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Weekend Wine: Supermarket Sales

By now, most are aware that the Ontario government plans to expand the sale of wine, like beer, to Ontario supermarkets. While Premier Kathleen Wynne’s comment that now Ontarians can soon buy wine with their cheese at the same time may be accurate,

By now, most are aware that the Ontario government plans to expand the sale of wine, like beer, to Ontario supermarkets. 

While Premier Kathleen Wynne’s comment that now Ontarians can soon buy  wine with their cheese at the same time may be accurate, it is an  over-simplification of what is about to happen. Right now, there are more questions than there are answers.

At the same time, the government, along with the wine industry, is going to move cautiously to introduce measures gradually, giving themselves time to assess impact and to adjust as they go.

Ed Clark himself, the man responsible for determining and rolling out these changes, concedes that the new system is more than a little Byzantine… which is to say that it will have a lot more unexpected twists and turns than most amusement rides.

Starting this fall, the first of 150 private grocery stores will have wine on their shelves. 

There will be 70 new outlets, but only 35 of them will be allowed to sell both foreign and domestic wines. The other 35 will be allowed to sell only VQA wines for the first three years. 

One has to wonder how the American wine industry, because of Free Trade Agreements, will respond. A spokesman for the California Win Institute said that they applaud the changes, but that it is too early to make any other observations. Will they argue that now they should have equal access to shelves if the system is opening up? 

I speculate that that might depend on whether the stores are new licenses or licenses already in existence.

Currently there are already 292 licenses, mostly in the hands of Constellation Brands and Peller Estates, which permit sales in kiosks in Grocery stores. Those operations sell just the product of their owners.  In the case of the Wine Rack stores, it is predominantly Jackson Triggs and Inniskillin wines, along with blends that are a combination of off-shore and Ontario wines. And the few Colio stores just sell Colio, of course.

These licenses were originally held by such companies as Barnes, Chateau-Gai and Andres, and were grand-fathered under the Free-trade agreement. As such they have been highly coveted. With the new system, these kiosks will be “repurposed” to sell other wines, including wines of their competitors.

Patrick Gedge, President of the Winery and Grower Alliance of Ontario, an organization which, I believe, includes among others all the companies which hold those existing licences, indicated that his organization is generally supportive, but that they are still getting into the details of the implementation. And, as Jim Clark, the President of Colio says, “The devil is in the details.”

Initially 35 of the kiosk stores currently in the grocery stores will transfer into aisles to get a sample of the impact for a year. People buying these wines will no longer have to purchase them at the kiosk, but can take the wines to a regular checkout along with their other groceries… and cheese as the Premier suggests.

It will be interesting to learn what the advantage is to the companies that hold these existing licenses when, in addition to their own wines, they will also be obliged to carry product from other Ontario wineries.

This last aspect certainly appeals to other wine makers and wineries.  A young winemaker, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Marc Pistor, calls it a step in the right direction.  Marc is involved in production at several Ontario wineries - DiProfio, Rancourt, Dark Horse and Pondview – and he has launched his own line of wine, Fogolar. 

Marc stated, ”the quality of Ontario Wines across almost all varieties is very competitive at price points above $15, and that is about where small and medium sized wineries can survive. We need to get that wine into more glasses to win and keep those consumers, and grocery stores might help us achieve that.”

Smaller producers don’t have the production to serve the whole LCBO system, but with the new system, expectations might be more manageable. Marc went on to say, “By opening up a grocery store channel, it may allow smaller companies to find more opportunities with retailers that they can ensure stock to, and more easily manage the relationship with the retailer and stores in which their wine is placed.”

From that perspective, consumers and producers could both be winners.

One change being introduced is that no wine in the grocery stores will be allowed to sell for less than $10.95, but Ed Clark also qualified that “prices will have to be the same in all channels.”

The current base price for any wine sold in the LCBO is $6.10, and there are many wines especially from Italy, that are under $10.  It is unclear to me whether those prices in the LCBO will be maintained, as long as those products are not also being sold in grocery stores, or whether this policy means that no wine, regardless of where it is sold in the province, can retail for less than $10.95. 

One hopes that there isn’t a domino effect with the prices of all wines being pushed up a couple of dollars. If I am confused about this, it is because I’m confused. See “Byzantine” above. 

We are also due for a price hikes for wine over the next three years because of tax increases, but they should be relatively minor. Currently prices in Ontario tend to be lower than they are anywhere else in Canada for the same product, if those quoted in the Globe and Mail are accurate. It would be nice if that trend could be maintained.

As for doing away with the LCBO for a total free market system, many new governments have considered it – but they have all quickly backed away as they could not afford to jeopardize the immense revenue the LCBO provides.

With the new system, whatever is sold in the province, whether at the LCBO, a grocery store, or even a Farmer’s Market, the government will get its cut; however, in addition to the producer and the province and perhaps a distributor, we are now introducing another middle-man, the store owner. I am curious to know how that will impact on prices and margins. I doubt very much that anyone will be getting into the wine business in order to provide an additional service to the people of Ontario. I have to assume that the more layers, the higher the cost to the consumer.

The LCBO is the single biggest buyer of wine in the world. While some in the bigger communities will complain about not being able to buy wines that might be available to them in a free-market system, most of us are already overwhelmed by the choice we have when we walk into one of the bigger stores.

