Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – June 24, 2017

Last Call for Alcohol, plus Top Picks Saturday’s Release
By John Szabo, MS with notes from David, Michael and Sara

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Is it last call at the LCBO, with a workers strike inevitable? This week’s report takes a look at the major issues, and how the alcohol retailing landscape in Ontario seems poised for big change. And for those looking to stock up for the Canada Day weekend (and in case of a lockout), the WineAlign crü has assembled a long list of recommendations from the VINTAGES June 24th release, including sharp value Bordeaux and Roussillon reds, top Chablis and Sancerre, a ‘house’ rosé, and more.

Last Call?

There’s not quite panic in the streets, but consumers and restaurateurs are bracing for a potential last call on alcohol sales at the LCBO if staff go on strike. Workers are in a legal position to strike as of 12:01 on June 26th if a labour deal isn’t reach by then, just before the Canada Day long weekend, one of the busiest weekends for LCBO sales.

“The strike deadline falls at one of the busiest times of the year when customers are planning activities with family and friends over the Canada Day long weekend. We expect an increase in customer traffic at LCBO stores this week,” management was quoted as saying by Global News.

To deal with the traffic, a select number of LCBO outlets will extend their hours from at 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Thursday, June 22 to Saturday, June 24. “Shop far in advance”, is the LCBO’s advice.

(If the strike happens, you won’t of course be fully high and dry. Remember that local wineries, breweries/cideries and distilleries would not be affected, nor would The Beer Store and grocery stores with wine licenses.)

So What’s at Issue?

According to, a website set up by the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU), which represents 8,000 LCBO staff,  “The management of the LCBO went into the current contract negotiations with demands that would make a bad situation intolerably worse. Demands they already knew that LCBO workers couldn’t accept.” The site features video testimonials from union members alongside written claims.

At the heart of the dispute is the claim that the LCBO wants “to increase the number of part-timers, even though more than 84% of the retail staff is already part-time.” In addition, the LCBO wants to share more eight-hour shifts between two or three employees to limit hours (it takes some workers as long to get to and from work as the length of their shifts), and make it tougher to get (more expensive) full-time positions.

LiqiLeaks calls out Minister of Finance Charles de Sousa for the LCBO’s tough negotiating stance, who, they say, told the already profitable crown corporation to raise profits by 10% this year. “And it looks like he didn’t care how they did it. He’s okay with the fact that the LCBO has gone after its employees to come up with the money.”

Presumably one of the main advantages of having a government owned and operated, highly profitable business is the number of “good jobs”, as Premier Kathleen Wynne calls them, it would guarantee: full-timers, with benefits and pensions. From the union’s perspective, the government is more interested in making money than making good jobs, and has given the LCBO mandate to do so.

Yet a press release from the LCBO on May 24th provides a slightly different perspective behind their stance. In a rather shocking admission (shocking that the information would be made public, not the substance itself), the LCBO revealed that their new business as a wholesaler to grocers “gives the government a higher return than what it receives from the LCBO’s retail sale of beverage alcohol.  So, in fact, as a wholesaler to grocers, the LCBO is able to collect even greater revenues for the government to reinvest in public services for Ontarians.”

The statement contradicts the claim made on LiqiLeaks that a “better LCBO would invest in improving this public asset instead of handing over profits to grocery store billionaires and Liberal donors.” According to the LCBO, they’re also handing over a lot of costs to grocery store barons, in addition to the notoriously slim margins on alcohol (especially wine) sales.

In any case, the LCBO’s press release makes it clear that significant changes are in the works: “The introduction of greater competition in the marketplace has changed the beverage alcohol landscape in Ontario, and we have been very clear on the need to rethink the way we do business. “

It’s not yet clear what this statement means. Perhaps proposing intolerable worker conditions is a way for the LCBO to simply wind down its retail operations, or at least parts of them, as has been recommended in several independent reports going back a couple of decades. Will they get out of retail altogether, or open up the retailing of alcohol to a greater number of private stores? Move fully into wholesale?

Are they preparing for the inevitable legal interprovincial shipping of alcohol (already federally legal as well as provincially in some cases), and thus planning to shut down stores and move sales online and sell to all Canadians? Will the government parcel off the LCBO to private buyers?

Big changes, it’s clear, are on the horizon.

