have licences to somehow make the grocery store model work. They could have issued grocery store licences, but that would have made too much sense.

I've been in the United States for three weeks and in between holidaying I've been patrolling grocery store aisles trying to figure out what it is about wine sales in supermarkets that led our government to propose some of the goofiest grocery store regulations on the planet.

Anyone can see in short order that, most of the time, grocery store liquor aisles are empty except for those moments when consumers happen upon the wine aisle and they decide to buy a bottle or two, presumably to match their dinner plans. The prices range from about US $5.99 to about $40, with most labels in the $10-$15 range.

An unscientific guess would put the selection at about roughly 75 per cent American wine and 25 per cent international labels, with France, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina most often represented. All the big brands are present, and it's the familiar ones that are more often than not "on sale." There are very few of what I would term first-rate bottles of wine that would have aficionados storming the aisles.

One thing I didn't see was any "store-within-a-store" models — the brainchild of our uptight liquor regulators who love to treat wine buyers like children. Nor were there any freestanding stores in supermarket parking lots of the kind we see in Alberta.

All I could see was an aisle and a half of wine that stopped where the beer, whose selection was equally innocuous, started. As for the buying process, you simply pay at the front of the store as you would for all your groceries.

Not so in B.C. — separate tills are the plan.

I can only think that separate tills are meant to antagonize customers and perhaps make them think twice about even bothering to buy wine in grocery stores since they'll have to pay for liquor in one area and their food in another. I guess we can be thankful there is only one entrance for men and women when entering the store-within-a-store. I mean seriously, who thinks this stuff up?

At one point the government was actually touting its grocery store plan by saying, although you would have to pay at a different till, you could still use the same shopping cart you were putting your groceries in. These guys seem to think of everything!

By the way, I didn't see a single person inebriated nor was there any rush of underage kids trying to buy liquor in U.S. grocery stores, but you were dutifully asked for ID if you looked the least bit underage. In the stores I visited, you get the feeling they had no intention of jeopardizing their massive grocery business by selling wine to minors or to the inebriated, something the organized opposition to B.C. grocery stores selling wine drones on about at every chance.

Further adding to the bizarre behaviour of regulators is the pronouncement that only British Columbia wines will be sold in grocery stores. Ignoring whatever agreements exist between Canada and our international trading partners, government plans to prohibit any wines made outside of British Columbia to be sold in grocery stores, giving local producers yet another leg up in the market.

It wouldn't be so laughable if there were any local producers making wine that could be priced low enough to meet the demanding needs of supermarket buyers.

There is very little worth drinking in B.C. under $15 and most of the best wines are on the far side of $20, so I'm not really sure which wines are destined for those stores. Given the resistance of local producers to sell their wine any other way but direct from the winery, I'm confused as to what we can expect in grocery stores. I'm sure Safeway et al were planning on grinding distributors to sell inexpensive, second-label South African and South American wines stacked to the ceiling, so what will they do now?

Other changes along these lines include a new wholesale price system (read, tax) that so far includes even higher prices for most of the wine sold in Whistler restaurants and hotels.

There was a time during the modernization of liquor laws when the trade thought they would finally get a true wholesale price for liquor rather than having to pay the same price as retail customers. But that request has been summarily dismissed by our policy makers in Victoria, who seem to have zero understanding of how the real-world food and wine business works.

Government has also made a big deal about leveling the playing field, but it appears to be tilting the surface in its favour as they prepare to open B.C. Liquor Stores for longer hours and on Sundays, and to start serving cold beer and wine in selected stores.

Compare that with the original private wine shops that will have their long-negotiated discount model cut in half. If that's not enough, they will not be given beer and spirits to sell like all other retailers, private and government. To ensure the field doesn't become too level, the government has also refused to allow private retailers the right to sell beer, wine and spirits to restaurants, clubs, golf courses or any other liquor resellers, keeping that perk for its retail stores.

For a resort town like Whistler as well as Okanagan wine country and downtown Vancouver and Victoria, it's almost as if the government has turned its back on the tourism business, preferring to fleece each and every tourist that comes to town.

I wish I could say it was an April Fool's joke instead of just a bunch of fools joking around with the tourism industry.

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.

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