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Malcolm Jolley: Niagara’s new charm

Commentary

A sunset is shown on Lake Ontario in Niagara County in this 2007 photo. Larry Price/AP Photo.

Graham Rennie was a happy man on the phone this week from Vineland, Ontario. The veteran Bay Street wheeler and dealer just got on the sweet side of a big deal that’s gone down in Niagara’s wine county. Château des Charmes, an original Ontario wine gangster, has been bought by a group of Canadian investors. Rennie is not one of the group, who prefer to remain anonymous for now, but he is a benefactor.

Hub readers might remember Rennie from my post on the Niagara Custom Crush Studio in February. He’s the CEO of Crush Studio, and until last week its COO was Marco Piccoli, who before that was the director of winemaking and operations in Ontario for Arterra, Canada’s largest wine producer. Now Piccoli is the CEO of Château des Charmes.

So why is Rennie happy, if Piccoli has gone to CdC? Well, for one thing, Piccoli hasn’t left The Crush, he’s a partner in the business and retains a director role as chief strategic officer. But since his schedule just got a lot busier, Rennie and The Crush have hired old-hand alt-winemaker Kevin Panagapka of the cult virtual winery 2027 Cellars as head of winemaking at the studio. I think in business they call that “adding value.”

But wait, there’s more.

The closest I’ve gotten to a job on Bay Street is the hotdog stand outside of First Canadian Place, but I’m pretty sure the people who have done well there don’t buy businesses if they don’t think there’s potential for growth. The way one grows a wine business is to sell more wine, and to do that you have to make more wine. But expanding production facilities costs a lot of time and money.

Mr. Rennie and the Crush team already have already spent the time and money building a state-of-the-art facility, under the supervision of Mr. Piccoli. Now, they’re ready to take on the new production from any revamped wine operation for a lot less than it costs to build or renovate. This is why Château des Charmes’ new owners were keen to go into partnership with The Crush as part of the deal.

Aside from new business in the tanks at The Crush, Rennie is also happy about and looking forward to working with and at Château des Charmes with the eclectic mix of wines his existing clients are already making. These include (of course) his own label, Rennie Estate Vineyards. He is planning tasting events at the iconic CdC estate, which is close to Niagara-on-the-Lake and its tourist-friendly amenities.

Château des Charmes was founded in 1978 by French emigre and fifth-generation winemaker Paul Bosc. When Bosc died late last year he was universally eulogized as a Canadian wine pioneer and industry leader. The man was as respected as could be. The Bosc family will continue to own and operate the Paul Bosc Estate Vineyard, planted in 1982, and sell the grapes exclusively to the new owners at CdC. This legacy of rare old Niagara vines will be kept intact.

Finally, Rennie is happy about what he calls the “energization of the industry.” He points to the new investment and winery at Arterra’s Le Clos Jordanne (see my column from June 14), and the upcoming expansion at Hidden Bench as encouraging signs of revitalization in Niagara Wine Country.

He may be right. It seems like a smart move to marry The Crush, where new winemakers are incubated, with Château des Charmes, which is guided by legacy and tradition. And it’s good to see at least one area where Canadians are investing in Canadian enterprise.

In the end, I am just happy there will be more wine.

Bonus: Is an LCBO strike looming?

For Ontario readers of The Hub:

There are many writers at The Hub more qualified to comment on how things will work out between Doug Ford’s government and the chapter of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union that works at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The latter are threatening to strike next week. In my experience no Ontario government wants an LCBO strike, and these disputes are often magically resolved before the deadline. On the other hand, maybe this government would like to use the opportunity of a strike to continue its thrust towards liberalizing the sale of alcohol? A strike might focus consumers’ attention on the idea that the industrial conditions of government employee booze stockists might not be all that bad.

In any event, the strike, should it be struck, will not affect warehousing, which is the LCBO’s core monopoly. This means that importing agents will still be able to sell wine “directly” to consumers by the case. A list of Ontario agents can be found at their lobbying group, Drinks Ontario. I encourage direct sales from agents if you are willing to assume the risk of buying wine by the case. Often the most interesting wines can only be found this way, and most agencies offer some kind of mixed case as a sampler.

Or buy local. Ontario wineries, of course, are not bound by the LCBO and can sell directly to consumers from their premises. Visit one if you can, or order a bottle, a case, or whatever number you like directly from their websites, which are listed on their marketing website, Wine Country Ontario.

Or buy nationally. After a series of recent bad events, B.C. wineries could use some business from the other side of the Rockies. Buying directly from the wineries that will do it might make you a bootlegger, but this will have the advantage of annoying both the Ontario government and the Liquor Control Board, and strike a blow for inter-provincial free trade. Find a B.C. winery at Wines of British Columbia. Sir John A. would approve.

David Polansky: Canadian citizenship is immensely valuable. Our political elites should act like it

Commentary

A new Canadian holds a flag as she takes part in a citizenship ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 17, 2019. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The recent revelations concerning foreign interference among Canada’s elected officials have hit like a bomb—at least among those media organs that could be bothered to report on it. It obviously raises critical concerns about national security, as well as questions about the legitimacy of any political party whose members are found to have been compromised.

But perhaps less obviously, it also raises fundamental questions about the value of Canadian citizenship. For, among much else, this foreign interference is an affront to the prerogatives of the citizenry—chiefly their rights and privileges to elect a government that answers to them and not to others.

