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N.S. premier faces suggestion of helping ‘associate’ at expense of local wine growers

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s wineries are claiming that Premier Tim Houston’s government risks decimating the province’s vineyards, in part to help a political supporter and personal acquaintance.

Wine Growers Nova Scotia issued news releases this week saying that they learned in January the Progressive Conservative government is going to broaden a subsidy program to include the bottling industry — even though the bottlers would be allowed to use imported grapes.

The Department of Finance hasn’t confirmed details of how much support would be provided to the two companies currently bottling wine in the province, but the growers association says it has obtained estimates it will be between $6 million and $12 million per year.

Mike Lockyer, president of Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards in Wolfville, N.S., argues the policy shift will open the province to an influx of bottling firms that will produce inexpensive wine and push local producers off the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. shelves.

He said while local producers are receiving agricultural supports for their vineyards, it is unprecedented in Canada for bottlers — who are able to purchase foreign grape juice at a fraction of the cost — to also be eligible for such programs.

“They’re going to decimate our industry and create a crazy precedent for other commercial bottling entities across Canada,” Lockyer said.

He also drew attention to a recent photograph of Houston with his arm around Carl Sparkes, a co-owner of Devonian Coast Wineries, which operates vineyards and owns one of the two major bottlers in the province. “There’s a problem here,” the vineyard owner said.

The relationship between the two men came up Tuesday in the legislature as Liberal Leader Zach Churchill asked if the policy shift is “coming from one person who he (Houston) is closely associated with and who has done fundraising for him.”

The premier rejected the accusations, calling it “absolutely ridiculous,” and added that he is photographed “hundreds of times a week with Nova Scotians and I’m proud to do it as their premier.”

When asked by reporters if Sparkes was a friend, Houston replied, “I would say it’s the premier’s business to know entrepreneurs who are employing people in the province.” He said Sparkes was someone he knows, adding: “I love every single Nova Scotian.”

According to Elections Nova Scotia records, Sparkes donated $5,535 to the Progressive Conservative Party from 2019 to 2022, while his wife donated $4,393 in the same time period.

Sparkes has not replied to email and phone messages left on Tuesday evening seeking comment.

Tim Ramey, president of Blomidon Estate Winery, also said in an interview that the province’s new policy poses a major threat to the sales of local vintners.

“It would put us at a tremendous disadvantage …. It’s much cheaper to just buy cheap, foreign juice, bottle it, and then sell it here,” he said. He questioned how the change in favour of bottlers had been approved in “mere months” when for the growers it took years of lobbying to obtain subsidies.

Houston said there’s nothing to prevent local wine growers from expanding into bottling, potentially creating jobs in the province rather than having foreign wines bottled elsewhere in Canada.

“Why can’t they (local wine growers) ramp up? I wouldn’t presuppose the limits of any business in Nova Scotia. I want them all to grow. I think that they can all grow,” he said to reporters.

Meanwhile, both Houston and his Finance Minister Allan MacMaster have been arguing that the change is part of a broader thrust to make the industry comply with a successful trade complaint brought to the World Trade Organization by Australia.

The Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. has been gradually removing what’s referred to as “preferred markups” for the local wineries due to that decision, which allowed the local vineyards to keep more of the total price of a bottle sold than foreign wines.

Letters provided from the growers association indicate that members of the group are negotiating a system of agricultural supports, similar to those received in many other nations, to replace the lost mark-up income.

But both Lightfoot and Ramey say that providing subsidies to the bottling industry doesn’t in any way make the industry safer from trade actions, and the trade issue is irrelevant to their complaint about extending public dollars to the bottling sector.

“It’s a smokescreen,” said Ramey. “This just makes no sense. Why would we give public subsidies to bottlers using grapes grown somewhere else?” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2024.

— With files from Keith Doucette

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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