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Malcolm Jolley: Tough times in the wine world call for innovative experiments to buck the trends

Commentary

Wine export numbers are coming in from 2023 and, unsurprisingly, they are down all around. They also down more in sales revenue than in volume, so it seems like people are both drinking less wine and less expensive wine. The numbers I looked at this week were from France, Italy, and Australia, but seem to be part of a global trend,For instance, Italian wine exports were down 7 percent and French exports were down more than 9 percent. since there are five countries that more or less dominate imports: the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada, and Japan.If Northern Europe was a country it would rank second, but Germany can serve as a proxy.

Big producers are accordingly pivoting, offering less for grapes grown by contractors, and limiting the number of growers they’ll buy from. This is double bad news for small producers who, facing a shrinking market and diminishing returns of what’s left of it, are increasingly unable to cut their losses by reverting to selling to the big guys. All the boats are going down with the tide, but at least the bigger boats, and recession-proof luxury yachts, can sail out to deeper waters.

Many smaller, independent producers depend on the precise segment of the market that is shrinking as consumers tighten their belts. Making wine is expensive. Even if you don’t have to buy land, a winery is capital-, energy-, and labour-intensive. Not only has the cost of everything gone up (even bottles), but so has the cost of borrowing. When money was cheap it would have made sense to borrow it against global growing sales of $30 bottles of wine. Now that all those metrics are going the other way, things must seem grim.

Wine cooperatives in Europe came out of the bad economic times of the 1930s. While the trend of the last 50 years has been for grower families to make their own wine, perhaps some will rejoin or recreate a cooperative model to keep grape prices high and take advantage of economies of scale. The Niagara Custom Crush Pad I wrote about a few weeks ago, and commercial winemaking services like it, is another innovative model that might keep up the supply of small production wines.

I met two young gentlemen last week who seem to be bucking the trends and growing the pie (or at least their slice of it) by being flexible and innovative. The first is a Canadian, William Quinteros, who runs a wine importing agency he conceived of during the lockdowns of COVID: Bottles & Barrels. The second is an Italian, Niccolò Chioccioli Altadonna, who makes wine in small batches in Tuscany at his family’s eponymous estate, Chioccoli Altadonna.

I met them on top of a boxing gym in the West End of Toronto called 13th Round, with which William and his family have a connection: his father Marvin “The Machine” Quinteros (two-time Ontario Boxing Champion, Golden Gloves Champion, and Ontario Winter Games Champion) is head trainer. That gym is open for paying adults to train in, but its big mission is community outreach.

13th Round For Life is a charity that offers free boxing lessons and leadership programs to young people from Toronto’s underserved communities. Its most famous benefactor is boxing enthusiast Bruce Croxon, who is best known for his successful careers in business (LavaLife), broadcasting (Dragon’s Den), and finance (Round13 Capital). When William Quinteros pitched Bruce Croxon on a wine agency that would set aside 2 percent of gross sales for the 13th Round For Life charity while serving the high-income earners who paid to come and workout and train at the gym, the dragon spotted a winner.

The offices over the gym serve as Bottles & Barrels office and tasting room, and I ended up there with Quinteros, Chioccioli Altadonna, and about two dozen of the agency’s regular customers on the recommendation of a mutual friend. Or, I should say, the recommendation to an invitation because what was happening that Friday evening was less a tasting than a party.

Bottles & Barrels is in many respects like most other agencies, placing products into the Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, selling to the restaurant trade, and selling directly to consumers through their website and email offers. But the party featuring the Chioccioli products is their unique selling product. Lots of agencies have wine clubs, but they’re largely anonymous affairs, organized on a hub and spoke model.

The Bottle & Barrel tasting, held in the same building as the charity it supports, and where the first customers came to workout in, was more like a community event or a party of old friends. This was a community model; the guests were friends or friends of friends (like me). We weren’t there to simply listen to Niccolò Chioccioli Altadonna talk about his wines or write notes down as we tasted them in silence. It was chatty, and we were expected to circulate and talk about what we liked or didn’t or preferred over others. It was very clear that everyone wanted to be there irrespective of whatever commerce might or might not ensue.

Winemakers William Quinteros and Niccolò Chioccioli Altadonna at a wine event at 13th Round, Toronto. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

If William Quinteros has figured out an interesting way to sell wine, then Niccolò Chioccioli Altadonna and his family have found a complementary way to use their Tuscan winery in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. Niccolò and his brother and sister Enrico and Ginevra are the offspring of Stefano Chioccioli, one of Italy’s foremost and highest-scoring wine consultants. Perhaps the winery acts as something of a laboratory since they are doing some interesting things there.

We tasted an orange wine whose fruit was delicate despite the gentle tannin structure they hung on, a silky Sangiovese made in clay amphora, a Chianti Classico with a touch of (frowned upon) peppery Syrah in the blend, as well as Super Tuscan Bordeaux blends from decades-old vines. They were all lovely. I took no notes (I couldn’t), and I didn’t spit.Details of the wines can be found at the Bottles and Barrels website.

Then things got weird. Well not really—it’s just that we moved from the cellar to what Niccolò’s brother Enrico calls the “Winestillery,” where he makes vodka, gin, and vermouth. Enrico lives by a “grapes to glass manifesto,” meaning everything is made from Tuscan grapes and botanicals. The spirits were smooth and dangerous, but the red vermouth might have been more perilous, especially when mixed into a negroni made with their gin. Round 13, indeed.

