La Dolce Vita: Time for overhaul of B.C. wine regulations

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A dozen years ago the Liberal party swept to power in B.C., promising a dramatic reduction in regulations and a more business friendly approach to governing. No doubt there have been many accomplishments since then, but alcohol-related laws have been largely ignored or, at best, tinkered with.

On our recent trip to the Okanagan, I don’t think I came across one winemaker or winery owner who didn’t have a story to tell about the ridiculous regulations and complexity of licensing, which is bewilderingly complex and irrational. Here in the Creston Valley, I spoke to a winery owner who told of learning what needed to be done in order to provide a location for an evening wedding. It seemed simple enough: The organizers would apply for a special occasion license. But along the way the owners learned that they would have to apply, three weeks ahead, for a temporary suspension of the picnic licence that allows winery guests to enjoy a glass or bottle of wine out on the patio. The regulatory requirement is all the more absurd because the winery isn’t, and never has been, open in the evening.

Then there is the restriction that comes with that picnic license. Among the many rules, among the silliest, is that winery staff is not allowed to carry the wine to the patio — that’s left to customers. So much for customer service, or for a subtle way of monitoring that only adults are imbibing and that they are consuming only in moderate amounts.

Add in to the haphazard approach to the liquor industry a government announcement last winter that it plans to privatize the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, which warehouses and distributes liquor to retailers. This would appear to be a first step in privatizing a liquor control system that pours millions and millions annually into government revenues, helping to pay from everything from hospitals and schools to boneheaded career bureaucrats who sit at desks and write legislation about the wine industry, without the slightest experience in how their decisions impact business, tourists and citizens.

The shift from a system that not so long ago allowed only government liquor stores to today’s blend of rural agency stores, privately operated neighbourhood stores and government stores has worked out quite well, probably more by good luck and good management, if the government’s overall record in the area is any indication. But the decision to privatize the warehousing and distribution system doesn’t seem to have been done with much consultation and there has been little or no attempt to explain how such a move would benefit anyone but a few business owners. If anything, it is likely to reduce labour wages, with the resulting savings going into fewer, deeper pockets.

Visit other jurisdictions and one quickly concludes that the provincial government has a woeful lack of understanding about how booze production and sales can tie in with community economic development plans. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to updating or privatizing, the government would better serve the provincial economy and its citizens by undertaking a massive review of laws relating to the alcohol industry. It should invite the private sector and citizens into the process and work to keep bureaucrats and elected officials at arm’s length from the review until enough information has been gathered to start overhauling the system.

I’m planning a return trip to Walla Walla, Wash., which so impressed us last year with how the city, state, private and academic sectors have partnered to create economic development activity. British Columbia should be scouring the world for success stories and revamping laws and regulations based on best practices. It’s an approach that is long overdue.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.