Sacramental wine business under Ontario Liquor Board scrutiny

  • January 29, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - An internal LCBO review of how Mass wine gets from California to your parish’s altar has church suppliers a wee bit nervous, but the provincial wine merchant and regulator is trying to reassure everyone it is not going to reroute the grape vine.

A January freedom of information request by The Canadian Press uncovered internal Liquor Control Board of Ontario memos which decried “general non-compliance with rules and regulations” in the sacramental wine business.

“Vendors have been found to be importing unapproved, non-grape-based products,” said a draft review of the agency’s Sacramental Wine Vendor Program.

The draft report also speculates about the possibility of the LCBO taking over sacramental wine distribution.

“Effective overall control of the program could be achieved if LCBO can take ownership of the process, from ordering through sales,” it said.

Church suppliers who have traditionally sold wine to parishes don’t like that idea.

“That’s one salary — one of our employees’ salary,” one church goods supplier told The Catholic Register.

Now that the memos have been aired in newspapers, the LCBO is trying to reassure existing sacramental wine vendors that the provincial agency isn’t trying to take over their business.

“Our intent is to continue to provide the service through the vendors of sacramental wine to the religious groups. Obviously it’s an important service,” said LCBO spokesman Chris Layton.

As for non-grape products being sold as sacramental wine, that’s not an issue in Catholic circles, said Brenda Blais of Bob Blais Church Supplies Inc. To be used in a Mass a wine has to be approved by the bishop where the wine is manufactured, and it has to meet Catholic liturgical norms for Mass wines. That means the wine must be an all-natural product made from grapes, with no preservatives or additives.

The current LCBO review is the result of some missing paperwork and other violations by a few sacramental wine vendors, but so far no one has named any of the Catholic vendors.

Blais claims her sacramental wine business is already very tightly regulated.

“Every single bottle that is sold, we have to have an authorized signature with that invoice. So a priest must sign for every single bottle or case of wine he is purchasing for the church,” she said.

The province collects 15 per cent on net sales.

So far the priests are mostly signing for sweet California wines. A few Mass wines are imported from New Jersey.

The LCBO estimates the sacramental wine business for all religions and Christian denominations is worth about $1.8 million for about 200,000 bottles imported annually.

“That is available, but typically the priests tend to go for something just a little bit sweeter.”

Canadian Vintner’s Association CEO Dan Paszkowski isn’t sure why no Canadian wineries have gone after the sacramental wine business.

“If it’s a big enough market for the wine to be imported from California or New Jersey, it should be a big enough market for Canadian wineries to express an interest,” he said.

While there are several wineries that pride themselves on producing all-natural products, organically grown and without preservatives, none have been able to meet strict government standards that would allow them to label the wine an organic product, said Paszkowski. Beyond organically grown, the federal government standard demands that an organic wine not come through the same press or pass through any of the same equipment as a non-organic wine.

The wine industry is trying to get Ottawa to ease up a bit on those rules.

The first wines ever produced in Canada date from 1636 when the Jesuits began to produce their own sacramental wine. But the Canadian wine industry sullied its own reputation during prohibition in the 1920s, when it produced cheap and unpalatable wines coloured with vegetable dyes kept free of bacteria with sulfur.

It’s been a long road back to respectability since the Vintner’s Quality Alliance was created in 1989. If they can persuade a Canadian bishop to bless their products, Canadian wines might make it back to where they were in 1636.

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