Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cheers to the BC Liberals for once - wine corkage in restaurants a good idea!

Toasting the BC Liberals at last for a good decision with wine corkage in restaurants!
Wine lover Bill Tieleman - the Wine Barbarian - toasts BC Liberals' decision to bring in corkage at BC restaurants! - Shirley Ross photo
Why new wine corkage rules in restaurants could be revolutionary in British Columbia.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 hours/The Tyee column

Tuesday July 24, 2012

By Bill Tieleman

"God made only water, but man made wine."

- Victor Hugo, 1802-1885
Cheers to the B.C. Liberal government!

Shocked? It's not a sentiment seen often in this space but credit should be given when any party does the right thing.
And on new wine corkage rules in B.C. restaurants, the government has -- gulp -- done a good job.

The concept is simple: restaurants with a liquor license can let customers bring their own bottle of wine for a meal and be charged a corkage fee rather than buying wine from the restaurant.
The "bring your own wine" fee can be anything the restaurant decides -- from nothing to perhaps as high as $50 a bottle -- and there is no government bureaucracy involved in setting the fees or administering the process.

Most restaurants will charge a $10 to $25 corkage fee, to discourage customers from packing in the cheapest Somewhat Blanc or Recent Rouge wines. They may also ask patrons not to bring bottles in that are already offered on the restaurant's wine list.
The BYOW idea, while straightforward and practiced for years in other provinces and countries, is potentially revolutionary here.

Corkage could increase restaurant sales while reducing the cost of wine to consumers and allowing them to enjoy a better quality quaff at the same time.
"This is a common sense change that will result in more people going to restaurants," Ian Tostenson, B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association president, said Saturday in an interview.

Hey, easy on that mark up!
But the government cannot guarantee corkage's success. It's up to restaurants to make the most of this opportunity and consumers to take advantage by patronizing those who offer it.

Unfortunately, one downside is that many restaurants are already too greedy with existing wine pricing mark ups and may do the same with corkage.

I recently dined at a B.C. restaurant in a tourist town where a Louis Latour bottle of pinot noir from France retailing for $23 in government liquor stores was offered for $63 -- almost a triple mark up and a $40 profit!

Instead of buying that bottle, my wife and I had a much cheaper cocktail and glass of wine for under $40. So it was a lose-lose. The restaurant lost out on making more money and we didn't have a bottle with dinner, plus we won't go back because of their wine pricing.
Check one of Vancouver's best restaurant's wine lists and you can find painfully high prices, like $50 for a Pfaffenheim pinot gris from France worth $19 in a B.C. liquor store or $62 for a Errazuriz carmenere from Chile retailing at $22 or $120 for a de Toren Fusion V red wine from South Africa that retails for $45.

The standard doubling of retail prices for wine in restaurants is bad enough but more than that is unconscionable. Big mark ups are a major reason many people don't go out as often to restaurants or don't buy wine to go with their food.
And as the price goes up, the mark up should go down accordingly -- but often it doesn't, so patrons buy low-end wine instead.

Why should a restaurant charge $40 for a $20 retail priced wine and $100 for a $50 bottle, making $20 on one and $50 on the other for identical service and the same wine glasses?
So far those restaurants have probably gotten away with it because they think customers are simply stupid and don't know they're being fleeced with every glass.

But my suspicion is that many patrons would spend more on wine and be more likely to return if the establishment offered either a flat rate mark up no matter what the price or at least a much lower mark up on higher end wines.
If restaurants offer a reasonable $10 corkage fee, customers can bring in a $30 retail priced wine and save $20 over what would be charged on a standard 100 per cent mark up if they bought a similarly priced wine off the list. And they can bring in a special bottle saved from their cellar for years or a more expensive one for a special occasion.

Just the beginning
"This whole movement to modernize liquor laws is a consumer rebellion over the high cost of alcoholic beverages in B.C.," says Mike Klassen, who runs the BC Wine Lover blog.

"Drinking wine in moderation over a family dinner is one of life's great pleasures, yet it's prohibitively expensive for us. Fairly priced corkage fees are a step toward affordability," Klassen told me.
I completely agree and think smarter restaurateurs will take other innovative steps with corkage, such as waiving or reducing the BYOW fee on traditionally slower days like the beginning of the week or offering no corkage if you bring in a large party or order a more expensive multicourse meal.