More broadly still, however, public comments by the present leadership over the years have reflected a denigration of the meaning of citizenship. Between this and the emergence of diaspora politics as a significant phenomenon, one can see how foreign meddling—and potentially treason—might become normalized.

In light of these developments, it is worth reflecting on what Canadian citizenship means and what it might be worth—for not all the answers are intuitive. Fear not, this isn’t going to be a sentimental paean to maple syrup and portaging and flannel clothing. For, the real value is surprisingly material in nature.

Indeed, Canadian citizenship is an asset of extraordinary value. But it is systematically undervalued by Canada’s political elites, at least partly because they themselves, being economically privileged, hold other assets against it: liquidity, foreign property, often multiple passports, and so on. Consequently, they have been able to favour immigration policies that have diluted the value of citizenship (much as issuing new stock dilutes the ownership of existing shareholders), while at the same time insulating themselves from the downsides. They can retreat from overcrowded public spaces via their private cottages, they can avoid public school problems by paying for private schooling, they can pursue private medical options when ER delays in hospitals become interminable, and so on.

But for the average Canadian, the value of citizenship is historically tied to the possibility of a materially abundant life in a high-functioning country within the bounds of a more or less middle-class household income. The dwindling of this possibility is not just a story of economic mismanagement (though it is that too), but also a dilution of the worth of Canadian citizenship—an asset that ensured a high level of equality for as long as it held its value.

Let’s consider this more concretely. Canada is the world’s second-largest country, with approximately two percent of the earth’s surface. Much of it is inhospitable and unable to support large communities, but that still leaves a good deal of land area available relative to a (historically) small population. And yet over 80 percent of the country remains uninhabited. Much of the rest, however, is sublimely beautiful. Within 100 miles of the U.S. border, one can find an oceanic coastline, towering mountains, deep forests, crystalline lakes, sprawling prairies, and other manner of dramatic scenery that sounds like it came out of a travel guide.

Now, as the saying goes, you can’t put a price on beauty, but then one can readily consult the listings for waterfront properties around Muskoka or West Vancouver to at least get an approximation. Of course, for much of Canada’s modern history, going back to the 16th century, surviving a harsh landscape took priority. But for generations now, property ownership in one of the world’s most beautiful countries has been the patrimony for most of its citizens. Yes, some people always had more money than others and thus larger houses, nicer furnishings, and so on, but these advantages were more quantitative than qualitative.

In any case, home ownership as such was not seen as a luxury good, and even the post-1960s influx of new arrivals seemed only to contribute to the country’s economic growth without threatening to diminish the supply of housing stock, such was the capaciousness of Canada. And—equally important—such was the stringency of Canada’s immigration controls, ensuring that a high level of human capital was maintained across demographic changes in both ethnic composition and total numbers. This was particularly important in light of the generous benefits associated with Canada’s welfare state, including health care, maternity (later, parental) leave, unemployment insurance, and social security. For such a system to remain solvent, it was imperative to have an industrious and law-abiding population that consistently paid in more than it took out—especially in a country that was never as wealthy as its southern neighbour.

This represents more or less the truth of Machiavelli’s insight that liberality always depends upon parsimony. In Canada’s case, we would say that the liberality or generosity of its welfare state relied upon the parsimoniousness of its immigration regime. In a wide world of people who might wish to immigrate to Canada, only those expected to contribute to rather than draw on the public fisc were considered, and this approach held even as immigrant populations became increasingly multicultural and multiethnic (with the orientation of origin countries shifting southward and eastward over time).

And housing is only the most pressing of a host of issues impacted by the government’s lack of policy restraint. Canada maintains a primary system of public education from K-12, taxing its residents accordingly. The quality of that education and the nature of student experience is greatly impacted by externalities beyond the reach of any school board. The point is that what was once an assumed feature of life in a well-governed region or municipality (access to decent public education) emerges as a privilege under constrained conditions.

It is only under such conditions that one can understand citizenship as an asset in itself—one that has become depreciated through misguided public policies. And it is only in light of that depreciation that certain underlying inequalities are more starkly revealed. It is not that inequality didn’t previously exist, but as access to such schools and such neighbourhoods is placed under competitive pressure, the privileges that accrue to the rich—allowing them to retain such access under challenging conditions—become more salient as well.

And this dynamic goes both ways: just as the wealthiest Canadian can pay out of pocket for treatment at the Mayo Clinic rather than assume a spot on the interminable waiting list for surgery, so too well-heeled non-Canadians throughout the world have found in Canada, a stable country with an ever-rising real estate market, a congenial place to park their capital. In both cases, wealthy individuals are able to transcend national boundaries to their advantage; and in both cases, the average Canadian loses, priced out of the housing market and stuck relying on dwindling public services.

The fact that all those born in Canada enjoy the privileged status of citizenship—and it is a privilege, insofar as no one deserves to be born in one place over another—makes many uncomfortable. Downplaying its significance has lately become a habit to which elites especially are prone. Nonetheless, the government of Canada is obligated as a matter of legitimacy to uphold the rights and interests of actual Canadians over those of the rest of the human race. And doing so is in its way an egalitarian measure—for it ensures that the associated benefits are enjoyed by all of its citizens, not just the wealthiest. Some might still call this unfair, but it’s a lot fairer than the alternatives.