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VQA winemakers taste success at Toronto farmers' markets

Oh, the things you can do in a Toronto park! We're no longer surprised to see soccer and cricket sharing the fields once reserved for football and baseball. Bake ovens and wood fired pizza have begun to seem like a normal complement to rinks and wading pools. And now you can not only fill your basket with cheese, fruit, and bread at a farmers' market in your local park, but you can pick up a bottle of wine to go along with it, too. 

As of May, provincial Alcohol and Gaming Commission regulations permit Ontario wineries to sample and sell their products at up to three farmers' markets per week. Under the terms of a two-year pilot project designed to promote local grape growers and wine producers, not all wine is eligible; it has to be certified by the designation VQA, for Vintners Quality Alliance; this means the wine meets certain standards of quality and is made from Ontario grapes.

As of late June, VQA wine was being sold and sampled at 18 markets in Toronto alone, such as Dufferin Grove Organic Market, Evergreen Brickworks, Leslieville Farmers' Market, The Stop's Farmers' Market at Wychwood Barns, and the West End Food Co-op's Sorauren Market. Since many of the wines being sampled are not available through the LCBO, the program gives Toronto residents a chance to taste and buy bottles they'd otherwise be unlikely to see for sale outside a restaurant. It's also a remarkable opportunity for small and medium-sized wine businesses to build a loyal clientele on the most intimate of terms.

Many well-known winemakers from the Niagara region are participating in the program, including Cave Spring Cellars, 13th Street Winery, and Flat Rock Cellars. Not too surprisingly, wineries that pride themselves on their organic or biodynamic practices are well represented, like Frogpond Farm Organic Winery, GreenLane Estate Winery, Southbrook Vineyards, and Malivoire Wine Company. Some of the Prince Edward County wineries are also appearing at Toronto markets, like Norm Hardie Winery and Vineyard and the sparkling wine maker Hinterland Wine Company.

Stanners Vineyard is one of the Prince Edward County wineries that finds it worthwhile to make the trip into Toronto for market days. Owned by Colin Stanners, his wife Mary Macdonald, and his parents Cliff and Dorothy Stanners, the family business produces about 1,000 cases of wine per year and is booked once or twice a month into each of five Toronto markets.

Colin Stanners finds that a single good market day can sell five cases (60 bottles). None of his wine is available at the LCBO, he says. "We're kind of small for that. They take a big percentage. We sell out of our winery and we sell out of restaurants in Toronto, Ottawa, and also locally."

Although Stanners believes it's "too early to tell" whether sales will drop off or grow over the season, "it might amount to somewhere between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of our total sales, and hopefully that will grow every year," he says. "It's early, but I think it is going to be really good, and much more of a big deal for small people like us who have more difficulty getting our name out there."

By comparison, Tawse Winery which produces about 30,000 cases annually, seems like a giant, but national sales manager Daniel Lafleur says it's really "a bigger small winery," since "the big guys are doing 200,000 to 500,000 cases. We make about 60 different wines a year; it's all to do with single vineyards."

Tawse has been "really aggressive with the farmers' markets this year," he says, "I think more than any other winery. We'll see at the end of the year what the trends are, what the costs are. We think that for some of the markets it's really, really worthwhile. We'll probably evaluate that for next year, what our strategy will be, because each market has been very different so far, from selling maybe a case to selling eight or nine cases. It's not just because of the market itself; there's other factors to take into consideration, like the weather."

Lafleur says he doubts that the good early sales figures will turn out to be merely a symptom of spring fever. "I think it's the opposite," he says. "I really think it will grow. The big, big advantage is people can taste the wines. We'll be building a relationship too, because it's the same people every week. I think we'll improve sales of VQA wines overall."

Rosewood Estates Winery produces about 6,000 cases of wine and mead (honey wine) annually. They're currently visiting five Toronto markets, says marketing and events co-ordinator Mary Catherine Wasilik.

"At the Sorauren Market, we sold upwards of 60 bottles of wine in four hours at the market," she says. "And we had a lot of people saying 'We bought a bottle of this last week and we want another.' It's definitely bringing more people to local wines."

Sales figures aside, "it's a big step for liquor laws in Ontario," Wasilik says. "It's a whole new channel. It's about finding other avenues to sell our wines. Wineries are farmers too, so it's really cool that we can now sell our product in farmers' markets."

Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. 
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