Newspapers, blogs and on-line articles were alight last week with the rapidly-maturing story of how large wineries got caught selling wine made from imported grapes in the ‘BC Wines’ or ‘Canadian Wines’ section of the liquor store. The three winemakers, including the Ontario companies that make Peller Estates and Jackson Triggs, have been under fire for selling wines quietly labelled “Cellared in Canada” when in fact, the wine contains mostly foreign grapes.

Consumers–encouraged by some high-profile wine writers–have taken the winemakers to task, and the BC government has responded, saying they will remove the wines from the BC Product shelves.

Quoted in Marketing Magazine, John Peller, president of Ontario-based Andrew Peller Ltd., said his company has used “Cellared in Canada” since 1996 when the labels were approved by a national standards board.

“We pointed out to the government, ‘We can’t say these wines are a product of Canada because they’re not a 100% product of Canada.’” He said the board then told them to go with “Cellared in Canada.”

Peller also estimated that the average bottle has 30% to 40% Canadian grapes, and it was never his company’s intention to deceive anyone or confuse consumers. “Please don’t question our intention to be totally transparent and honest,” he said.

If you market a product or service, and are considering promoting your local content, make sure you are doing it transparently and accurately. (Would it be that hard to clearly state the percentage of foreign grapes right on the label? Or just bad for business?) Only time will tell how much underestimating their customers will cost Vincor, Peller and Mark Anthony. The stain of Local-Washing may take quite some time to fade.

Well, people are questioning it. Local has taken on a new importance in recent years, and faithful BC wine drinkers don’t read the fine print of packaging regulations.  When they go to the BC shelf, they expect local product. And when they don’t get it, the old ‘business as usual’ defense won’t cut it.

Consumers may not swallow this so easily, however. Fueled by righteous indignation and armed with all the tentacles of social media, a few well organized groups can start a movement.

Whether deliberate or not, this obfuscation of product origin has now become known as ‘Local-Washing’. A derivative of ‘Greenwashing’ (exaggerating a product’s eco-attributes) , ‘Local-Washing’ has its roots in a growing consumer trend – whether to reduce greenhouse emissions, support regional business or just have a better sense of where our products and food come from. Unfortunately, ‘buy local’ has now shown up on the radar of Big Corporations everywhere. Their usual response is to use the term, water down the definition, confuse the issue and hope consumers won’t pay much attention as they try to capitalize.

For instance, Frito-Lay’s new television commercials use farmers as pitchmen to position the company’s potato chips as local food, while Foster Farms, one of the largest producers of poultry products in the USA, is labeling packages of chicken and turkey “Locally Grown.”

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