Canada’s wine industry offsets COVID-19 impacts


Over the course of the pandemic, urgent actions were taken to meet shifting consumer needs and prioritize innovation. Just as major industries have shown incredible resilience, so, too has Canada’s wine industry.

Prior to the pandemic, Ontario wineries had 35 per cent of the total market of all wine sold in the province, according to Wine Growers Ontario. With public-health restrictions preventing tours, tastings and special events, wineries had to quickly re-think how to sell wine to make up for onsite losses. For an industry that was significantly less digitized than others, the importance of up-to-date technology came to a head.

“A lot of wineries moved aggressively early on to adopt e-commerce platforms,” says Aaron Dobbin, president and CEO of Wine Growers Ontario. “They’re working on a much smaller base of sales compared to the LCBO or a restaurant, so that’s been one noteworthy area where they’ve tried to offset COVID-19 impacts.”

In addition to e-commerce platforms, tastings went virtual. In B.C., for example, the Iconic Wineries of British Columbia (IWBC) collective, consisting of Mission Hill Family Estate, CedarCreek Estate Winery, Martin’s Lane Winery, CheckMate Artisanal Winery, Road 13 Vineyards and Liquidity Wines, has curated Canada’s largest selection of themed virtual tastings for both businesses and personal gatherings online. Toronto-based entrepreneur and DipWSET, Michelle Paris, launched Vini Ventures — Canada’s first virtual and sustainable wine-tasting company. Vini Ventures lets wineries and agencies, and a variety of other clients, sample wines to restaurants and private clients using mini bottles as an additional revenue stream. This trend is likely to stick around post-pandemic due to widening accessibility and consumer reach.

In Canada, wine-related tourism welcomes more than 3.7 million visitors each year, generating more than $1.5 billion annually in tourism revenue and employment, according to Wine Growers Canada. While the road to full recovery is long and winding, Dobbin is confident many people will return to wineries this spring and summer.

“We appreciate people that have gone out to wine country to buy directly from the winery or purchased online. The support-local movement has truly been the deciding factor in being able to survive,” says Dobbin.

Similarly, the slower than usual business period afforded restaurants the time to explore opportunities in innovation. Early on, Liberty Entertainment Group (LEG) launched Cibo Market, an online ordering platform that delivers the food, alcohol and service
that its Cibo Wine Bar restaurants provide. In addition, once the province allowed alcohol with food takeout, Cibo Wine Bar offered meal bundles with wine pairings.

“Takeout has been our lifeline,” says James Peden, wine director and director of Operations at LEG. “We’ve been able to put together reasonably priced takeout bundles because the LCBO recently introduced wholesale liquor pricing. Now, we have a little extra margin to help us recuperate from previous financial constraints, which provides an extra boost to keep our restaurants moving forward and allows us to compete with LCBO prices.”

Peden says one of LEG’s strategies to recover wine sales has been in the training department. “Pairing a wine with the right meal is crucial,” he says. “We let our servers taste different wines with food prepared by our chefs so they can approach tables and make recommendations to guests with confidence. Offering the extra bit of training to our staff has helped bridged the gap.”

This training has proven to be especially successful with younger diners who appear to be more willing to try something unfamiliar to them. “It’s more challenging to sell local wines or wine produced with a unique technique to older generations that have been drinking wine for decades,” says Peden. “Our staff can help younger diners learn new, interesting things about wine that they can share with friends or family. Many of them become repeat customers as they seek out other suggestions.”

By Nicole Di Tomasso

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