And what would you prefer: a profitable government retail operation that provides good and secure jobs for thousands of Ontarians, attractive stores with a decent, if not exceptional, range of products and broad geographical coverage of the province? Or an even more profitable government wholesale operation that puts additional millions (billions) into government coffers to be spent on all Ontarians, alongside and a collection of generalist grocers and private specialty shops selling a broader range of foreign and domestic products but with more restricted geographic access? And would those private retailers fill the void of (good) jobs that the LCBO is ceasing to provide?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this complex issue. In the end it will affect the way we purchase alcohol in this province, and what products we have access to and where and for how much. For wine lovers, that’s a big deal. What’s the ideal model?

In the meantime, don’t forget to head down to your local VINTAGES outlet to stock up in case of a lockout before Canada Day. You can expect long lines. But with the list of recommendations below, at least you’ll know what to buy.

Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES June 24th

Top Pick Reds

Château 2015 Terre Blanque AC, Bordeaux, France ($12.95)
John Szabo – Serious value alert: deeply coloured, dark and fruity…Wow, there’s a lot of wine here for the money. This gives most bottles at twice the price a solid run. Best 2017-2023.

Saint-Roch 2014 Vieilles Vignes Syrah/Grenache AP Côtes de Roussillon, France ($15.95)
John Szabo – Lovely garrigue, scorched earth, cold cream and wild violets lead off in this exceptional value Roussillon red. I love the ample, juicy, substantial palate, the dense ripe, black fruit, and the length. And all this for $16? I’m in. Best 2017-2024.

Château Terre Blanque 2015Saint Roch Vieilles Vignes Syrah Grenache 2014Pierre Laplace Madiran 2013

Laplace 2013 Madiran, Southwest, France ($17.95)
John Szabo – This is to be considered by any Bordeaux or Malbec, lovers looking for some value. Madiran-leading producer Laplace delivers lovely floral-violet character and candied red fruit flavours here, alongside a firm and juicy, well-balanced palate, on the firmer side but nothing a little salty protein at the table can’t handle. Best 2017-2025.

Cap Royal Rouge 2014 Bordeaux Supérieur, France ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Here’s a spiffy Bordeaux value made under the auspices of the gent who also makes Chateau Pichon-Baron, a vaunted 2nd growth. It has more complexity and finesse than expected from the price and vintage, with a lifted nose of cedar, twigs and herbs and just right oak spice and toast.

d’Arenberg 2013 The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($19.95)
David Lawrason  – This iconic McLaren Vale winery just keeps churning out the hits. In the case a great value cabernet that only adds to my sense that Oz is tailor made for this grape. Lively and firm on the mid-palate with almost creamy texture as well. Excellent length at the price.

Cap Royal Rouge 2014D'arenberg The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Soléna Grand Cuvée Pinot Noir 2014Château Maucamps 2010

Soléna 2014 Grand Cuvée Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA ($34.95)
John Szabo – Get your hands on this light and delicate, fragrant and juicy Willamette Valley pinot, already sold out at the winery thanks to a Wine Spectator Top 100 wines listing. I love the savoury-spicy side here, the fine-grained tannins, and the ripe but fresh acids. Fine length, too. Best 2017-2024.

Château Maucamps 2010 Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux, France ($34.95)
David Lawrason – This gorgeous Bordeaux is just starting to drink at prime but destined to age well for a decade. It is sleek, composed and quite elegant, yet packs the power and depth of 2010, the best vintage in the last decade. The fruit is ripe, swaddled in oak and accented and made complex with some meatiness.

Bubbles, White & Rosé

Graham Beck Brut Rosé Méthode Cap Classique, Western Cape, South Africa ($19.95)
John Szabo – A couple of hours of skin contact is enough to give this pinot and chardonnay based rosé it’s lovely pink colour (the length of time it takes to get the must from Stellenbosch where the grapes are grown to the winery in Robertson). The palate is dry, firm, balanced, appealing savoury and sapid, with very good length. Another fine value from sparkling specialist. Graham Beck.
Michael Godel – The method is traditional and the result classic as per the Beck house style, an ode and an adherence to the magic of Cap Classique style, always with that sage feeling of evolution in age. There is more sweetness in the Rosé than the blanc-styled Beck Brut and so more commercial appeal but there is no arguing the balance achieved.

Leyda 2015 Garuma Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile ($17.95)
John Szabo – From vineyards a stone’s throw from the icy Pacific, this is very peppery in the cool climate idiom, zesty and intense, yet fleshy and full enough on the palate to balance severe acids. Some CO2 further freshens the palate through the intense, long finish. It’s a wallop of flavour.

Graham Beck Brut Rosé, Méthode Cap ClassiqueLeyda Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2015Villa Raiano Greco Di Tufo 2015

Villa Raiano 2015 Greco di Tufo, Campania, Italy ($23.95)
John Szabo – A quality producer with certified organic vineyards this is a notably golden-tinged greco with discreet aromatics but superbly lean and minerally palate, finely etched, crisp, and precise. A lick of white fruit peaks out, but this is a mineral show through and through. I’d leave this for another year or two in the cellar to develop full potential. Best 2018-2025.
Michael Godel – When greco di tufo hits its notes the posit tug between fruit and mineral comes across as it does right here. There is some density, compression and resonance (almost bass note like) in its tangy, salty and ostensibly volcanic grip but also a grittiness that comes across like liquid smoke and flint. Just terrific for the grape variety in Campania.

Domaine Servin 2015 Vaillons Chablis Premier Cru, Burgundy, France ($34.95)
John Szabo – This is very tidy Chablis indeed, stony, and intensely flavoured on the palate with exceptional depth and mineral concentration. Crunchy acids defy the warm 2015 vintage; this is every inch a classic cool climate wine, also very classy and sophisticated. It’s drinking beautifully at the moment, but will also cellar into the mid-’20s without a stretch. Best 2017-2025.
David Lawrason – This is very classy, refined and even handed Chablis from a riper than usual vintage. Some purists may lament lower acidity, but that is hardly an issue when a wine is as impeccably balanced and refined as this. Chardonnay at its best.
Michael Godel – Vaillons is one of Domaine Servin’s most important Left Bank Premier Cru, dedicated to intensity and in capturing the particular exposure for ripeness in the face of sea fossils, shells and kimmeridgian soil adding up to exceptional minerality. This is quite a full expression for the benevolent 2015 vintage, richer and of more fruit depth than so many brethren. And also ready to drink. Drink 2017-2021.

Henri Bourgeois 2014 La Chapelle des Augustins Sancerre, Loire, France ($37.95)
John Szabo – The 10th generation winegrowing family of Bourgeois is a highly reliable name in Sancerre (as well as in Marlborough, New Zealand), and this crackling 2014 from a vineyard that mixes both chalk and flint is an arch-classic highly stony, crisp, tangy cru Sancerre, with excellent length and depth – a sophisticated and classy wine all around. Tasted June 2017.
Michael Godel – Limestone and as the bottle notes “flint” but what we then read is that the limestone mixes with churte or silex and turns out a strikingly mineral sauvignon blanc in the way that only Sancerre can do. The citrus is lime and bitters while other notes deliver power and conversional elegance. Terrific Sancerre no matter how you like or look at it.

Domaine Servin Chablis Vaillons Premier Cru 2015Henri Bourgeois La Chapelle Des Augustins Sancerre 2014Mimi en Provence Grande Réserve Rosé 2016Carpineto Rosato 2016

Mimi en Provence 2016 Grande Réserve Rosé , Côtes de Provence, France ($18.95)
David Lawrason – Pale Provencal rose has become the pink standard, being dialled in and channelled by winemakers around the world. Or you can just buy the real thing at under $20. This is a very pale, cool, smooth and dry rose with a gentle nose of dried strawberry/currants, herbs and some minerality. It has more weight than appearance suggests.
Sara d’Amato – A solid value from a relatively large producer who makes wine extensively from across Provence. Mimi is a very typical blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah that offers the mineral and saline loveliness of the region but also more depth and fruit character than the average.

Carpineto 2016 Dogajolo Rosato, Toscano, Italy ($14.95)
John Szabo – One of the best rosatos from Carpineto that I can recall tasting, this is pure, fresh, fun, red-fruit flavoured, sapid and savoury. The desire to sip again is strong. Consider it a candidate for a summer ‘house’ rosé at this price.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Szabo’s Smart Buys
Lawrason’s Take
Michael’s Mix
Sara’s Sommelier Selections

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


Stags' Leap Winery Chardonnay 2015