Those are all now possible and fortunately B.C. has avoided some problems Quebec created with its corkage rules. In that province only unlicensed restaurants can allow customers to "bring your own wine" -- with the result that none of the best eateries offer corkage. In downtown Montreal just six restaurants advertise BYOW.
But expect some B.C. complaints nonetheless. Pub owners who serve food may be crying in their beer -- because the government excluded them from offering BYOW.

As also recently outlined here, B.C. charges some of the highest retail prices in North America, so corkage fees won't change that reality.
And of course, what would a meal in B.C. be without the hated Harmonized Sales Tax being applied? Unfortunately, until the HST disappears in April 2013, corkage fees will be subject to the tax along with your food.

Nonetheless, let's raise a glass. The B.C. Liberal government has earned a toast at last.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Christy Clark's BC Liberal MLAs line up for gold watches before time runs out on party

Retirement Season for BC Liberals

Premier Christy Clark - 9 MLAs gone.... and counting

Retirement Season for BC Liberals

Who's likely next after Murray Coell, Dave Hayer, Kash Heed, etc?

Bill Tieleman’s 24 hours/The Tyee column

Tuesday July 17, 2012

"Retirement may be looked upon either as a prolonged holiday or as a rejection, a being thrown on to the scrap heap." 

- Simone de Beauvoir, 1908-1986

BC Liberal MLAs are quickly lining up for a retirement gold watch before time runs out on their party.

And as polls show Premier Christy Clark's government has just half the support ex-premier Gordon Campbell achieved in the 2009 election, it's no wonder many would rather step down than be stomped on by voters.

Last week Murray Coell became the eighth BC Liberal MLA to announce they won't run again in next May's provincial election and it's no wonder -- the ex-cabinet minister discarded to the back bench by Clark only won his Saanich North and the Islands seat with 258 votes more than the New Democratic Party.

So with the BC Liberals at just 23 per cent in last week's Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, which other seats are most likely turnovers to the NDP at 45 per cent or even the BC Conservatives, who are threatening at 22 per cent?

Or will any join Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen and quit the BC Liberals to join the BC Conservatives?

BC Liberal campaign director Mike McDonald told media last week he expects about a third of the 46 BC Liberal MLAs will pack it in.

While some MLAs may just be tired after years in office and others tired of Clark, an analysis of BC Liberal ridings shows many will go NDP, barring a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Earthquake coming

The BC Liberals took 46 per cent of the vote in 2009 versus the BC New Democrats' 42 per cent, the Green Party's eight per cent and the BC Conservatives' two per cent.

Even a substantial improvement boosting the BC Liberals by 12 points to 35 per cent in the election would still mean a stunning loss of seats, with any MLA who won by 10 per cent or less over their opponent likely to be defeated.

Take the 1991 election, when the NDP under Mike Harcourt took 41 per cent of the vote and 51 of 75 seats in the B.C. legislature, the fledgling BC Liberals had 33 per cent and 17 seats and the governing Social Credit held just 24 per cent and only seven seats.

A political earthquake of similar or greater magnitude approaches, unless voters dramatically change their opinion of Clark and her party.

In the Lower Mainland, BC Liberal MLA Marc Dalton in Maple Ridge-Mission has to be the most nervous of all.

Dalton won by 68 votes, or a razor-thin 45.7 per cent to 45.4 per cent of the popular vote. [Note: an earlier version stated 532 votes in error - apologies.]

Burnaby North MLA Richard T. Lee's 548 vote margin -- or less than three per cent -- won't hold up, nor will Vancouver-Fairview MLA and Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid's 1,153 ballot advantage -- or under five per cent.

Tellingly, Burnaby-Lougheed MLA Harry Bloy already announced his retirement in a riding where the politically accident-prone ex-cabinet minister only won by 696 votes, or less than four per cent.

In Vancouver-Fraserview, controversial MLA Kash Heed is cashing out, seeing his 748 vote margin, under four per cent, unlikely to allow re-election -- not to mention his 2009 campaign being fined thousands for overspending Elections BC limits.

