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B.C. winemakers worried in wake of Alberta boycott

MONTREAL—When Alberta announced a boycott of British Columbia wines in retaliation for regulations that could block a vital west coast oil pipeline, environmentalists across the country had a one-word response.
The clarion call of conscious consumers determined to flex their purchasing power in support of their political prerogatives was heard loudest in Montreal, where a small group of activists gathered in a government-run liquor store with handcrafted signs in one hand, a bottle of B.C. wine in the other.
Several social media hashtags were spawned and spread, the most inventive of which was #PinotNotPipelines.
“It was a spontaneous reaction of several groups that have been working together to block the Energy East pipeline. Seeing the degrading situation and seeing Alberta’s ridiculous reaction, we decided that we had to show our solidarity,” said Patrick Bonin, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
There were unverified reports mid-week that B.C. wines had sold out at an LCBO not far from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. There were Twitter sightings of activists in a Toronto liquor store brandishing a bottle of Diabolica from the Okanagan Valley as well as Rebellion Shiraz.
The latter, sold by Grimsby, Ont.-based Andrew Peller Ltd., has hints of blackberry, red berry and spice that pairs well with beef and lamb, but not necessarily the anti-pipeline campaign, given that Rebellion’s bottles contain a blend of domestic and international wines.
Still, the thought and the support is greatly appreciated in B.C.’s wine country.
“Any time that somebody’s buying British Columbia wine is fantastic,” said Christa-Lee McWatters Bond, director of sales and marketing at Encore Vineyards, a family-run winery started by her father, Harry, in Summerland, B.C.
But she admits that these are uncertain times. Since Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced the province’s liquor commission would stop buying B.C. wines in retaliation for new regulations that risk putting a cork in Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline, she has received messages expressing support for the controversial boycott.
She has also heard from sympathetic Alberta restaurants that carry Encore Vineyards wine and have no intention of pulling the company’s product from their shelves or wine lists.
“Some of them are actually doing features. They’re looking at their inventory levels and they’re bringing British Columbia products out of the warehouse because they want to make sure they’ve got inventory,” she said.
Most industry experts estimate that there is up to three weeks of B.C. wine still available in Alberta warehouses. The province accounts for a quarter of B.C.’s total wine sales, worth an estimated $70 million annually, said Miles Prodan, president of the B.C. Wine Institute.
But such figures also mean the boycott is another potential existential blow to winemakers who are already worried about the impact of the ongoing North American Free Trade renegotiations as well as complaints by the United States and Australia to the World Trade Organization, alleging unequal rules in B.C. that give an advantage to local wine over their products.
“It was totally unexpected to see what happened in Alberta,” Prodan said. “It literally came out of the blue for us. We recognize that it’s political posturing and that’s problematic for us.”
In Alberta, Notley’s NDP government is facing an election next year against the unabashedly pro-oil United Conservative Party. In B.C., NDP Premier John Horgan needs to maintain the support of Green Party MLAs, who hold the balance of power.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to walk a fine line between safeguarding the environment, building the economy and ensuring national unity. He has committed to getting Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline built, so that Alberta oil can get to important Asian markets.
This spat has him split.
But it has invigorated anti-pipeline activists as well as their pro-pipeline nemeses.
The winemakers and their industry advocates tread the no man’s land in between the entrenched camps, urging cooler heads to prevail, said Brian Athaide, Chief Financial Officer of Andrew Peller Ltd.
“It’s hard to judge what people say in private versus what they say in public,” he said. “We’re hoping it gets resolved sooner rather than later, though.”
So is McWatters Bond, who said a prolonged boycott could cause Encore Vineyards to rethink a planned expansion and the hiring of an additional 20 employees.
The implications have her feeling helpless, and a bit woozy.
“Hopefully we would be able to get this sorted out immediately, so that it won’t affect our entire business plan,” she said. “But if it were to go in, it would be something we will totally have to look at . . . Every winery’s business model is different, but from the small wineries to the big ones, we all depend on the sales in Alberta.”

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