Skip to content

Put a cork in it

IF King Minos of Crete truly wanted to keep the Minotaur trapped forever, he should have ensnared it in B.C.'s labyrinthian liquor laws.
Mike Mitchell, general manager of The Beach House Restaurant & Lounge, thinks new legislation allowing customers to bring their own bottle to dinner is long overdue. The restaurant charges $30 corkage.

IF King Minos of Crete truly wanted to keep the Minotaur trapped forever, he should have ensnared it in B.C.'s labyrinthian liquor laws.

To be fair, there was no single fiendish architect who designed the tangle of regulations that must be negotiated before we can have a glass of wine or a cocktail in this province. Rather, the rules emerged in fits and starts as a system of government control over liquor in the wake of a brief and unpopular run at prohibition early in the 20th century.

Those rules were meant to appease the temperance movement, which held that liquor was sinful, dangerous and counter-productive to the orderly functioning of society. The current version of the legislation retains some of that outdated logic while seeking to balance the thirst of the drinking public with the interests of public and private liquor stores, a powerful union and the almost $1 billion the provincial government makes off our drinking habits.

"A lot of it is just because of the way the system was developed," explains Mark Hicken, a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in wine law through his practice, Vintage Law. On his website,, Hicken outlines the history of B.C. liquor legislation, and the way it works (and doesn't work) today.

The laws that replaced prohibition in 1921 saw the creation of government liquor stores where the product was tucked behind the counter and customers went through multiple steps before being given their purchase. As the system expanded to allow public drinking establishments, legislation grew with it to ensure that the fun didn't get out of hand. No form of entertainment or music was allowed. Customers had to remain seated and had to be served by male waiters. At first, only men were served, but eventually women could drink . . . in a separate room.

As opportunities for public alcohol consumption increased, so did the revenue collected by the province - and the number and complexity of the rules governing it. Last year, MLA Rich Coleman told the Georgia Strait that when he previously oversaw the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch as Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General he laughed at some of the legislation. There were rules about the size of televisions in pubs and the colour of carpets; rules that said ski hills could have 10 seats at their pubs for the first 200 feet of their lifts and one seat more for each additional 100 feet of lift; rules that said you couldn't have a liquor licence at a golf course unless you had at least three PGA-approved par-four holes.

Coleman worked to ditch some of the more ridiculous restrictions, and now that the portfolio - which includes both the Liquor Distribution Branch (which comprises BC Liquor Stores and its wholesale business) as well as the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch - is back under his list of responsibilities as the Minister of Energy and Mines, he's responding to public pressure to modernize it even more.

According to Hicken, it's overdue. B.C.'s liquor laws are some of the most stringent, nonsensical and outdated in the world. "It's been the way that it has for so long, we're so used to this weird system, that people aren't pushing too hard. That's too bad," he says.

Any modernization faces the challenge of balancing government rules and revenue with the goals of a vibrant hospitality sector and British Columbians' growing interest in wine and cocktail culture.

For consumers, 2012 has seen noticeable changes to the rules about what, where and how we can imbibe. But those changes beg yet more questions about our liquor system. Here's a round-up of the top five liquor law peeves, and what is, or isn't changing about them.

1. What's with the rip-off in B.C.?

You hear it from visiting friends and relatives. They can buy that California Cabernet in the supermarket in Bellingham for $9. "Why is it 25 bucks here?!" Or how come the French Vin de Pays (table wine) which is just a few Euros across the pond is $60 on our restaurant wine lists?

The sticker shock comes courtesy of the 123 per cent markup on wine (and 170 per cent on spirits) added by the LDB, plus fees, taxes, and then HST on the total. The markup adds $906 million in net revenue to the 2012/13 provincial budget.

Since private liquor stores buy all of their product from the LDB (at a small discount), and restaurants buy all of their product from the LDB (at no discount), those markups run across the board.

"The government is not going to give up that revenue," says Hicken, "but there are more fair and sensible ways to generate the same amount of money." In Alberta, the government replaced the complicated formulas by calculating the total amount of money it needed to collect from the industry, then divided it by the amount of product sold in the province every year. It applies that amount as a flat tax to every bottle of wine, beer and spirits sold. On wine, it equals $2.59 per 750 mL bottle.

B.C. restaurants are at the worst disadvantage, he adds. "Unlike everywhere else in the world, restaurants here get no wholesale discount. They pay the same retail price that we do at the liquor store." When they add their own markup to the retail price, it feels like highway robbery to diners.

Verdict: Not changing anytime soon.

2. A bottle of wine with my baguette and brie, please.

Do you remember the first time you noticed alcohol in a U.S. grocery store? When you rounded the corner to discover the stacked boxes, the elegant arrangements, the rows upon rows of wine (wine!) located between the dairy cases and the cracker aisle, and beer (beer!) in the cooler. Although you likely came home and told friends and family about the remarkable sight as if you'd seen the Ogopogo on vacation, it actually makes sense to pick up your wine with your French bread and cheese.

