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The little winery that could

By | National Post on Aug 10 2016

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If you drive east on Highway 401 from Toronto for an hour and a half, take exit 522 south to the Loyalist Parkway and navigate increasingly narrow lanes to Closson Road, you will eventually find yourself in front of a weathered barn from the 1860s and a freshly painted white farmhouse undergoing a loving restoration.

A small vineyard slopes behind the barn, which serves as both tasting room and wine cellar for the Old Third Winery in the heart of Prince Edward County. That the Old Third is located in Prince Edward County is key to this story, but it hardly occurred to me last summer when I visited the place and met Bruno Francois, the winemaker, and his partner, Jens Korberg.

During that visit, a summer squall erupted across the sky; rain buffeted the grapevines’ broad leaves and pooled in the dry earth by the roots. Francois, oblivious to the storm, trudged on between the wet rows of crops, as he described the unique qualities of the land that he had discovered and, after much regulatory wrangling, purchased and planted with his vines.

The first thing that impressed me was Francois’ obsessive commitment to his self-taught craft. The second thing that impressed me was his wine. I’ve had the privilege of tasting a lot of very good wine in my life, and Francois’ wines are some of the purest and most honest I’ve ever had. They crackle with life and have won deserved praise from critics and customers alike.

Several months after my visit, Francois received a letter from the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), a provincial government agency charged with maintaining a consistency of style and quality for wines that are submitted for its imprimatur. The process is voluntary, and the Old Third doesn’t participate.

The letter informed him that, henceforth, the Old Third could no longer use the term “Prince Edward County” on its labels, website or any other marketing materials. It further implied that even saying his winery was located in Ontario would risk sanction by the VQA, which claimed exclusive rights to these geographic designations.

Francois was dumbfounded. He had been making wine in Prince Edward County since before the VQA recognized it as an official growing region. Who were these pettifogging pencil-pushers to tell him he couldn’t use the legal name of the county and province where he was located? How would customers know where to find him? The VQA helpfully suggested he could describe his wines as being “local” or “Canadian.” His disbelief gave way to anger.

Like most entrepreneurs, Francois has no patience for anything that gets in the way of producing the best wines his blessed plot of earth can yield and selling them to willing buyers with as little hassle as possible. Now, a government agency, of which he had never wanted any part, was threatening the viability of his business. Maybe the VQA was just arrogant enough to think Francois would roll over. Instead, he pushed back, hiring local lawyer Alexandra Mayeski to challenge the VQA’s nonsensical restrictions.

Two weeks ago, I received a call. Francois’ staccato voice tumbled down the line: He had won! The administrative tribunal to which he had appealed agreed that the VQA had overreached. It ruled that the VQA’s expansive claim of exclusive rights to legal place names would lead to “unreasonable if not … absurd consequence(s).” He was elated, but he was also reflective: “I never thought I’d find myself in this situation, fighting the government just to make a living.” It’s a sentiment one hears all too often in public interest law.

For now, common sense has prevailed. Francois is free to pursue his Lockean dream, to keep plowing his life’s savings into the loamy Prince Edward County clay each harvest, making from the elemental marriage of soil, vine and labour, something truly special that brings joy to thousands.

His lawyer has cautioned that the VQA may appeal. In victory, Francois is defiant, prepared to fight on if necessary. But he also knows the price of standing up to the state — the physical stress and mental distraction of living with bureaucratic uncertainty. And he knows an appeal would mean that the Old Third will once again be under a cloud much more ominous than a summer storm.

(Image by junkii under CC 2.0).

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