June 25, 2009

Welcome to The New Blog

Well I've been waffling about my newsletter for over six months now, trying to decide whether I still have the wherewithal to continue doing it. Yes, I know I've been through this dilemma before, and I can't say I won't go through it again. I'm busier now, and I have fewer things that I’m researching about wine -- hence the rapid decline in "educational" features. But am I done with the whole newsletter concept? I don't think so.

Recently I got lured into wine-related social networking (Facebook, Twitter) but those arenas are often too limiting. So I'm proposing a compromise, if you're still with me. I am starting yet another blog where I can post the articles I have written, without any pretext of creating an "issue". Indeed, I have quite a few articles drafted or at least started, so I'm not really out of material yet.
People often asked me why I never charged a fee for my newsletter. Well, on the one hand there are a lot of good wine publications available at no cost, so the competition is just too fierce. But mostly I didn’t want revenue and deadlines to drive things. I much prefer my freewheeling approach.

So to kick things off, I'm going to offer only my second reprint. This article appeared a little over a year ago, but in Ontario the information has suddenly become more relevant. So where do you buy wine if the LCBO is not an option? The looming strike may have been averted, but alternatives may be just the thing given much of what is going on in the world, and especially Ontario, these days.

Wine Buying Alternatives
(originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of The Frugal Oenophile newsletter)

One piece of advice I hand out without reservation is to find a good wine store. That's a good policy for most of the world, but unfortunately here in Ontario there really is no such thing as an independent wine store. There's the government's company store, but if you don't want what they got, then what options do you have?
Well, you do have options, although it can take a bit of work to take advantage of them.

LCBO Consignment Program
If someone imports it into Ontario, there is a good chance you can buy it. The LCBO runs a program whereby you can purchase wine -- by the case only -- from any wine agent, and then have your wine shipped to an LCBO store of your choice. This is a good option if you find a wine you like at a restaurant or a wine show. Find out who represents the wine (the OIWBSA website is a good place to start) and then contact the agent. They will take it from there and see that the wine gets into your hands. (You can buy from local wineries this way too, but why bother? See below.)

Vintages Classics Catalog
In addition to the Vintages stores and “corners” at LCBO stores, the monolith also has a catalogue store, known as the Classics Collection. As described on their website: “Whether it is the wines of the top châteaux of Bordeaux or Grand Crus from Burgundy, Super Tuscans from Italy or top-flight Shiraz from Australia, you will find variety, quality and prestige in The Classics Collection.” They’ve even been known to include an occasional Canadian wine!

The wines on offer tend to be high end, and sometimes in limited quantities. You order through the website or by phone and your order will be delivered to an LCBO outlet of your choice.

Shop the Winery
With more than 100 wineries in Ontario, there’s bound to be one near you. But if a personal visit is not an option, most wineries now offer shipping. As long as the shipment is within the province, there should be no problem. The advantage here is that the winery's entire book will be available, from newest releases to bin ends to library items. You may be required to purchase a case, but often you can buy just a bottle or two. Some outlets will absorb the shipping fee if you purchase a certain number of bottles or a certain dollar value. A number of wineries have what they call a wine club. For a fixed “membership” fee, they will send you a selection of wine. You can sign up for a set number of bottles and the offerings are usually monthly.

A good way to locate wineries in your area is to drop by a regional wine producers association, and I've collected a lot of these on my website. For example, to find Ontario member wineries, visit the Wine Counsel of Ontario. And in North Carolina, for example (yes, they make wine there), you can visit the North Carolina Winegrowers Association. There's also a website for Fruit Wines of Ontario. You should be able to find a winery association for just about every state in the US and every province in Canada.

Company Stores
Company stores can be very handy, provided the parent company makes wine that you like at a price you’re willing to pay. In Ontario we have a small number of stores that serve as outlets for brands from Vincor (Wine Rack), Peller/Hillebrand (Vineyards), Colio Estates and Magnotta.

The wines in the stores are a mixed bag. Because these are large, well-established wineries, most are able to offer Cellared in Canada wines. So far only Magnotta makes an effort to tell consumers which of these wines are not from Ontario -- or even from Canada. Elsewhere in the stores you’ll find a good assortment of VQA wines, most of which can’t be had from the LCBO.