Whoa . . . not so fast, you hooligans. Those post-prohibition laws about where we can get alcohol have shifted - slightly - but we're a long way from buying it in grocery stores.

At present, you can buy bottled alcohol from BC Liquor Stores, where the booze is no longer hidden behind the counter; private wine stores; and manufacturer on-site retail stores - wineries, breweries or distilleries - which can sell direct from the winery at an on-site store or by shipping it.

"The system grew into a semi-privatized one; 60 per cent of alcohol in B.C. is sold by private outlets," says Hicken. He adds that the province's 700 licensee retail stores have "an uneasy alliance" with the LDB. None of the operators would like to see wine and beer offered in grocery stores. "They spent a lot of money developing those stores and building those businesses."

Can't they just add cheese and milk to their inventory? Nope. According to the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch website, other than the booze, they can only sell "packaged snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, B.C. Lottery products, and liquor-related items, such as glasses, bottle openers and corkscrews."

Verdict: Not changing any time soon. 3. How much to take the cork out of my wine?

On Thursday night, Mike Mitchell, manager at the Beach House Restaurant & Lounge at Dundarave Pier, opened a bottle of '92 Beringer that a guest brought from their cellar at home.

"Twenty years . . . I wasn't sure there would be any life left in it, but there was. That was a phenomenal year," says Mitchell. He welcomes the new rules introduced on July 19 that allow customers to bring a bottle from home; it's something that other countries and provinces have done for years, if not always.

"In West Vancouver, people have great wine cellars," he says. "When you save a bottle of wine you're saving it for a special occasion. When you come to a restaurant for dinner, it's a special occasion. It makes so much sense to me that you should be allowed to put those together."

The reaction from the public? Confusion, mostly. It was as if, after years of buckling us into adult-sized booster seats, mom and dad suddenly gave us the keys to the car and said "go for it."

Here's the thing: BYO is not an invitation to pull cheap plonk from your wine rack to try and reduce the total on that highbuck restaurant bill. Rather, it gives you the opportunity to enjoy a special bottle that you've been saving with exceptional food.

There are guidelines. The wine should be one that's not on the list; bring one 750 mL bottle of it, not several, and not a magnum; call the restaurant ahead of time and let them know you're bringing it. It's a nice courtesy to offer a taste to the sommelier. Finally, don't argue with the fee - upscale restaurants lose their markup when you bring your own wine. It's their choice to allow BYO, and the rate is at their discretion. The Beach House charges $30 corkage.

It's also useful if you're patronizing a restaurant with a small wine list, or in the case of Vera's Burger Shack, no wine list at all.

"We sell beer," says coowner Gerald Tritt. "But if we have customers that like wine and know wine, and they're going to enjoy bringing wine to have with their burger, this gives them more flexibility." The burger chain charges $2 corkage.

Find a list of corkage fees at

Verdict: it's changed. 4. Red or white with your film?

At Andrew's Pizza and Skylight Theatre in Hood River, Oregon, patrons order wine with their pizza, and snack and sip while they take in the show.

The sky does not fall. Patrons are not regularly observed engaging in raucous or illegal behaviour as they leave the theatre.

In Vancouver, the Rio Theatre made headlines earlier this year when it obtained a liquor licence to sell alcohol at live events, only to find if it obtained a "liquor primary" licence, it could no longer show films except for special occasions. The subsequent controversy led to new rules. Multiplex theatres are now allowed to apply for a licence to serve alcohol in "adult-only auditoriums and adjacent lobbies." Single-screen and live theatres are now allowed to apply for a licence to serve alcohol in lobbies if minors are present, and in auditoriums if it's an adult-only event.

There's still no sign of a Skylight Theatre on the horizon though.

Verdict: it's changing. 5. On second thought, don't send that bottle to your aunt in Orillia . . . .

The Intoxicating Liquor Act was a federal law dating back to 1928, which made it illegal to ship or import wine between Canadian provinces.

Bill C-311, passed on June 28 of this year, amended the 84-year old federal law. It's no longer a criminal federal offence to ship B.C. wine to your relatives back east.

But that doesn't mean the provinces won't have something to say about it.

"In essence, they just passed the buck," says Hicken. "Now we have a patchwork system."

All provinces, except Quebec, now allow individuals to physically carry wine across provincial borders for personal use. The amount allowed varies.

However, only B.C. and Manitoba allow it to be shipped in to the buyer for personal use. So far, the rest of the country is keeping provincial borders closed to shipments of Canadian wine, but wine lovers remain hopeful that the laws will continue to evolve.

Verdict: it's changing.

[email protected]