Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario, addressed the opportunity and challenges faced by Grape Growers in Niagara.
 
Dan Toppari introduced Debbie Zimmerman, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Grape Growers of Ontario who oversees the operations of the organization, responds to grower issues, and works closely with government.
 
Debbie is in her 31st year of committed service to the public. She holds public office as Regional Councillor for the Region of Niagara. She was elected to Grimsby Town Council in 1978 and served as alderman until 1989. In 1989, she served on Regional Council and on a variety of committees and boards. In 1997, she was first elected Regional Chair for the Regional Municipality of Niagara, and was re-elected as Chair in 2000. She continues to serve on many committees in the region.
 
She has served on many boards and commissions at the regional and provincial level, such as the Niagara Escarpment Commission and currently serves as Board Chair of the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation.
 
She is founding member of the Niagara Community Foundation, former member of the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital Board and past Co-Chair of the Investment in Life Campaign for West Lincoln Memorial Hospital in Grimsby. Currently, Debbie is the Campaign Chair for the Child Advocacy Centre Niagara.
 
Debbie is the recipient of many awards, such as the Niagara Award, the Niagara College Board of Governors Award, and the Woman of Distinction Award presented by the YWCA. As CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario, She has been awarded the Company of the Year Award, the Training Excellence Recognition Award in the category of Agriculture and the Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation.
 
Debbie Zimmerman-
 
Debbie congratulated Sheree on becoming a Rotarian and teased Sheila on becoming the Duchess of St. Catharines.
 
Niagara has over 600 grape growers, and there are many new start up wineries, such as Hidden Bench, Organized Crime, Devils Wishbone, the Wicked Witch, Half-Moon Bay, Foreign Affair, to name but a few.
 
But we have a functional problem - we do not own our market share. We own less than 30 per cent. Foreign imports own the rest. Any wine region in the world owns its own region.  
 
Debbie would like to see 100 per cent Ontario grown. The problem is the distribution channel.
 
Twenty-five thousand dollars in taxes is generated from every acre of grapes.
 
In 2008, 4,000 tons of grapes were dropped on the ground. In 2009, we expect 9,000 tons to be dropped on the ground.
 
It's keeping growers in an unsustainable situation.
 
The LCBO is the greatest marketer in the world, but at the same time it is to the detriment of local growers.
 
The distribution channel needs to be opened up to the smaller players.  But when you have to pay 58 per cent to get on the shelf, it's tough.
 
Debbie is pressing the government very hard to get 51 per cent of our own market share.
 
The grape growers were the first to bring in Vinifera grapes, growing north of the 49th parallel. We are growing grapes in a cool climate region successfully.  We are particularly known for our white wines - Riesling, Chardonnay, ice wine. But our reds are coming along too, i.e. Baco Noir. We are a young industry, but our wines are of the highest quality.
 
Today, there are 11 small wineries on the chopping block. Sadly, they can't get their product to market.
 
Buy Ontario. Buy VQA. Read the label to ensure you are buying Ontario.
 
Debbie has spent a long time convincing government of the role played by the local grape grower.  Unless we can come up with a different distribution channel, we will never own our market.
 
Ron thanked Debbie for addressing the club on such an informative topic.
 
Dan extended an invitation to all Rotary members to stop by 281 St. Paul on Saturday for the kick-off of Grape & Wine week.