I sometimes am disappointed when certain wines on a Vintages release don’t reach our community, but at the same time, I could never hope to either buy or drink all of the good wines that do make it to, in my case, Sault Ste. Marie. 

Furthermore, if I really want a particular wine in the system, the LCBO consultants will do their best to find it and to bring it in, if possible, at no additional cost to me, be it one case or one bottle. With service like that, we need to be careful not to mess it up.

I have no problem with competition for the LCBO, but I sincerely hope that what we do enjoy now will still be there as the new system unfolds.

Convenience is great, but having to go to two stores to get my wine and my cheese wouldn’t be the greatest hardship.

Wine Recommendations

Two Hands Gnarly Dude Shiraz 2014 is now on sale until March 27. Regularly $24.95, for the rest of the month it is just $19.95. This impressive Australian has real depth and a velvety texture. The fruit is ample but not over-the-top, and on the finish, there is a licorice note and a hint of tannic bite that is altogether satisfying. In its most recent issue, the Wine Spectator awarded it a 92, with a suggested retail price of $30 U.S., which is about $40 Canadian.

The Perrin Resèrve Côtes du Rhône is consistently well made, and like the wine above, Is on sale this month for $13.95, a savings of $2. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, it has a deep ruby robe, with blackberry and cherry fruit. Smoke and tobacco, along with a sharp cherry note may be sensed on the finish. It would make for an interesting comparison with the Shiraz.

For Malbec lovers, the Santa Julia Reserva Malbec on the regular list is also $2 off for $10.95. This producer’s wines are really reliable, and this promises good structure and depth with dark fruit, coffee, and vanilla notes.

Pinot Grigio is fairly popular these days, and the Graffigna Centenario Reserve Pinot Grigio from Argentina is just $10.95.  Soft and pleasant, this carries decent citrus fruit and offers easy-going enjoyment.

In New Zealand, the 2014 Vintage was considered excellent, and the Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, $16.95 on the regular list, was praised thoroughly. The 2015 vintage is just hitting our shelves, and may be even more outstanding. 2015 was a very dry summer in New Zealand’s Marlborough region and the weather during harvest was superb. Yields were down about 25 percent, but the concentration is startlingly good. You need only twist off the cap to notice immediately floral and fruit aromas, and from first sip, your palate is barraged with flavour. The acidity is significant, but perfect with the passionfruit and peach flavours, not to mention a sweet grapefruit element. This one is hard to beat.

March 19 Vintages Release

White Wines

From Sonoma County, California, Folie à Deux Chardonnay 2013, $21.95, is back, having been released previously last October. Those who enjoy their chardonnays nicely oaked and lush will appreciate this wine’s harmony, along with its balanced fruit and buttery mouth-feel.

Categorized as dry, Domaine Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris 2014, $21.95, still has 9 grams of sugar per litre, which brings balance to the zesty citrus notes. The fruit is reminiscent of pear, and there are ample spice notes on the finish.

Though not available in all communities, South Africa’s Vinum Africa Chenin Blanc 2013, $15.95, could be worth ordering in; if necessary – call by Monday, March14. This wine is oak-aged, with a portion of it new, which adds some toastiness and perhaps vanilla notes. It is layered and spicy with suggestions of pear.

Red Wines

Italy is featured this month, and a number of red wines stand out.

We have three Chianti, two from the Classico region and one from Rufina which is slightly to the northeast. Frascoli Chianti Rufina 2012, $17.95, is ”juicy, intense and minerally, [adding] complex saline soil tones to the flavors of redcurrant, sweet spices and white pepper,” according to Canadian writer Ian D’Agata with who gave it a 92.

Nozzole Chianti Classico Riserva 2011, $19.95, hails from a very good vintage, and James Suckling rated it a 92, acknowledging ripe red fruit, dark chocolate and espresso – “soft tannins with good complexity.”

Baron Ricasoli Rocca Guicciarda Riserva Chianti Classico 2012, $24.95, was awarded “three glasses”, by Gambero Rosso, their highest ranking.  This wine, with its layers of flavours and firm finish is one to lay down for a few years.

Puglia’s Cantele Riserva Salice Salentino 2012, $14.95, a Negroamaro blend, has more dried than fresh fruit character, according to, but it exhibits “layers of richness, complexity and power.” – 88.

The wines of the Montalcino area near Siena can be bruisers. In a good vintage the wines are deeply flavoured, the finishes exceptionally long, and they are expensive enough, rarely found for less than $40. But they are what they are, and that is generally very, very good.’s  John Szabo describes Donatella Cinelli Columbini Brunello di Montalcino 2008, $44.95, as having “substantial volume and intensity, concentration without excess”, calling it “refined and classy” – 93.  It has had three more years of aging since that review.

Other Reds

Spain’s Monasterio De Las Viñas Reserva 2006, $14.95 – a ten-year-old wine for fifteen bucks: it is at its peak, and is a “ripe, plush, pleasure-built red” – 90.

Portugal’s Mondeco Red 2010, $13.95, still needs time –“dark power, concentration and solid tannins…[and] a rich layer of black fruits” –Wine Enthusiast  - 91!

There is nothing little about Handcraft Petite Syrah 2013, $17.95, from California.  The 2010 vintage made the Wine Enthusiast’s top 100 Best Buys, and this may measure up equally.  The tannins are fine, and there are savoury notes that accompany a good foundation of berry fruit. From all accounts, it plays nicely with beef.