MOUNTAIN – Small businessiness in rural Ontario do not have an easy row to hoe, even at the best of times.

Paul “Smokie” LeBlanc, who along with his wife Debbie, owns and operates Smokie Ridge Vineyard in Mountain, is also the president of the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers (EOWP). EOWP is made up of 16 vineyards and wineries with over 100,000 planted cold hybrid varieties of grapes.

These hardy grapes are designed to survive this part of Ontario’s cold weather unlike the climate of the Niagara Peninsula where most of Ontario gets its wine.

While the grapes can withstand colder temperatures, the wineries involved in the EOWP struggle to stay alive. The province continues to give them the cold shoulder regarding allowing for a level playing field when it comes to selling their wines in the Ontario market place.

The problem is not the effort vineyards have put into promoting their product.

Paul “Smokie” LeBlanc and his wife Debbie were at the Meet Me on Main Street event Wed., July 31. Morin Photo

The issue is the decision of the Vintners Quality Alliance, (VQA), a 30-year-old governing body created to protect the wine industry in Southern Ontario. VQA refuses to give equal status to the hybrid grapes used in this part of the country by EOWP members, as compared to vineyards in other parts of the province who are able to use traditional grapes.

As a result of the lack of approval by the VQA, wines made from the hybrid grapes are subject to a 53 percent levee when sold outside of local vineyard stores or to a licensed establishment.

The levee effectively makes it impossible for them to make any kind of meaningful profit in a marketplace eager to embrace their product.

LeBlanc, stated in a letter to Premier Doug Ford, where he asked for help in getting a level playing field for the EOWP members, “For the past four-plus years we have gone to every level of government and organization and informed all of our local MPPs, most of which are now members of your cabinet and who supported us and condemned the Liberal government for this gross injustice.”

LeBlanc said the result was disappointing. He said the response was to basically brush off the EOWP. “It is painfully obvious that they did not read or understand our request to rectify that unfair situation we are in,” he wrote.

The irony of the situation the EOWP finds themselves in is that the same grapes they use are considered equal in other parts of the world.

LeBlanc said, “They are now being used in the Northern United States, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, China, Mongolia and Northern Europe.

The letter to Ford stated, “Once again we are writing to you now Premier Ford, and your government who supported the changes when the Liberals were in power and respectfully ask that you rectify a situation which is detrimental to the Ontario Wine Industry as a whole and Eastern Ontario Wine Producers in particular.”

He believes the preferential treatment given to the wineries using grapes sanctioned by the VQA is unfair and hurts small business owners across the province, especially in Eastern Ontario.

The letter goes on to ask Ford to assign an Office of Primary Import (OPI), to look into the issue, “to navigate the bureaucracy or remove the 53 percent levee we must pay, and permit us to sell our wines in the farmers’ markets.”

Currently non-VQA wines cannot be sold across Ontario without being subject to surplus fees and taxes.

They cannot be sold at the LCBO without paying a penalty. They cannot be sold at farmers’ markets or local grocery stores

“Only wines produced in the greater Niagara area and Prince Edward County qualify for VQA status,” said LeBlanc.

The EOWP want to make their region as competitive and good tasting as they can.

Because of a lack of positive response from the province the group has gone to the competition board.

“All we have gotten back is pushback they have not even bothered to come here and help us and see what we are doing,” he said. “This makes no sense whatsoever.”

North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser said he supports the group and sees them as part of a growing local business environment that will benefit everyone. “I definitely support them,” he said. “We follow the same rules as everyone else. All we are asking the government to do is making a level playing field.”

The EOWP is determined to turn this part of Ontario into the next wine region.

The creation of the EOWP wine route is a positive step.

The route includes 14 wineries, all family run, who are proud of their product and want to share it with the rest of Ontario.

“We cannot afford to wait 10 years for the VQA to accept us,” said LeBlanc.

They are an alliance of wine, grape, cider, apple, mead and honey producers committed to raising awareness of their products in Ontario and beyond.