Buying On-line
The internet wine store saga would make a good novel -- it’s filled with intrigue, plot twists, power manoeuvres, and a fair amount of cloak and dagger. Mostly the business is slowed by the cross border issue. First, check to see if the online seller can ship wine to your location, then start looking for those online bargains (remember that internet stores are supposed to pass on the savings from not having store-fronts and showrooms to maintain).

There are two retailers active in Ontario, and their reach is rather telling. Winery to Home specializes in the wines of Ontario. It's a great way to discover Ontario VQA wines without making the trek to Niagara, Erie North Shore and now Prince Edward County. The company’s wine picks are run past veteran wine writers Tony Aspler and David Lawrason. It’s possible to buy small lots and mixed cases, which is a nice feature given the restrictions on other buying methods.

Wine Online also runs an online wine store in Ontario. They handle imported as well as Ontario wines, and you can purchase small lots and mixed cases.

The main problem here is shipping. Winery to Home ships only within Ontario, and Wine Online ships to Ontario and Nova Scotia. As this form of business becomes more popular -- and if governments can manage to become less paranoid -- we may yet see more options rolled out.

Cross Border Shopping
Nowhere is the prohibition mindset so obvious as in the area of cross-border wine sales and delivery. There is a valid argument in that wine could be unknowingly sold and delivered to a minor, but in reality under-age drinkers rarely go through legit channels where a lot of personal information and credit cards are involved.

Most of the resistance comes from the dominant players. Every state or province has at least one monster winery or distillery that has the market somewhat tied up. These companies lobby long and hard to keep outsiders away from what they see as their market. In Ontario the situation is especially bad, with the government’s liquor outlet taking the lead in protectionist practices. You will find wine sellers around the globe who will gladly ship anywhere, but they tend to blanch when you ask them to deliver into Ontario. This will change, but, as we are seeing in the US, it will likely take a decision from the Supreme Court to get any action.

Currently cross-border delivery is a hot topic, and wine publications carry a story on developments practically daily. A website and action group called Free the Grapes has been attentively watching the issue of cross-border wine shipping in the US.

Wine Clubs/Tasting Clubs
Some wine clubs, in addition to organizing tastings and wine junkets, make special wine purchases available to their club members. The best known of these is the Opimian Society, named after the Roman consul Lucius Opimius (c. 125 BCE), who was a man who truly appreciated his wine. The club sources quality wines, announces the offer in its newsletter, and then take orders from its members. In Ontario, the wines are delivered to an LCBO outlet, where members can pick up their purchases -- in case lots only, as per local regulations. The wines are usually good value, though not necessarily cheap, and may not be available any other way. A club can be a great way to socialize and learn more about wine as well as to make unique additions to your cellar.

Only in BC, you say
An interesting development in British Columbia is the appearance of VQA stores. These outlets carry brands from different Canadian wineries, the only qualification being that the wine must be VQA certified. This is something I’d like to see happen in Ontario, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wine Auctions
Charity wine auctions are big business these days. Both the Toronto and Kingston Symphonies do a large part of their fund-raising through annual wine auctions, as does the Canadian Opera Company. The LCBO's Vintages group also does an auction each fall, and it usually features a good number of cult and collector wines. The best auctions will put out a detailed catalog well before the event so you can scout out items and lots you may be interested in.

When the industry is controlled by a state or province liquor commission, there is generally no means for an individual to sell wine. Auctions give you an opportunity to hand off your surplus wine (they won't accept junk) and exchange it for a tax receipt. While this may limit the potential of wine as an "investment", it at least gives you a way to turn over those extra bottles.

Farmers’ Markets
Some jurisdictions allow farms that make fruit wine to include their wines as part of their farm market selections. Once again, it's a well-established tradition throughout the world ... but not in Ontario.

Try, don't buy
An interesting initiative that blossomed recently in Quebec is a wine store where you can’t buy wine. The stores are tasting outlets where you can sample locally produced wine. The idea is that you'll stop by, taste the wines, and be blown away by their quality. Then, when you find out that you can't actually buy anything, you’ll be appalled at the government’s lack of support for the local wine industry. The move hopes to draw attention to the way the government retail chain -- the SAQ -- has shut out Quebec-produced wine in favour of off-shore imports. So far the reception has been much what the organizers were hoping for -- a good thing.