Churches bending the rules concerning sacramental wine?

Ontario’s liquor agency is losing faith in the way churches buy their sacramental wine in the province.

OTTAWA — Ontario’s liquor agency is losing faith in the way churches buy their sacramental wine in the province.

The current rules are too lax and are being abused by some unscrupulous operators, says an internal report for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

“Vendors have been found to be importing unapproved, non-grape-based products,” says a draft review of the agency’s so-called Sacramental Wine Vendor Program.

There’s a “general non-compliance with rules and regulations.”

The document was obtained by The Canadian Press under the province’s freedom-of-information legislation.

Priests, ministers, rabbis and others have long been allowed to buy sacramental wine, brandy, cognac and liqueur outside the otherwise strict rules set by the LCBO, as long as the products are used in religious ceremonies in a regular place of worship.

Many Christian denominations, for example, have services in which a chalice of wine is blessed and sometimes shared with members of the congregation.

An estimated 200,000 bottles, worth about $1.8 million, were sold in this shadowy market in 2008-2009, normally through the 31 vendors officially registered in the program.

The special products, for which the province collects a 15 per cent fee on net sales, are not carried in the LCBO’s regular retail outlets.

But the agency is growing uncomfortable with these loosely regulated sales, noting that even the minimal regulations are being flouted.

Some vendors are publicly advertising their sacramental wines, for example, which is against the rules.

The LCBO is also concerned that the wines are not subject to minimum prices, as are other retail products, and are not tested in the agency’s labs for their chemical contents and labelling.

“Allowing sale of products that are not lab-tested could have legal ramifications for the company,” says the Aug. 17, 2009, draft from the LCBO’s finance and administration division.

There are also no limits placed on the quantity of sacramental wines that can be purchased.

The report recommends the province take full control of the sacramental wine market to prevent abuses.

“Effective overall control of the program could be achieved if LCBO can take ownership of the process, from ordering through sales,” says the document.

“LCBO would have full control over (sacramental wine vendor) ordering, receiving, including lab testing, pricing, and potentially sales.”

A spokesman for the agency says the review is only preliminary and any proposed changes would still have to be approved by the board.

“Existing participants in the program have been advised that a review is occurring,”

Chris Layton said in an email.