Houston government puts a cork in controversial wine program

Nova Scotia wine-industry workers flooded into Province House on Tuesday as the premier announced the new program would be paused. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia wine-industry workers flooded into Province House on Tuesday as the premier announced the new program would be paused. (Michael Gorman/CBC - image credit)

The Houston government is bowing to pressure from Nova Scotia's farm-wine sector and hitting pause on a program it quietly launched in January to help two commercial winemakers.

Premier Tim Houston announced the reversal at an impromptu gathering of wine-industry workers, who packed the foyer of Province House on Tuesday.

"The commercial wine program, as it has been announced, will be paused," Houston told the dozens of people gathered around him.

Some of those who have helped build the province's grape-growing and winemaking industry from scratch criticized the program, saying it would help commercial producers who used grape juice from outside the province to make their wine.

They said the subsidy would help Ontario-based Peller Estates and Devonian Coast cut their costs and reduce their prices, putting homegrown wines at a disadvantage.

Michael Lightfoot, the owner of Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards, called the about-face a place to start.

"We should have been consulted from the beginning and I think that this is a positive way forward if we can freeze what's already been done and go back to the starting line and rebuild this together in a collaborative, positive way," he said.

Program to be reworked

Houston said it was never the province's intention to pit one part of the sector against another.

"The farm wine [sector], obviously incredibly important, the commercial wine, also room for that," said Houston. "Nobody wants to advantage one component of the industry to the disadvantage of another component.

"We don't always get these things perfect, doesn't mean we weren't trying. We want to grow the industry. We want to grow the economy. Obviously, concerns have been raised and heard, and I would say respected."

After a Question Period dominated by questions about the program, Houston confirmed commercial producers had started receiving subsidies from the province but refused to say how much, claiming that information needed to be protected.

"It's commercially sensitive, it's trade sensitive," Houston told reporters. "I would love to end this scrum by just throwing it out there but I have an obligation that's much bigger than that as the premier of the province."

Comparison to Yarmouth ferry

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill drew a parallel between that position and Houston's stance as opposition leader when he went to court to force the province to release the fee it was paying Bay Ferries to run the service between Yarmouth and Maine.

"He said it was for the sake of democracy and transparency that he was doing that," said Churchill. "He's certainly speaking out of both sides of his mouth now."

"This is certainly information that the public has a right to know, how much taxpayers' money is being used to subsidize the importation of cheap grape juice to compete with locally grown grapes here in Nova Scotia."

Information shared with CBC News earlier this month indicated the initiative would provide between $6 million and $12 million a year to companies that bottle wine in the province. Houston disputed those figures.

"I've heard lots of numbers thrown around," he said. "I would assure you it's nothing in the range of the numbers that you've been suggesting."

The provincial government will create a working group of industry representatives and bureaucrats to rework the program.

Karl Coutinho, board chair of Wine Growers Nova Scotia and president of Avondale Sky Winery in Newport, N.S., is likely to be part of that group.

He called the program "a mistake" that needs correction.

"We'll go back to the table and discuss with our industry, the farm wine industry of Nova Scotia, wine growers of Nova Scotia, grape growers of Nova Scotia, tourism, let's have all the people at the table to understand the impact of a decision like this and come up with a better program going forward."

The premier suggested the group will examine "things like a cap ... things like the quantum of the subsidy, what would make sense.

"We're thinking a month, but it'll be paused until we get to the right place. We're going to try to do it quickly."