A dry Christmas: Poor grape harvests, nutty weather, global supply chain woes wallop wine industry

Wine industry insiders encourage consumers to ‘buy early and buy more’ or ‘risk being disappointed’ this year

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Enjoying a multi-course meal, heavy on pasta, meat and tradition, that ends with a glass of grappa — a boozy drink Italian-Canadians refer to as “healthy water” — is a Christmas tradition for many families with Old World roots.


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For other families with different roots and tastes, celebrants might be partial to an easy-drinking bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Some perhaps possess more exclusive tastes, and dwell in the waters of pricey champagne. Others may even have no particular taste at all, and grab whatever looks inviting when they walk into the liquor store in search of a quick something to consume or gift.

Eating well and drinking one’s fill is a holiday rite for many, which is why wine industry insiders are encouraging connoisseurs and purchasers of plonk alike to “buy early and buy more” or “risk being disappointed” this year.

Such is the advice of Craig de Blois, president of Noble Estates Wine & Spirits Inc., a major Ontario wine importer. The former college hockey player and consumer of Old Milwaukee beer caught the wine bug while working as an international banker with an expense account. He subsequently parlayed his new interest into a new career path.


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Now in his 50s, his message to drinkers — to buy now — isn’t just a ploy to gin up some early holiday sales.

Poor grape harvests, cataclysmic weather events, labour woes, bottle and cork shortages, as well as a massive, ongoing, global supply chain traffic jam have wine importers scrambling to obtain product. They’ve been waiting months for overdue ships to arrive so that they can meet the demands of Canadian consumers who traditionally get thirsty around this time of year.

“Construction guys, drywall guys, they love their grappa,” de Blois said. “But our big grappa order probably won’t get here until January, when grappa is a lot harder to sell.”

Meanwhile, soggy weather in New Zealand, home of the easy-drinking sauvignons that Canadians are the fifth-largest consumers of worldwide, contributed to an almost 20 per cent decline in year-over-year grape yields. That is equivalent to about 60 tonnes worth of grapes.


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As a result, the value of New Zealand wine exports fell for the first time in 26 years, according to the industry’s 2021 annual report.

About 1,200 fewer litres of Kiwi wine appeared on Canadian shores in 2021 than in a typical year due to the reduced harvest and shipping woes.

Sunlight falls on vineyards at a winery in New Zealand, in 2010.
Sunlight falls on vineyards at a winery in New Zealand, in 2010. Photo by Mark Coote/Bloomberg files

This shortfall was duly noted during a recent “research” trip to a Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet in west end Toronto, where a helpful clerk said the last five bottles of New Zealand sauvignon on the shelf would be the last five bottles “until the container showed up, whenever that is.” (Note: the last five bottles are now gone).

France also experienced suboptimal grape-growing weather in 2021. Rain, frost, mildew and even hail ensured French grapes took it on the chin, restricting supply at a moment of increased demand. Australian wine exports to Canada are reportedly down 12 per cent, South American cargoes are moving at a crawl and Turkey is a complete disaster.


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The situation is so dire that some jurisdictions are rationing alcohol sales. For example, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) has capped the number of bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne one can purchase at two per day per customer, according to the Wall Street Journal. There reportedly are 42 additional wines and spirits on the PLCB’s ration list. Ohio, Vermont and New Jersey are also experiencing shortages.

But the problem isn’t entirely one of supply.

COVID-19 put an end to business travel, idled expense accounts, and forced executives accustomed to wining and dining to log back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls instead. Everyone had to cope with the stress, boredom and loneliness of pandemic life.


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Some people took up new hobbies, including, apparently, drinking more alcohol, according to a Canadian Institutes of Health Research study, which recorded a 23.3 per cent uptick in alcohol consumption among respondents, compared to 11.8 per cent who reported drinking less.

One of the beverages Ontarians showed an increased appetite for was the $100-plus Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut Rosé Champagne that de Blois supplies to the LCBO, one of the world’s largest purchasers of alcoholic beverages. But he currently doesn’t have any bottles left.

We are seeing unprecedented sales, but sales that are unpredictable

Craig de Blois

“We are seeing unprecedented sales, but sales that are unpredictable,” he said.

De Blois compares the present state of the international wine market to the “Wild West.”


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Importers running out of, say, their go-to French labels are looking for alternatives. Should that alternative happen to be a label de Blois supplies, well, cue up the jostling and to the winner goes the supply — assuming it ever shows up in the first place.

Nick Nanos, chief supply chain officer at the LCBO, in a recent market update said “congestion in ports and blank sailings” were contributing to three-to-six-week delivery delays.

Craig de Blois at his Markham, Ont., offices on Wednesday.
Craig de Blois at his Markham, Ont., offices on Wednesday. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

De Blois has recorded delays of three to four months. Some boats are taking a pass on New Zealand altogether, since the country’s export bang isn’t worth the buck of stopping there.

But before rushing off to do some panic buying, rest assured liquor store shelves won’t be barren. They just may not be stocked with some of the vintages consumers might be accustomed to finding there.


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The shortages are not just for wine, either. High-end tequila and scotch drinkers also appear headed for a long, dark, potentially sobering holiday season.

If there is a silver lining, Ontario and British Columbia wine countries might be good places to go looking for a few extra bottles.

But homegrown producers have their own supply chain headaches, specifically empty bottles. A case of empties imported from Europe that cost winemakers about $8 pre-pandemic, now costs them $12, and could cost them $16 in the new year.

“Your goods cost the same — it is all freight,” said Stephen Gash, general manager of Malivoire Wine Co. in Beamsville, Ont.

In Malivoire’s favour, it has an award-winning rosé at a moment when France, the rosé kings, are dealing with the fallout from a bad harvest, not to mention having an ocean between them and Canadian consumers.


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Malivoire’s warehouse is a 90-minute drive from most points around the Greater Toronto Area. It also ships direct to customers throughout Ontario. Opportunity doth knock.

“The domestic industry, here in Ontario, has a unique opportunity, because we are actually in Ontario,” Gash said.

So is Craig de Blois. He’s in an office in the Toronto suburbs, waiting for a shipful of grappa to come in.

“It is definitely going to be an interesting holiday,” he said.

Cheers to that.

Financial Post

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