Ian Stedman: After more than a year of foot-dragging, the Trudeau government has finally appointed an ethics commissioner

Commentary

Editor’s Note: Since this article’s publication, on the eve of their deadline, the federal government made interim Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Konrad von Finckenstein permanent, with a term of seven years. His appointment had the support of opposition parties.

Today, Konrad von Finckenstein, Canada’s acting Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner (CIEC), will see his term expire. He’s been in the role since August 2023 after the position sat vacant for several months. Canada has now been without a permanent commissioner for more than a year. The previous interim ethics commissioner was effectively forced to step down after it came to light that she was the sister-in-law of Liberal cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc.

Anyone who follows Canadian politics knows that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (and his ministers) have found themselves on the wrong side of the ethics rules several times during his tenure. In fact, the two previous commissioners both concluded the prime minister had breached the rules on separate occasions—once over his vacation at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas and then again over influencing then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin. Recent questions about a Jamaican vacation gifted to him by a friend have also raised eyebrows. The findings of commissioners do not seem to be discouraging our politicians from behaving badly. Regardless of party, naming and shaming does not appear to be working. 

At the time of writing, the government has not yet announced the current interim commissioner’s successor. The media and opposition parties are increasingly inquiring about when von Fickenstein’s mandate ends. 

This context of heightened interest and attention is an opportune time to discuss how the appointment process works and whether it should be improved. It is also a good time to talk about the job of Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner itself, which seems to be getting increasingly more difficult to fill. 

Why should we care?  

The primary job functions of the CIEC are to provide advice about the Conflict of Interest Act and Code for Members of the House of Commons, investigate and make determinations about alleged contraventions, and administer the rest of the Act and Code. 

Yet, despite the CIEC’s “independent” role and its relationship to Parliament, the appointment process has tended to be openly partisan. The position is posted online as a matter of good practice but it’s unclear how many applications, if any, are received. Von Finckenstein, for instance, told a parliamentary committee he didn’t even apply for the job. Instead, he was contacted directly by the Prime Minister’s Office.

This approach raises questions about the appointment process for the CIEC, including how the government fulfills its legislative expectation to consult with opposition parties to find the right person for the job.

It must also be noted that even in instances where these consultations occur, it’s still the case that if the governing party has a majority of the votes in the House (whether directly or because of an agreement, etc.), it can effectively hand-select a commissioner and appoint them with an easy resolution. 

The key point here is that being consulted does not mean the other parties have to approve the proposed candidate. As long as the governing party can whip the votes needed to pass a resolution, they can effectively appoint whomever they like the most. This is precisely what happened with both the current and the previous commissioner.

How should the appointment process work?

The impending appointment of a new commissioner represents an opportunity for parliamentarians and the broader public to scrutinize the appointment process and consider better approaches, which could allow for something closer to real independence. 

One option would be to strike a parliamentary committee comprised of members from every official party with the expectation that they reach a unanimous agreement on the individual selected. If the appointment must pass through cabinet and be made by the Governor in Council, then it is also essential that the custom be for a quick approval rather than renewed partisan scrutiny. 

Given the CIEC’s responsibility for ensuring MPs comply with disclosure and transparency requirements, critics have also called for the CIEC to disclose their outside financial interests. I’m not convinced this disclosure needs to be publicly available (we don’t want MPs under investigation to make donations to the CIEC’s favourite charity, for example), but I do think there must be a mechanism in place to ensure that the CIEC does not have any real or apparent conflicts of interest that could impact them in the performance of their official duties. An all-party appointment committee could perhaps be charged with overseeing compliance with any such rule(s) before an appointment is made.

Is a better appointment process all that is needed?

Of course, a better appointment process isn’t the only reform that ought to be considered to the federal ethics regime. Every CIEC has either published a list of recommendations for ethics law reform or made suggestions directly to parliamentary committees (for example: 2013, 2015, 2022, and 2024). There has been palpable frustration among the CIECs (e.g., 2018, 2023) with respect to Parliament’s lack of interest in modernizing the Act and Code. The current commissioner even appeared before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI) and told members that their criticism of “sponsored travel” is a problem of their own making. Commissioners have long asked that rules around sponsored travel be tied to acceptability standards, yet members have outright refused. This disinterest in improving the Act and Code has left the CIEC mostly toothless, yet subject to constant criticism by a general public that feels the office should be doing more to hold officials accountable when they violate the rules.

Konrad von Finckenstein during a conference in Dartmouth, N.S. on Friday, May 29, 2009. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press.
We need to care more about our ethics watchdogs

With a general election due in 2025, now is the time to really amplify the concerns many of us have been expressing about public sector ethics rules. If Liberals promise to make changes, Conservatives will follow suit, and vice-versa. The promise of ethics reform worked for Stephen Harper in 2006, and even though the laws he put in place were not perfect, forward momentum, however incremental, is better than simply continuing to stand motionless in the sludge we find ourselves in now. 

Currently, the commissioner can only deliver a maximum “administrative monetary penalty” of $500 dollars against a public office holder (as defined under the Act) who fails to meet a filing requirement. No monetary penalties exist for violating the actual ethics rules. 

Without reform, the job risks becoming too thankless and undesirable for anyone with the right credentials to want to take on. Why subject yourself to the constant barrage of criticism in order to administer ethics regimes that are toothless, and that clearly no longer help support and enforce standards that meet the public’s expectations? 

While MPs should not leave the position vacant again for an extended period of time, they will continue to have a hard time filling it if they do not actively commit to modernizing both the appointment process and the ethics rules in a way that is clearly non-partisan and that rises above blind self-interest. We must return to a period of integrity in public office, where there is a culture of accountability among MPs who hold themselves to high standards, rather than our modern-day culture of compliance.