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Urban Cowboy: Is Canadian wine ready for Canadian airlines?

In a country like ours, with a booming wine industry, the inability of both airlines and wineries to match meals or snacks with Canadian wine sends conflicting messages to domestic and foreign travellers alike who are told Canadian wines can run with the pack
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Canadian wine is rarely served on Canadian airlines – at least not in economy class, where everything from comfort to food and beverages seem sacrificed and mediocre. And that’s just wrong.

In a country like ours, with a booming wine industry, the inability of both airlines and wineries to match meals or snacks with Canadian wine sends conflicting messages to domestic and foreign travellers alike who are told Canadian wines can run with the pack.

For ages, Canada’s two major airlines have said domestic wineries just can’t provide the required volume. More on this later. But you may remember that excuse as the same one the LCBO used to give about why its Ontario wine selection was so limited.

Then, however, the LCBO woke up to the fact that customers wanted more Ontario wine options, as part of the growing interest in local products. OK, it said, maybe it could, after all, make an effort to carry some smaller quantities.

And it did. Now, Ontario wine owns 22 per cent of the Ontario market.

That’s a lot of wine. It’s still not enough to make Ontario wineries happy. They think the LCBO could be doing more to promote their products. But it’s better than before.

Volume is certainly not the problem it once was, before vineyard owners here started transitioning from the table grapes they’d grown for decades, to vinifera wine-quality grapes. With help from the province, new acreage sprung up in three Ontario regions that have turned out to be ideal for growing such grapes – Niagara, Prince Edward County, and southwestern Ontario.

The transition is not totally complete, but it’s no longer a next-year story. Most grape growers in Ontario now produce grapes for local wineries, or have wineries themselves.

That’s led to the establishment of more than 200 wineries, a top-notch, high-standards program called Vintners’ Quality Alliance and a proud and influential commodity group called the Grape Growers of Ontario. Its 450-500 members grow around 17,000 acres of vinifera grapes, with a farm gate value of $95-$100 million a year.

And naturally, they think you should drink Ontario wine not only on the ground, but in the air, too. Why let the likes of Air Canada serve you ordinary French wine?  

“Demand better quality!” grape growers’ CEO Debbie Zimmerman told 40 members of the Eastern Canada Farm Writers’ Association gathered for their annual meeting last week at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

I agree. Consumers have to push back, or very little changes.

Zimmerman claims that now, Ontario wineries could indeed address airlines’ volume demand. One way is to offer international-Canadian blended wines, perhaps as a first step towards serving higher quality Canadian wines that are not blends.

I suppose the thinking is that if Canadian airlines are reluctant to budge from serving non-Canadian wines anyway, blends offer at least a modicum of Canadian content.

This approach will make some Canadian wine aficionados shudder. By definition, blends don’t meet VQA standards for quality. And when it comes to promoting respect for Canadian wine, the present blended offerings won’t get us to where we want to be.

But there’s nothing to say that going into the future, the present offerings are the only options for meeting airlines’ needs. It sounds like a challenge to wineries to come up with tailored, quality selections that are sustainable and affordable.

After all, stuffed into our seats in economy class, we don’t expect the cream of the crop. But likewise, don’t serve us dreck, either domestic or imported. It’s insulting.



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