John Szabo’s Vintages Preview Nov 24th 2012 – Private Wine Shops in Ontario?
Private Wine Shops in Ontario? Top Ten Smart Buys; Premium Wine Gifts
“What if you could build your dream wine shop in your neighborhood? Now’s your chance to envision an Ontario with greater consumer choice.” This is the message that the Wine Council of Ontario is sending to citizens across the province. The recently launched initiative, detailed at www.mywineshop.ca, aims to drum up consumer support for private wine shops in Ontario, following in the steps of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, where privately owned wine shops have been allowed in recent years. Read on to find out what Ontario could be like for wine drinkers. I’ve also got my Top Ten Smart Buys that I promised from last week as well as a list of premium wine gifts that you’ll want to share with someone special this holiday season, all from the November 24th Vintages release.
Putting the “Control” in the Liquor Control Board of Ontario
Government control of alcohol distribution in Canada dates back to the 1920s. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario was created in 1927 by Lieutenant Governor William Donald Ross on the advice of then Ontario Premier Howard Ferguson. In that first year, 86 stores, three mail order departments and four warehouses were opened . It was a major step forward for the province’s alcohol consuming citizens at the time. Sales of liquor, wine and beer had been banned outright since 1916 during Canada’s own, if slightly less strict, version of prohibition, referred to as the “temperance movement”. Why, in the middle of the most brutal war the world had ever seen you’d want to ban alcohol is hard to comprehend, but apparently the citizens of Ontario were in support of it, and the support lingered on.
Believe it or not, in a 1924 plebiscite, Ontarians voted narrowly in favour of retaining the Ontario Temperance Act. But part of Ferguson’s campaign platform in the provincial election of 1926 was to introduce government controlled sales of alcohol, a stand that helped him to win the election. Ferguson saw it as a compromise between the complete ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages demanded by the hard liners, and fully unregulated alcohol sales.
Premier Ferguson stated that the Liquor Control Act was “… to allow people to exercise a God-given freedom under reasonable restrictions”. Ferguson was further quoted as saying the purpose of the LCBO was to, “promote temperance sobriety, personal liberty and, above all, to restore respect for the law.” To achieve these goals, the LCBO was mandated by Ferguson’s Government to employ an oversight mechanism in order to know “exactly who is buying and how much, and what disposition is being made of it.” 
If you were an alcohol-consuming citizen in Ontario between 1927 and 1962, you would have been required by the government of Ontario to apply for a license to purchase alcohol, in the same way that restaurants are required to apply for a permit to sell alcohol today.
Imagine having to carry around a passport-like document that contained your personal information, along with a complete history of your alcohol purchases: what, when, how much. I can only imagine how often I’d have had to renew my passport, no doubt even more frequently than my Canadian passport that gets filled up with too many entry and exit stamps.
When buying booze at the LCBO, you would have filled in a purchase order with your name, address and permit number along with the type and quantity of liquor you wished to purchase. An LCBO employee would verify the information on the purchase order and was directed to “examine [the purchaser’s] permit and see to what extent the purchaser has been buying liquor. If purchaser has exceeded a reasonable quantity per week, note permit number and address and refer to vendor.” A store employee could deny a sale to a customer if “his intended purchases may be considered too large for one person to reasonably consume.”  I wonder what was considered reasonable to consume.
What’s more, the Board could arbitrarily add your name to an “interdiction list” if they discovered you had an over-fondness for the bottle. A team of LCBO investigators could visit your home or workplace, and speak to neighbors or friends in the quest to uncover your weaknesses. Those on the list were banned entirely from purchasing alcohol, the proverbial photo on the LCBO wall.
But control didn’t stop at private consumption. Restrictions on the consumption of alcoholic beverages extended to public houses, too, as they still do today. Among the more amusing control measures of the era put in place by the Board (from today’s perspective) included a limitation on singing, a restriction on the number of friends who could sit together, and the complete segregation of females from unmarried male drinkers. Imagine that.