Surrey-Tynehead MLA Dave Hayer also called it quits this month, in a riding he held in 2009 by less than 10 per cent, with a 1,557 vote margin.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett had the slimmest victory margins of any B.C. Liberal in 2009 -- just 88 votes over the NDP. Her chances of surviving the next election look equally slim.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong won narrowly in 2009 by 561 votes or just over two per cent and then survived a recall campaign as well in 2011, but with the BC Liberal tide going out, is unlikely to be returned.

Kamloops-North Thompson is a classic weathervane riding for B.C. elections, with the party that wins there triumphing in the province for decades.

And the BC Liberals' Terry Lake did just that in 2009 by 510 votes or less than three per cent.

But Lake took 47 per cent of the ballots then while the B.C. Liberals had 46 per cent support provincially -- if they are at 35 per cent or less, Lake's chances will run dry.

Comox-Valley MLA Don McRae won his rookie campaign in another frequent swing riding with a 1,378 vote margin over the NDP, a less than five per cent gap with 47.3 per cent of the vote. Cut BC Liberal support provincially and the swing goes against McRae.

Greens, Cons and vote splits

And which BC Liberal MLA has the most at stake in a close race?

Premier Christy Clark herself, who narrowly eked out a 594 vote win in the Vancouver-Point Grey by-election last May -- under four per cent of the ballots cast.

Just one BC Liberal has gone in the other direction, committing to run again in 2013 -- Vancouver-Langara MLA Moira Stilwell, who enjoyed a 24 per cent margin of 4,275 votes.

But even Stilwell's strong position isn't enough to deter former Vancouver city councillor George Chow from expressing interest in running against her for the NDP.

The other big factor for BC Liberal MLAs undecided about running again is what impact two other parties will have on the election -- the BC Conservatives and the Green Party.

Most political observers tag the Green Party as taking away more votes from the NDP than any other party -- and some New Democrats blame their vote for twice re-electing the BC Liberals.

But while the Greens have been nearly invisible under leader Jane Sterk, they still poll eight per cent in the Angus Reid survey -- the same tally they got in the 2009 election.

The BC Conservatives, on the other hand, are clearly taking away many former BC Liberal votes and unlike 2009, they will likely be running far more than the 24 candidates who contested the election out of 85 possible ridings.

BC Conservative Leader John Cummins is hoping his party will actually leapfrog past Clark's team into second place just as unelected former BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson did in 1991 over another fading woman premier -- Social Credit's Rita Johnson, who replaced Bill Vander Zalm.

(In an ironic footnote, Johnson is now a big supporter of the BC Conservatives and attended their annual general meeting in 2010.)

Cummins should not be underestimated, having re-energized a nearly dormant party into one consistently polling in the 20 per cent range, and within spitting distance of the flagging BC Liberals.

Should Clark make yet more fumbles along the way to the election, a decent campaign from the BC Conservatives could indeed let them vault past the governing party and might also take seats the BC NDP now hopes to win.

Regardless of Cummins' chances, his party has rejected all overtures from the BC Liberals and their big business funders like Canaccord Capital's Peter Brown to fold their tent into one big happy "free enterprise" family.

The political mood of the province seems increasingly clearly set against the BC Liberals having any hope of a fourth term of office.

And that means Premier Christy Clark will be attending a lot of MLA retirement parties soon -- including possibly her own.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why does BC booze cost so much more than anywhere else? And why does BC government deny it?

BC beer, wine and spirits among most expensive in North America
Beer - or wine - or spirits - in BC among most expensive in North America 
-  Bill Tieleman photo, Merida, Mexico

And that's even before privatization of warehousing that may boost your bill. 

