A Better Way to Buy Wine

By Dick Snyder, CityBites

“There must be a better way...”

No, that’s not the sotto voce musings of a frustrated commuter waiting for a streetcar, it’s the exhortation of an increasingly vocal community of Ontario wine lovers who know they’re getting the short end of the cork and are fed up with it. Meanwhile, the LCBO is in the courts, on the news, in the papers and all over social media this week—and it’s not a pretty sight. Consumers want their wine and they want it now, and when the LCBO can’t or won’t give it to them, where can they turn?

Well, nowhere really. And that’s the point. But there may be some light at the end of the bottle. Revolution is in the air—though it’s likely to be a very polite, Canadian-style evolution that’ll take several years of apologizing and “excuse me’s” before anything tangible happens. Still, any ray of hope is welcome. Must remain positive.

The CTV’s Paul Bliss broke a story last week week in which he coaxed Premier Kathleen Wynne to concede that she is open to “loosening” the LCBO’s monopoly, though she appeared a bit trepidatious when she said it (on camera, on a train). (And I bet she got an earful from LCBO honchos the next day.) The gist of the story is that Ontario winemakers are forced into being too reliant on the LCBO to sell their wares, and when the LCBO says “no” to stocking their wine, the winemakers have few alternatives. Actually, they have no other retail alternative at all. In the CTV spot, Coyote’s Run winery owner Jeff Aubry said the liquor laws in Ontario have created one of the most repressive alcohol distribution regimes in the Western World.” Weighty words, even among fellow comrades. Problem is, most wine buyers have no idea how green the grass can be, and remain blissful in their ignorance. For unless you’ve traveled—even to Buffalo—you’d have no idea how good, progressive and fun the wine-buying experience can be.

I stood in an LCBO last week, chatting wines with a fellow customer in front of the Vintages wall. She said a visiting guest from Germany stormed out of another LCBO in a huff and refused to buy any wines during his stay in Ontario. He found the wine-buying experience not only terrible, but the prices astronomical.

Many years ago I stumbled into the Burgundy Wine Co. in New York City and found customers and staff tasting wines, talking, joking and inviting everyone to join in. They sell wines made from the Burgundian grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Champagne. Imagine the power of such focus—the depth of knowledge, the variety (at all price points), the opportunities to discover new wines with a flavour profile that you really love.

Last year in Austin I hit The Whip Inn roadhouse for a bite and some raucous Texas blues and—surprise!—found a beautifully stocked grocery store and wine shop, along with the requisite dance floor, bar, patio and puppet show (that’s another story). And get this: you have to walk in front of the band to get to the shelves of wine. You pluck a bottle and either take it to the cashier and go home, or take it to your table and drink it. Imagine! Even better, they had bins of great wine at half off. I got a few bottles of Patricia Green Cellar’s Pinot Noir from Oregon for $18—it normally sells for upwards of $40 (and you’ll never see it on the LCBO shelves anyway, so forget about it).

Yes, there is a better way. There are lots of better ways. I like this story from the New York Times entitled “New Wine Shops in New York Put Patrons at Ease.” I like the title, because it telegraphs that “old” wine shops are not about ease, but rather anxiety. (Hello, LCBO!) There’s a photo of the hipster owners of Alphabet City Wine Company on the Lower East Side hanging around in what looks like a den with retro stereo gear, low lighting, junky furniture, etc. But this is in fact a wine shop contained within the atmosphere of a dive bar.

I like this story because it’s three-years old. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal (and lots of other U.S. media, I’m sure) covered the hipster wine shop craze to death in the late 2000s, and now it’s pretty much accepted that there’s a whole new generation of wine drinkers that relate to wine—and the purchasing of wine—in a completely different way. Think: a shelf of staff picks, open bottles to sample, walls of wines themed by mood, Top 10 lists, wines organized by terroir, etc. Sounds like a bookstore or record store, doesn’t it?

The story is over in the United States; but it’s not even a pipe dream in Ontario. I image Premier Wynne would break out in a cold sweat if you put her in a shop like that and suggested, even humorously, that such a thing be allowed in Ontario. No, no, we mustn’t mix vinyl records and alcohol. Could lead to trouble, truancy and loitering. Imagine a wine store with comfy chairs, great reading material, a washroom. You know, to make you feel like a valued customer, to enhance your experience, to help you learn something about wine.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Wine Stores with Schtick” in 2007, which identified the new trend of “Y stores” named for the generation of wine lovers they’re aiming to please. And they’re doing it with merchandising gimmicks and—gasp!—plain ol’ good customer service. Like rewarding regular customers with tasting points they can redeem for samples of wine. The story mentions stores that organize wines by categories like fresh, soft, smooth and luscious. Stores where the greeters ask every customer “what are you having for dinner tonight?” Stores that are hyper-focused, like the one in Hawaii that only sells cheese and wine. Or the one that only stocks Spanish wines, 115 of them, plus a lot of sherries. (That shop, New York’s Tinto Fino, closed in May after seven years; not all concepts are the right ones.)

Last year Wine Country Ontario, a marketing and lobbying association of wine producers, launched a campaign at MyWineShop.ca challenging consumers to design and describe their ideal “local, privately-owned” wine shop. The goal is to educate wine lovers that there is, indeed, a better way, and the site’s FAQ site does a nice job of explaining some of the salient points. This point is to illustrate how some private wine stores can complement the LCBO’s mass-market approach by filing in the gaps with more esoteric, small-batch or just plain niche-market products. The site has a nice mechanism for emailing your local MPP and the premier a semi-customized note outlining the benefits of privatization. (It’s easy to do, so do it!)

Wine writer Rick van Sickle did a nice job this week of wrapping up the current state of affairs with his post “Set the Ontario Wine Industry Free.” He writes critically and with insight that the LCBO’s recent move to open three VQA wine boutiques, one each in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Windsor, are little more than token gestures. “Only a fool would believe that all of this renewed interest from the LCBO for local wine isn’t being partially driven by the growing calls for privatization and modernization of the antiquated monopoly,” he wrote. But, he scoffs, the LCBO’s apparent self-satisfaction that they’ve got it right is cold comfort for the rest of us. Vin Sickle cites a Toronto Star article from two weeks ago, and writes: “The [LCBO’s] strategic plan for 2013 to 2016 calls for 34 new stores, ‘after determining through customer research that shoppers like the lighting and design of the new facilities,’ the Star story says. Really? They like the lighting, so let’s build some more stores! Imagine if the real world worked like that?”

So where to next? For now, it’s about keeping the pressure on, and spreading the good word. Wine lovers need to understand that a better way is within reach. Until then, and with apologies to Joe Strummer: “I’m all lost in the supermarket. I can no longer shop happily.”

Have you enjoyed a super wine-buying experience? Please tell us about it. Together, we may even effect change.

This story was originally published in CityBites magazine on September 30, 2013. It has been re-posted here with permission from the publisher.

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