Why Private Wine Shops
I think you’ll agree that consuming alcohol is a little less restrictive today, and that the LCBO has come along way since 1927. But the idea of private wine shops is attractive for several reasons. Most importantly, wine selection would increase dramatically. Although I believe that the LCBO buyers generally do a good job in selecting wines, shelf space is limited, and there are only so many new products that can be brought through the system. And although many of the principal buyers have finely tuned palates, like Igor Ryjenkov, the Master of Wine who manages the Vintages European category (except Iberia, for the record) and Paul Farrell, product manager for new world wines (except Canada), the idea that a handful of individuals dictate the wine purchasing options for 10 million Ontarians seems more than a little Orwellian.
The world of wine is nothing if not diverse, which is what makes it so fascinating. Imagine a specialty wine shop where an owner with a penchant for the unusual would have free rein to import whichever products they were passionate about. Imagine a store specializing in the wines of a specific country or region, say, or of a certain style, where you could select from an in-depth offering that can only be hinted at in the LCBO, where limited shelf space must necessarily be shared by the entire world. A massive operation like the LCBO can’t possibly cater to all of the odd whims of consumers and cover all the corners of the planet.
Local wineries would likewise have infinitely more options to distribute their wines. As it stands, it’s via the LCBO, the winery door or through restaurants only; there are no other retail options, which is a major obstacle to the expansion of the local wine industry. You may point out the Wine Rack and Vineyards Estates stores as examples of privately owned shops, but these are owned by wineries that sell only their own products (including their non-VQA foreign blended wines) and are thus not options for either foreign or other domestic producers.
The LCBO runs a remarkably efficient supply chain considering the scope of the operation, and their buying power allows them to keep prices relatively low (Ontario is one of the least expensive provinces in which to buy wine, thanks mainly to a lower provincial tax). The 600+ stores service the majority of Ontarians, a feat that would be near impossible for a private chain to achieve, since many of the far-flung stores wouldn’t be profitable enough to run without a government mandate to keep them open. As such, it makes sense to keep the LCBO’s distribution intact. Private wine stores would simply complement and expand the availability of wines in the province, as the private shops in BC, Manitoba and Nova Scotia do. It all comes down to selection and servicing the needs of the people of Ontario. Some shops would thrive, others would fail, but that’s what free enterprise is about.
Other frequently raised concerns over privatization of any kind, such as loss of provincial revenues derived from the sale of alcohol, over-consumption, under-aged drinking, and drinking and driving have been soundly proved by several reports to be non-issues. The most comprehensive independent study to date, entitled the Beverage Alcohol System Review was completed in July of 2005 by a panel of experts chaired by John Lacey. The report was unambiguous in its findings. In the introduction letter to then finance minister Greg Sorbara the report states: “The beverage alcohol system consists of a dynamic retail sector operating within a rigid legal framework largely inherited from the end of the Prohibition era. A government monopoly and a handful of private interests dominate the market. The system is inflexible and there are many anomalies and inequities. If we could go back to the drawing board, no one would design an ideal system this way…. The challenge you put to us was to determine if the beverage alcohol system is delivering the maximum benefits to the people of Ontario. It is not.”
If you believe that privately-owned wine shops, operating within a regulated framework alongside the LCBO would be of benefit to the people of Ontario, go to www.mywineshop.ca and let your MPP know. WineAlign colleague David Lawrason will follow this up next week with a more in depth look at private wine stores in Ontario, and share his own thoughtful views on what the wine buying landscape in this province might look like one day. Stay tuned. I hope I don’t get put on an interdiction list for writing this.
Top Ten Smart Buys
And now, on to the important business of what is good at the LCBO. The Top Ten Smart Buys for the November 24th release include a re-release of the outstanding Descendientes de J. Palacios Pétalos do Bierzo ($23.95). This is a consistently excellent wine, made from mencía sourced from four villages in the valley of Bierzo. 2010 was a glorious vintage, resulting in a wonderfully floral version, while the palate is mid-weight, suave though surprisingly structured, indeed one of the most structured Petalos’ in my experience. The length and depth are excellent, especially for the money.