Bill Tieleman’s 24 hours/The Tyee column

Tuesday July 10, 2012

By Bill Tieleman

"Bill has a column, right -- so I'm warning you -- so if you tell Bill he's wrong, the chances are he's going to get a column out of if."
- Voice Of B.C. host Vaughn Palmer to Rich Coleman, B.C. liquor minister.
Do you believe the price of beer, wine and spirits in British Columbia is reasonable?
That B.C booze costs are comparable to other provinces and American states?
I don't, so I posed a simple question to Coleman on Shaw Cable's Voice of B.C. on May 31.
"Why do consumers of beer wine, and spirits pay among the highest prices in North America for those products?" I asked.
But Coleman immediately rejected my conclusion when Palmer asked: "Is he right about that?"
"Not really, no. We have a pretty comparable price structure to the rest of Canada," Coleman replied.
Oh yeah? I may only be a columnist and wine blogger, but I think the minister is wrong.
And some quick research on beer, wine and spirits prices indicates we often pay more -- sometimes much more -- than in other jurisdictions.
In B.C. government liquor stores, Labatt Blue beer costs $22.29 for 12 bottles, plus $1.20 bottle deposit, for a total of $23.49.
So how come in Chicago, Illinois, the imported Blue can be found for just $10.98 U.S. a case at Binny's private stores? That's less than half price!
Or why is it $18.50 a case in Ontario and $20.18 in Quebec at an IGA store?
And why does a Catena cabernet sauvignon from Argentina costing $21.09 in B.C. plus deposit retail at Ontario's government liquor stores for $19.95 and only $17.31 at private Calgary store Zyn?
How does Binny's in Chicago sell it for just $16.54 U.S.?
Coleman's corkers
Perhaps such price differences are why Coleman hedged his bets under questioning by Palmer after initially saying I was dead wrong.
Palmer: "He knows his wine, Mr. Tieleman, he's pretty knowledgeable about pricing, I think he might be right."
Coleman: "I don't think he is. I mean, we watch prices, there are some jurisdictions that have different pricing structures. You can go look at some types of liquor, some types of beer, whatever, and see differences between jurisdictions."
Palmer: "Bill has a column, right -- so I'm warning you -- so if you tell Bill he's wrong, the chances are he's going to get a column out of if."
Coleman: "He's not totally wrong because on some of it there is higher prices. A premium Scotch is higher in B.C. than it is in Alberta. But the floor price on some of our spirits is lower than in Alberta.
"So it's really how we tax it and how we take our revenues out of it, and in B.C. we make $900 million that goes into this fiscal plan for government, so that's where our pricing is."
Some B.C. prices are indeed lower than Alberta and other locations.
Let's drink Kentucky bourbon Wild Turkey for $28.95 a bottle in B.C., $28.25 in Ontario, $27.60 in Quebec -- or an easier to swallow $22.93 in Chicago.
That same bottle is $31.87 in privatized Alberta at a Calgary store.
But when one of the biggest selling beers brewed in Canada costs half the B.C. price in Chicago and $5 less in Ontario, I'd say someone's making a lot of windfall cash.
Higher prices for worse wine
Compare B.C., Ontario and Quebec's government liquor store profits.
B.C., as Coleman notes, makes about $900 million from selling liquor, while the Liquor Control Board of Ontario reported a $1.6 billion dividend to government from sales and the Societe Alcool de Quebec just announced a $1 billion net revenue.
But B.C.'s population is 4.6 million, Quebec's is 7.9 million and Ontario's is 13.4 million -- that's a lot more revenue per person from booze sales in B.C.
Yes there are differences between the provinces. Quebec allows corner stores and supermarkets to sell wine and beer; Ontario has the Beer Store run by big breweries as well as its stores while B.C. has a mixed public/private store network.
However none of that contradicts the higher prices in B.C. on some identical products.
Maybe that's fine with some B.C. drinkers -- and non-drinkers -- who prefer high prices that help fund government services while discouraging consumption.
But alternatively, high liquor prices are a regressive tax where lower income earners pay disproportionately more of their budget to enjoy a beverage.
It also means that those who drink are likely to purchase cheaper products because of the higher taxation and mark up rates. We pay more for crappier wine.
And despite Coleman saying his plan to privatize B.C.'s liquor warehouse operations won't mean consumers will pay still higher prices, I'm not convinced.
The new private owners will maintain a monopoly on the distribution and will also retain the unionized workers, plus find ways to make a profit -- all without increasing costs?
Here's one more clear reason I'm very dubious -- the same Catena wine priced at $21.09 at B.C. government stores is $27.99 in private B.C. Liquor Depot outlets -- 33 per cent more!
It all may drive me to drink.


