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Malcolm Jolley: Why consumer wine clubs are the future of fine wine in Canada

Commentary

I sporadically organize an amateur wine club with a small group of my friends and neighbours. We go in on a bunch of cases of wine and redistribute the bottles among ourselves. I proposed the club to my friends out of enlightened self-interest. By way of the club, a handful of us get to try wine from a number of cases while only paying for one.

The logistics of sharing the wine keep our numbers small, but I sometimes imagine what would happen if the club got bigger. Like a lot bigger: just under 10,000 members. At that size, we could cut out the middlemen and buy directly from producers from anywhere in the world. And our orders would be big enough to cut some pretty good deals for ourselves.

That is, actually, pretty much how the Opimian Wine Club works. With chapters in every province, Opimian is a professional but non-profit, member-driven organization that imports wine directly into the country. (They also work directly with Canadian winemakers.) Founded in 1973 in Montreal as the Opimian Society, it’s been doing it for half a century. But as old as this niche player in the Canadian wine scene might be, the way it works seems to be particularly suited to consumer preferences in the post-pandemic wine market.

Opimian’s driving founders were two Brit expats, John Sambrook and Ken Christie MW, with experience in the London wine trade. They were underwhelmed by the lack of selection and the difficulty in buying many wines in their adopted homeland. They correctly surmised that if they wanted to drink well without paying through the nose, they’d have to go get the wines themselves, as it were, and recruited a group of like-minded friends to generate enough orders to make it a go.

Opimian continued to grow through the last quarter of the twentieth century as a bit of an anomaly in the wine trade. To be fair, most Canadians just weren’t that into wine until the 1990s. What was for sale at the local provincial liquor retail monopoly was deemed adequate. When the internet and dot com arrived, online ventures started up to varying degrees of success, but unlike Opimian, they marked up for profit, and deals were few and far between.

The COVID pandemic lockdowns were the watershed moment for wine clubs in Canada. While the liquor stores were deemed an essential service and stayed open, the other main channels for selling wine were not. Provincial governments loosened rules around selling wine directly to consumers, and importing agents and wineries began setting up their own clubs, often offering mixed cases.

The trouble with the agency and winery clubs was that they, unsurprisingly, kept their offers to their own products, which naturally were priced with profit in mind. Brick-and-mortar bottle shops, which offered restaurant wines directly to consumers, could offer a wider array of products, but had to mark up on the mark-ups, and remained pricey. The consumer wine-buying landscape had changed and opened up, for which all winos were grateful. We just wished we could find a few bargains in the mix.

Mike Howe thinks Opimian is well poised to serve Canadian wine buyers in this new landscape, where ordering wine to the door has become a regular thing. Howe, who has a background in wine event marketing, was hired last year as Opimian’s head of growth, and he says he’s looking for new members among the “wine knowledgeable or wine curious”.

Full disclosure: I know Howe from being invited to wine industry events he helped manage on behalf of premium wine regions in his last job. When he asked me if I wanted to go see Opimian’s Ontario events centre at the Dymon Wine Cellar storage facility in the western Toronto suburb of Etobicoke last week, I gladly accepted, curious to see what the twenty-first-century version of Opimian was up to.

The Dymon facility is another new feature of the wine consumer landscape in Canada. Collectors can keep wine in purpose-built “lockers” there and bring friends, or perhaps corporate clients, there to enjoy the wines while using the dining and lounging facilities. Importing agents are increasingly using the facilities in the same way, and the Dymon one has the advantage of being close to the airport and easily accessible to GTA’s highway system. When we arrive, the main dining area is set up and filling up for a Super Tuscan tasting for restaurant buyers.

Howe reminds me that Opimian is also an importing agent, just one whose customers are also its owners. He’s set up a locker for Opimian wines at Dymon to host events for his clients, who are also his members. He explains, “We do the marketing, sales, and order collecting for them, but we also build community and make personal connections to the wines,” adding, “Many of our members get to know our producers personally through our in-person experiences, which can also include travel.”

Howe gives me the numbers on the size and breadth of the club: about 8,600 members buy from over 200 producers in 17 countries. Opimian wines are exclusive to the club in Canada, although an increasing number of restaurants are joining to get access to the competitive pricing. Wines are selected principally by a committee of three Masters of Wine.

It’s hard not to see Opimian as the once and future model of fine wine in this country. Outside of Alberta, it seems unlikely the provinces will ever give up their retail stranglehold to the private sector in any significant way. The liberalizations that came with the pandemic have still come attached with regulatory strings that keep prices artificially high. The way around this seems to be consumer ownership; a true club.

It’s even more unlikely that the provinces will lower inter-provincial barriers so that wine can be imported and marketed nationally. Opimian understands that a producer an ocean away is much more interested in entering a market of 40,000,000 people than ten or thirteen with a lot less. Again, maybe consumer-driven-and-owned buying will finally give Canadian winos the purchasing power they deserve.

