Ah, the joys of spontaneous journalism! Our column in this weekend’s North Shore News went to press too late to acknowledge the BC Government’s action—or rather statement of intended action—to modify the use of a Special Occasion License for charity auctions of wine or other alcohol.

According to CTV, the minister responsible, the Honourable Rich Coleman, explained  that “The new approach will allow charities to auction off alcohol as part of gift baskets, provided there are other items in the basket and the liquor has been commercially produced. The liquor is also not allowed to be consumed at the event.”

Fine. But this gets dumber and dumber. Either that, or somebody’s just playing games…

Here’s what else the minister has to say, about the new, more common sense approach:

“From time to time, we find outdated liquor policies that may have been relevant at a particular time in history but don’t work today,” Coleman said. “Our goal is to get rid of these outdated liquor laws that unnecessarily restrict British Columbians and to regulate alcohol responsibly in the process.”

Oh really? If that’s the case, why would the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch have specifically chosen to enforce this aspect of the law now, and not before? Bear in mind that the Belfry Theatre was absolutely blindsided in this instance, as they had not encountered any hint of a problem in the two previous years the auction was held. (I was actually approached to MC at one point, so I’m quite familiar with the event.) Regardless of the late development, the theatre company was obliged to cancel the auction, no doubt wasting hundreds of volunteer hours in the process.

While the statement of intent to change the law may be quite genuine, the reference to gift baskets in this new context continues to totally ignore the fact that, in this instance, it’s all about The Wine.

These kinds of comments underscore a disconnect (or a deliberate disregard) as to what’s taking place here—and has for years.  The point is that while there may indeed be gift baskets as part of a charity auction, and perhaps some with wine included, the truly valuable lots—the items likely to raise serious funds—will be the wines that are donated as stand alone items, such as magnums, verticals of, say, six bottles to a case, hard to find large formats, and so on.

The notion that these wines (often already boxed, and worth hundreds, occasionally thousands of dollars) would be repackaged into gift baskets (thereby diminishing their value) is downright absurd. Furthermore, the ruling to allow a bottle to be auctioned only if it’s in a gift basket underscores the bureaucracy’s inability to move beyond the kind of paternalistic, nanny state “We know what’s good for you” thinking that has driven policies and attitudes for far too long.

Despite the rush to make things look good, we’re not at all convinced that the chapter is closed on this sorry story, so we’re going to run the column here anyway. Because, in this case and perhaps others, the problem hasn’t been fixed at all.

Here’s the unchanged column …

Wine auctions traditional

By Tim Pawsey, Special to North Shore News October 28, 2012 2:02 AM

JUST when you thought B.C.’s archaic liquor laws were edging closer to normality, things become curiouser and curiouser.

At least it appears that way. Almost like Alice in Wonderland, B.C.’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch seems to live in a world of its own, ignoring its mandate to act in the interest of the public good.

How can we come to any other conclusion, following the branch’s decision to deny the Belfry Theatre permission to hold its annual fine wine auction for charity?

The now-cancelled auction, an event that is standard practice for many non-profits, has been an important fundraiser for the Victoria theatre company, which has not had any problems getting a Special Occasion License in the past.

The very purpose of fine wine auctions is to offer people the chance to bid on rare and hard to find wines or unusual formats, often as not from collectors’ cellars. The practice has been going on for decades, so it’s strange indeed that the licensing branch should choose to flex its muscle at this particular time.

Furthermore, the notion that only wines purchased from B.C. Liquor stores may be auctioned is downright ludicrous, and you can be sure that the individual who issued this ruling is well aware of that.

For the BCLCB to “test the waters” and drop hints that it might choose to reverse its ruling further smacks of abuse of authority in this instance, as the chill towards non-profits and charities is now widespread with the implied threat from all-powerful inspectors that they may at any time choose to deny a licence, or worse, shut down an event in progress.

The actions of the BCLCB are not restricted to this case alone. In recent months there have been other reports of over-enthusiastic enforcement pertaining to special occasion licences.

As to why, your guess is as good as mine. But somebody, starting with the minister responsible, needs to answer for this unacceptable form of bureaucratic bullying, and fix the problem at hand to enable legitimate charity fine wine auctions to continue as they have for years.

Stay tuned …

And if you want to read more on this, check what Canada’s wine law guru Mark Hicken has to say here