Tuesday, July 03, 2012

BC's Carbon Tax - expensive, ineffective and unpopular failure

Carbon Tax: Empty Promise From BC Liberals for Enviros

Gas sales in BC up despite carbon tax & high prices! - Bill Tieleman photo

Gas sales up while emissions-heavy industry booms under BC Liberals.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 hours/The Tyee column

Tuesday July 3, 2012

By Bill Tieleman

"Yet for all its environmental piety, Norway is also a prodigious polluter. Its greenhouse-gas emissions have grown 15 per cent since it adopted the carbon tax." 

British Columbia's unique carbon tax on gasoline and other fuels went up another 1.1 cents a litre Sunday, but it remains an expensive, ineffective and unpopular failure.
While the BC Liberal government is attempting to make the proverbial silk purse from a sow's ear, the reality is that North America's only carbon tax is not reducing vehicle fuel consumption.
Nor is it helping improve the environment, since every cent of the $1.17 billion in tax revenue raised this year goes to corporate and personal tax cuts -- not to fund a single environmentally-friendly program like public transit, energy efficiency or conservation.
Statistics Canada figures show what happened. In 2008 -- the carbon tax's first year -- B.C. motor gasoline sales were 4,529.8 in thousands of cubic metres.
In 2011 they totaled 4,536.8 thousand cubic metres.
Gas sales went up, not down, under the carbon tax, despite a tough economic recession that reduced consumption.
Hardly environmental
Nonetheless, B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake claims success, arguing that greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 4.5 per cent between 2007 and 2010.
But even Lake doesn't deny that two-thirds of the GHG drop was "likely attributable" to the economic downturn, not the impact of the carbon tax.
B.C.'s stated goal is a 33 per cent GHG reduction by 2020 -- and Lake admits that will be "challenging" to meet.
Mark Jaccard, a Simon Fraser University environmental economics professor who strongly supports the carbon tax, says it will take 20 years to determine if it works.
"It would be shocking if a carbon tax had made a difference in a couple of years and it hasn't," Jaccard says.
It would also be shocking if the BC Liberals admitted their own hypocrisy and either fixed or scrapped the carbon tax, which remains highly controversial.
While paying lip service to environmental concerns, this government's biggest single capital expenditure is building a new $3.3 billion, 10-lane Port Mann Bridge that will dramatically increase vehicle traffic -- while scrapping the old bridge despite an estimated remaining lifespan of up to 50 years, according to an engineer who designed and supervised its construction.
(Award-winning Dutch engineer Gerrit Hardenberg told the Journal of Commerce this year that the existing Port Mann Bridge should have been twinned, at a cost for the second bridge of less than $200 million.)
And the government claims it wants to reduce GHG emissions, but last month declared fossil fuel natural gas which it previously condemned as "dirty" is now "clean" -- in order to power up to six multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas plants for exports to Asia.
B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 were 66.9 million tons. Fugitive emissions from LNG extraction alone will produce 54 to 110 MTs a year, according to the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association.
Putting every British Columbia driver into a Smart Car or Prius or tripling the carbon tax wouldn't make up for all the GHGs those LNG bad boys will be responsible for, between extraction, liquefaction, export and consumption.
Wan support
What's more, a poll released by the pro-carbon tax Pembina Institute in 2011 found that 51 per cent of British Columbians did not want the carbon tax to continue increasing each year, while just 29 per cent did, with 21 per cent not sure.
That may be a reflection of how unfair the regressive carbon tax is, since those with lower income pay proportionally more of their budget on gas and fuel than upper income earners.
And northern B.C. residents who don't have access to public transit have no choice but to pay higher gas and fuel prices to get around and to stay warm.
There's also the Norway example, where despite introducing a substantial carbon tax in 1991, GHG emissions had jumped 15 per cent by 2008.
"Norwegians, who already pay nearly $10 a gallon, took the tax in stride, buying more cars and driving them more," the Wall Street Journal reported. In B.C. terms, using current regular gas prices of about $1.35 a litre in Vancouver, the Norwegian price today is about $2.65 a litre, with six per cent of that its carbon tax component.
Whether you want to scrap the carbon tax, keep increasing it or fix it will be the subject of a B.C. government review, where you can let Finance Minister Kevin Falcon know how you feel until Aug. 31.
So don't count on this government making the carbon tax disappear or using the revenue for anything that would actually help reduce fuel consumption anytime soon.