Ontario wine producers are hopeful as the Niagara Region enters stage three of the province’s reopening plan, visitors will return in droves.
The industry, like so many others, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Sales of wine to restaurants and bars stopped altogether when COVID-19 first hit and are now slowly returning, but at a fraction of what they use to be.
Murray Souter runs Diamond Estates and the company’s brands include popular names like Dan Aykroyd Wines, Twenty Bees and Eastdell Wines.
“When the pandemic arrived, of course, the LCBO and grocery stores were very much still alive, but all of our retail sales at our stores and through the bars and restaurants disappeared. It has been 17 weeks that,” he told Global News.
“Most of the smaller wineries particularly have struggled to make ends meet.”
Souter said the lack of tourists to the region has been devastating.
“We have no tourists coming in from the far east, we have no tourists coming in from the U.S. or from Europe, and that would be about half of the business in my winery but also in other wineries in the neighbourhood. It’s a significant part of our business model,” he said.
Emily Hogeveen, a spokesperson for Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips, told Global News, “The government recognizes the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on Ontario’s wineries.”
She also said the province is committed to working with the industry to ensure it remains healthy.
“The government confirmed it is extending to 2021-22 support programs that help small wineries with key business decisions and planning while the government continues to conduct its review of the beverage alcohol sector,” Hogeveen said.
But Aaron Dobbin, president and CEO of the Wine Growers Ontario, said he wants to see tax breaks for producers.
“We are one of the most heavily taxed industries in the country. What we would really like to see, we’d like to see a reduction in the tax on Ontario wines,” he said.
Dobbin said that tax relief is critical if the government truly wants the industry to bounce back.
“There is a tax that the Ontario government puts only on Ontario wines and it’s a 6.1-per-cent tax,” he said.
“We feel that if the government were to remove that tax on us, it would free up the wineries to first pay their employees, to pay the bills, but then also to make the investments in advertising and marketing that will be necessary for the longer-term survival for the individual wineries and the industry.”
Both Souter and Dobbin said they are thankful Ontario residents are still picking up local wines through the LCBO and are hopeful they will see tourists returning once wineries reopen for tours and tastings Friday.
“We’re open,” Souter said.
“We’ve taken great strides in terms of new protocols in safety for our customers and for our employees. The experience is a little different, but it is still a great experience to come down here and taste world-class wines.”
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