Burgundy drinkers can rejoice with the 2010 Maison Roche de Bellene Cuvée Réserve Bourgogne ($16.95). This is really an astonishingly low price for solid Bourgogne rouge. The vintage character is well-marked, with lighter, leaner, tart red berry fruit leading the way over sharp, mouth-watering acids and firm, dusty tannins. The structure of this wine would repay another year or two in the cellar no doubt, though with a little steak tartare (not too spicy) this would be a fine glass to enjoy now.
And drinkers of firm and juicy old world reds should also take a trip to the little-known region of Velvendos in northwestern Greece and try the 2007 Ktima Voyatzi PGI Velvendo ($18.95). This is the family project of Yiannis Voyatzis, chief enologist by day for the Boutari group of wineries. There are few alive who know as much about the native xinomavro grape as does Voyatzis, and here he blends it with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wine offers the intriguingly spicy-herbal-leathery side of the Greek variety, coupled with the darker fruit and softer texture offered by the international grapes. Acids are succulent and juicy, and the firm texture is reminiscent of classic Tuscan sangiovese blends; a wine well worth discovering.
And as thoughts of a little sweet tipple after the meal or a civilized mid-afternoon break re-enter streams of consciousness, consider the 2008 Ruffino Serelle Vin Santo del Chianti ($24.95). It’s a rich, nutty, caramel and treacle-flavoured vin santo, with plenty of raisined fruit character. It’s sweet but far from cloying, well-balanced and full of dried orange and candied ginger flavours – really quite a ride for the money.
See all the top ten smart buys here.
2008 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($99.95). This is another terrific bottle from Dunn Vineyards, consistently one of the top producers in the Napa Valley in my view, and all things considered, fairly priced. It’s pure and honest, with a dazzling array of flavours, framed by significant but very ripe and grippy tannins, lively acidity and excellent length. It will be at its best from about 2015-2025.
2004 Masi Campolongo di Torbe Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($99.95). Of the two single vineyard Amarones from Masi being released this week, I’ve a slight preference for this one. There’s an extra degree of lift and florality, freshness and balance, and extraordinary length. I’d count this among the best Amarones of the vintage.
2010 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape ($89.95). Aside from name brand recognition, a major plus when giving premium wine gifts, I really appreciate the savoury, saline quality of the 2010 Beaucastel − it has all the depth and richness of the 2009, yet is seemingly lighter on its feet and more supple. The finish lingers on terrifically, with mouth-salivating minerality and balanced alcohol. It’s a classy and aristocratic wine, and surely a top vintage for the estate. This should drink well until the end of the 2020s.
2007 Ascheri Pisapola Barolo ($42.95). From Ascheri’s vineyard in Rivalta in the commune of La Morra-Verduno, the Pisapola is generally a lighter and more feminine style of Barolo, as this 2007 clearly shows. There’s still significant density and extract to be sure, but the balance here is impeccable: firm and juicy, dusty and fruity. The finish is deceptively long, too, finishing on beguiling floral notes and potpourri – a really lovely wine all around.
2009 Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($74.95). Native Edmontonian Cliff Lede’s Stag’s Leap is a classic Napa cabernet in the finest sense, made from mostly estate fruit, with some of famed vineyard manager David Abreu’s personal vineyard fruit included in the mix. Although labeled as cabernet, all of the traditional Bordeaux grapes come into the blend to deliver this densely packed, evidently concentrated and structured wine. I appreciate the firmness and balance; this is in fact quite elegant and restrained, with a real sense of minerality underpinning the ensemble. Loads of integrity here, and terrific length. Best 2014-2024.
Link back to my Pre-Preview highlighting a trio of top chardonnays, including two from Ontario.
John Szabo MS
From the November 24, 2012 Vintages release: