Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES July 25th, 2020

Our VINTAGES Release Coverage Amid COVID

By David Lawrason, with notes from Sara d’Amato, Michael Godel and John Szabo

We continue to receive inquiries from readers as to why many VINTAGES releases are not being reviewed by WineAlign. We have tried to keep everyone informed on the situation pre-Covid and during Covid, but obviously it is time to do so again. So please read on to find out what has happened and how we would like more of the wine trade in Ontario to get involved. Or you can skip right to our picks for this week below. Please note four-critic alignment on a great value South African sparkler from Anthonij Rupert L’Ormarins and three “aligns” for Perrin’s 2019 Tavel Rose.

First of all, let me be very clear that we are reviewing wines for the benefit of consumers, not the wineries, their agents or the LCBO. This focus dictates that our ratings and comments be objective, which is actually dead easy to do when it’s just you and the bottle in front of you. I don’t want to get into the scoring debate, which we have done in the past, but I will say that compared to many major wine publications, and some local columnists, our scores tend to be lower, and our reviews more critical (which means positive, negative and fair). But this has implications for us in obtaining samples for review, and indeed, on our advertising revenues.

But back to the beginning, so that you can clearly see what has happened. It is actually an interesting side story about media and government relations, that is unique to Ontario because of the monopoly landscape.


The Pre-Covid Era

Up until the beginning of 2019, we were able to preview taste almost all the VINTAGES releases at LCBO headquarters. I had been tasting VINTAGES releases at the LCBO for over 30 years under this arrangement. So, I understand how many longtime followers may not have even been aware of the changes.

I considered this access to be not only a privilege, but a journalistic right. As a state-run monopoly retailer of imported wines, the purchasing decisions of the LCBO need to be held to some kind of public scrutiny. Consumers obviously have the last word to buy, not buy, or re-buy, but as experienced and well travelled tasters the wine media also has a role to play in guiding consumers to the best value and quality wines, and educating along the way. I always very much appreciated that the LCBO understood our role and made all the wines available to us, both during a media tasting day, and by allowing us to taste with their product consultants.

In late 2018 the LCBO’s vision changed, setting out new ground rules that indicated to me that local wine media were no longer respected, and that we were not only going to be “managed” henceforth, but put to work for the LCBO’s purposes. The LCBO more than halved the number of wines we could taste, and they pre-selected which wines we could taste, without explanation of their selection. There was some effort to have us taste wines new to the LCBO, and wines that were slotted into themes in each Vintages magazine, which was helpful. But still, our ability to review all the wines and pick the best buys on your behalf was gone.

The LCBO engineered this reduction by no longer allowing us to taste alongside their staff product consultants. Given that there are over 100 wines per release it is not feasible or safe to taste all in one day, so joining the PCs on their tasing days allowed us to cover all the wines. I really miss that opportunity, as I got to know many of the LCBOs best wine people and I enjoyed tasting and talking with them.

You may also have noticed that the LCBO is now heavily promoting its own staff as experts and only uses external media to promote products if the ratings are through the roof and the reviews are gushing praise. Some LCBO PCs are indeed passionate and expert, but they are employees as well, thus hardly reliably objective. In fact, the LCBO radio ads using the voices of their experts are pathetically shallow and obviously promotions paid for by participating wineries.

Again, all of this against the backdrop that the LCBO, an agency of the Ontario government, remains the sole retailer of imported wines in Ontario, with even grocers having to buy from LCBO stocks.

The Covid Era

When Covid hit in early March there was no choice but to shut down tastings within the LCBO out of safety concerns. There was no safe way to be dealing with handling dozens of bottles, use of spittoons and physical distancing. And no can one smell or taste through a mask. The media and the product consultant tastings were shelved, temporarily at first.  But as the months roll by it is obvious media will not be returning to the LCBO tasting lab anytime soon.

So, at WineAlign we scrambled to get samples directly from the importing agents. Some responded, many didn’t. There was discussion with Drinks Ontario, the importing agents trade association, about organising safe tastings for the wine media, or at least getting behind the procurement of samples. That didn’t happen either. Rounding up samples is not as easy as it sounds because the LCBO does not allow agents to have many samples kicking around their offices, and many agents are working from home.  And if samples are available there are decisions about which media to send them to, and the cost of delivery.

So, in mid-April we proposed a plan to go out and purchase samples on behalf of the agents, when their wines were released into stores. A blanket WineAlign “call for samples” email goes out to agents before each release.  I then look through the LCBO’s releases and send agents a personal email asking for permission to buy their wine then later submit an invoice for reimbursement.  WineAlign goes shopping on the release Saturday, buys the wines, combines them with other samples that arrive at the office, then we taste them the following Tuesday. This is the reason this newsletter has been delayed one week and become a “Review”, not a “Preview”.

The positive about this new “buy on release” protocol is that we get to select the wines we think will be of most interest to our readers. The negative is that we are still not tasting all the wines as in days of yore. The many agents who have taken us up on this offer tend to be the most pro-active agents in Ontario, with the most interesting portfolios. Some agents have declined to participate for reasons of cost; others because they fear our scores and reviews will not be positive. There are also some who just seem to be not at all engaged.

The Road Ahead

We at WineAlign would love to be able to taste all the wines as we once did.  One solution would be for us to simply buy all the wines on each release, and as a journalist I love that idea for the complete independence it affords. But we can’t afford that. The expense is simply beyond our financial capability with the price tag of each release being about $4000, and higher in the premium fall period. We would have to significantly increase subscription rates for those who get this newsletter, and doubt at this time subscribers will want to shell out more money. Would you pay more?

So, I really don’t see much changing regarding Covid-era tasting in the months ahead. We will continue to work with agents and wineries and try to expand the number of samples being received. Recently we have worked with regional industry associations like New Zealand and Australia to reimburse us for samples when their wines are featured. For the upcoming August 8 release Wines of Argentina has gathered together all the wines and sent them to us in advance.  Others need to be proactive in this way.

I will continue to approach agents who have not participated, and if there are any agencies reading this who want to get on board please email me personally at [email protected].  And as a thank you to agents who are working with us, and to steer readers toward the agents who are more proactive, we are now acknowledging the agent in each of the picks in our newsletter recommendations.

We really do appreciate that so many of our readers care about our picks, reviews and ratings. Some care so much that they sit down to send an email. Which in turn has prompted this explanation.

Here are our picks from the July 25 release. On Tuesday we tasted about 40 of the 120 wines offered, and with previous tasting of another 30 or so, we have almost 60% of this release covered. We continue to aim higher. The old normal is unfortunately erased but we hope you will stick around.

Sparkling & Whites

Anthonij Rupert L’Ormarins 2013 Blanc De Blancs, Western Cape, South Africa
$24.95, John Hanna & Sons
John Szabo- It never ceases to amaze me how superb South African bubbly can be, against all odds of climate, one would assume. But the top level, like this example from Anthonij Rupert’s L’Ormarins, it really is very good, and superb value at that. This Traditional Method, pure chardonnay blanc de blancs delivers all of the expected citrus, lemon and lime zest, white flower and almond-type flavours of the category, with fine mousse, balanced acids, minimal dosage and very good to excellent length.
Michael Godel – A whole lotta lees aging has come to this extreme set of creamy, dreamy and extenuating Franschhoek circumstances. Notable as not being part of the Cap Classique club.
David Lawrason – This discreet yet firm traditional method delivers considerable class for $25. It is not at all showy, but it has clear, clean and lively lines with a generous quite complex aromas of dried apple, lemon, vague mushroom and honeyed, barley sugar candy.
Sara d’Amato
– An unbelievable value, this generous, more ample than the norm Blanc de Blancs offers the quality of Champagne at half the price. Highly aromatic, lightly toasty and with just the right balance and verve.


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And that’s a wrap for this release. Enjoy your long weekend, if those even exist any more among our elastic time spans, and join us two weeks from today for a review of Vintages August 8 release.

David Lawrason
VP of wine.

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.

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

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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