Joanna Baron: Censuring an NDP MPP for pro-Palestine comments is not a free speech issue

Commentary

Is there anything more Canadian than the fact that a Member of Provincial Parliament who issued a statement after a barbaric massacre of innocents in Israel, in which she (checks notes) neglected to mention the atrocity at all, criticized Israel, and edified the violence as justified retaliation, was kicked out of caucus by her party not for completely lacking a moral compass but for contributing to an “unsafe work environment” and undermining “collective work”?

To recap: on October 10, as the world was still reeling from images of bleeding and brutally murdered Jewish babies, grandmothers, and young women, the now former NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre Sarah Jama took to X to respond. Jama stated that she was “reflecting on her role as a politician participating in this settler colonial system.” She accused Israel of apartheid, using chemical warfare against Gazans, and referred to “retaliation rooted in settler colonialism.”

Jama is 29, but she still has the fervour and guilelessness of an even younger university activist. Earlier this year after winning a byelection in Hamilton Centre, she apologized after retweeting a post calling an Islamic Jihad terrorist a “martyr.” I know her type well: watching the likes of Jama contort language to justify the suicide bombings of pizza parlours and buses during the Second Intifada was a canon event for me as a McGill undergraduate which profoundly shaped my worldview.

On October 18, Ontario legislative house speaker Paul Calandra moved to censure Jama’s “disreputable conduct” and authorize the speaker not to recognize her until she retracted and deleted her comments and apologized in the house. In response, Jama apologized—and then pinned her original statement to the top of her X profile, an act perceived by many in Queen’s Park as defiant. She also sent a cease-and-desist letter to Doug Ford accusing him of libel. 

That brings us to this week, when NDP leader Marit Stiles finally announced that she would eject Jama from caucus for the aforementioned “unsafe work environment” and the undermining of “collective work.” In the same session, the PC party supported the censure motion, which would prevent the Speaker from recognizing Jama until she apologizes publicly and on screen. The NDP dissented; the Liberal Party abstained. The vote count was 63 to 23.

While it seems commonsensical that a parliamentary motion preventing an elected member from speaking, and even compelling her public apology as a condition precedent for doing so, carries free speech implications, the reality is more complicated. The idiosyncrasies of parliamentary privilege—a doctrine developed as a hedge against authoritarianism—mean that while Jama may have a moral claim that her right to free speech has been violated, she has no such legal claim.

Parliamentary privilege is the idea that legislators bear inherent privileges, which courts cannot review or interfere with. Parliamentary privilege covers an expansive swath of activity, including the power of legislatures to regulate their own internal affairs and the power to discipline their members as they see fit.

As Justice Fregeau noted in Alford v Canada, a 2022 case brought by law professor Ryan Alford challenging provisions of a federal act for encroaching on parliamentary privilege:

[t]he effect of a matter falling within the scope of parliamentary privilege is that its exercise cannot be reviewed by any external body, including a court…parliamentary privilege recognizes Parliament’s exclusive jurisdiction to deal with complaints within its privileged sphere of activity, thus providing immunity from judicial review.

This means neither Jama’s statements nor her colleagues’ chosen actions in addressing them could be challenged in a court. 

Another recent example of the bright line of parliamentary privilege shielding a legislator’s actions from judicial review was Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2022 refusal to testify after being summoned to give evidence at the Public Order Emergency Commission, despite almost certainly possessing relevant evidence about the response to the Ottawa convoy protests. Whatever the political consequences, the court decided that as a sitting member of the legislature, his decision was immunized from judicial review while the legislature was in session.

Parliamentary privilege historically evolved as a shield against the improper meddling of the executive—in particular, zealous kings and queens. For example, in 1629, King Charles I ordered two parliamentarians imprisoned for alleged seditious statements made in Parliament. Parliamentary privilege evolved in response to executive overreaches like this because for Parliament to effectively act as a prophylactic against totalitarian rulers, parliamentarians had to be free to speak their minds without fear of reprisal from the Crown.

These rules appear to jostle uncomfortably with the (correct) proposition that the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada. However, Parliamentary privilege and Charter rights including the right to freedom of expression are both parts of the constitution. In Nova Scotia v. New Brunswick Broadcasting, where journalists challenged a ban on video cameras in the legislature as a violation of their free expression rights, Justice McLachlin explained that it is a “basic rule” that one part of the Constitution cannot be abrogated or diminished by another part of the Constitution (and thus the legislature’s decision to forbid recording could not be reviewed by a court).

Though all Canadians enjoy the right to not have our speech censored directly or indirectly by government action, this doesn’t mean parliamentarians can’t be subject to discipline from the legislature or their party. Bluntly, the right to free speech does not equal a right to speak in a session of the legislature.

Legality aside, even if the legislature has full purview to censure Jama by way of motion, that doesn’t mean they ought to. Silencing Jama is likely to render her a heroine for progressives and provoke sympathy that she doesn’t deserve. The optics of a young Black woman made the whipping girl of Queen’s Park by its old, white, ham-fisted leader Doug Ford are not good. Instead, Queen’s Park should let Jama continue to spout her apparent apologias for terror and let voters express their disapproval of them at the next election.