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Dear John: An Open Letter on the Liquor Policy Review

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On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and industry insiders who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, wine consultant and educator Kurtis Kolt writes an open letter to MLA John Yap who is overseeing the BC "Liquor Policy Review" aiming to modernize current liquor laws and policy, most of which were implemented as Prohibition was repealed in 1921.

2008_02_onethehouseA.jpgDear John,
The current state of liquor laws and distribution in British Columbia is embarrassing and ridiculously stunted in its post-Prohibition philosophies. Here in Vancouver we're often seen as a grown-up, worldly city sparking admiration, inspiration and envy around the world. I cannot emphasize how much this perspective is shattered each time I catch up with sommeliers, retailers, winemakers and other colleagues from Seattle to Sydney.

The breakdown usually begins as people try to wrap their heads around the fact that BC restaurants do not get a wholesale discount on wine, instead paying the same shelf-price as the general public. As you well know, that's just the beginning. "Much of the wine that Vancouver restaurants order, referred to as 'spec' wines, are housed in a warehouse in Richmond," I'll start, "About a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver." "When restaurants order these wines, it takes anywhere from two to four weeks to receive them," I continue, "And even if you're in a jam and need them sooner, you can't call the importer to go get them for you because (get this!), even though they've imported the wine in that warehouse and bear all the financial risk for it, it is illegal for them to go there."

By the time I've shared that there's a 117% import tax on wine; that restaurants can't order from private wine stores, or that the province won't allow Special Occasion Licenses for wine classes (forcing educators to break the law just so students can swirl and spit a few damn ounces of wine) they all usually say the same thing:
"Why do you even bother?"

Do you know how crushing it is to spend your entire career trying to build and contribute to a dynamic wine culture and upon explaining how we make a go of it, the immediate response is to question if it's even worth it? It sucks, John. It really sucks.

And, while I've got you, what's the deal with the whole charity debacle? Where benefits and galas to support cancer victims and children's hospitals recently felt government wrath as a ban was implemented on private wine donations to charity auctions. This decision literally –LITERALLY- took away one of the biggest revenue sources earmarked for cancer victims and sick children. My God, I wish that last sentence was hyperbole.

Oh, and speaking of charity. During this year's popular Food Truck Festival that ran for 12 weeks with over 5000 people in attendance each edition, I linked myself up with the event producers, a few BC craft breweries, a BC winery and a high-profile BC charity that financially supports locals without health benefits facing a serious medical crisis. We went through all of the official channels to get special occasion licensing and permits to operate a small BC craft beer and wine garden at the Festival. The minimum, most conservative potential was about $15-20,000 going to charity by the end of the season. Well, since there's no current policy in place for 'weekly' festivals, it was deemed an inappropriate applicant for a license and there was a refusal to entertain any discussion on the matter. No money went to charity, zero support was given to our local beer and wine industries, and the Province of BC lost out on thousands of dollars of income, figuring technically, that's your booze we would have been selling.

John, I'm tired of my career being chock-full of these ridiculous anecdotes, and exhausted by a government who seem to be constantly working against us. I think it's safe to say that the general public are tired of being both gouged and patronized by those who claim to be looking out for their best interests. And please don't respond with the default argument that everything's in the interest of public safety. Do you seriously anticipate anarchy by remedying any of the above?

Can we finally, finally, finally have real change? Just imagine what we could accomplish if we can finally come together on reasonable policy.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Kurtis Kolt
· B.C. Liquor Policy Review [Official Site]
· Kurtis Kolt [Official Site]
[Photo via Shutterstock]