Dwayne PERREAULT - To this day, most Canadian wine consumers go to the same place Soviet citizens went to get their wine: the government shop, monopoly and cash cow created for and by the state.
Growing up in Canada in the seventies and eighties, I remember the wine section was almost an afterthought in the Provincial Liquor Board shop in my town, one or two aisles filled with mostly Liebfraumilch, Mateus and Baby Duck, a Canadian sparkling sweet wine made from vitis labrusca varieties. It was extremely popular, so much so that Andrés, the company that made it, actually discouraged Canadian vintners from planting vitis vinifera varieties.
The vintners eventually did plant European vines, and the quality of Canadian wine increased dramatically, thereby not only creating a viable Canadian wine industry but also sparking consumer interest in wine in general. The selection in the government shops has grown better: I can buy Grand Cru Classés and even Dom Perignon in my Saskatchewan hometown, and happily I came across some wines by Chapoutier in New Brunswick.
Still, I find it appalling that so many years later, provincial govenment shops still have a monopoly on the liquor industry in Canada. And it is ironic, since the province of Alberta has been quietly showing for the past 25 years that there is a better way. In 1985, the Conservative government there toyed with the idea of privatisation by granting three licenses to privately operate wine stores. By 1988, this had grown to twenty licenses; strangely, the number is now five or six.
I visited Andrew Hilton Wines in Lethbridge, where owner Max Baines holds one of these licenses. It is obvious from even outside the shop that this a store with some individuality, which takes pride in the wines it sells. Compare the following two pictures:
Andrew Hilton Wines in Lethbridge, Alberta
Government store, Moncton, New Brunswick
Baines had started a local Opimian chapter in the late 1970s, and I hope in the future to post about Opimian, a very useful and ground-breaking wine society in Canada. He jumped at the opportunity to get one of those early licenses, and now runs a succesful business in the rather unlikely location of Lethbridge, Alberta (pop. 86,659).
According to Baines, real privatisation happened in 1994. “At that time, there were only three private wine stores. (Then-premier) Ralph Klein saw what private wine stores were able to accomplish. So he privatised the entire industry, effectively creating two industries: retailers and wholesalers, including importers and sourcers.
“To sell wine in Canada, producers need to work through an agent. In 1994, we had about 100 agents. Now we have over 400. This allows small producers to find specialized agents. Some of these are small, maybe only bringing in 20 cases a year. But the agents consolidate the orders, which saves costs which is passed on to the customers.”
Max Baines, owner of Andrew Hilton Wines
And this is how one competes with a government goliath, by offering top quality wines from smaller producers, creating more variety for the consumer. By instilling a sense of pride and individuality in your assortment, instead of having a huge stock for a homogenous selection available everywhere.
“A government controlled system isn’t able to support the small orders, say five cases, that I get,” says Baines. “But this was the idea of the government: they wanted 50% of my sales to be from own import. They wanted to offer more choice to the consumer.”
And it has worked. There is now seven times as much choice for wine consumers in Alberta compared to pre-privatisation. The private wine store also seems to be catching on in neighbouring Saskatchewan, where two stores have opened. British Columbia has speculative listings, where certain wines not in the common stock may be ordered and shipped through government stores. So there are signs of progress.
What stands in the way? Well, there’s the cash cow thing. It’s not that a government willingly relinquishes a multi-million dollar monopoly overnight. One serious roadblock would be the union. Government store employees work for the government of course, and they have a very strong union that would naturally resist privatisation.
And yet, so much could be gained, not only for wine professionals but especially for the consumer. It would be a big step forward, perhaps creating a renaissance for wine in Canada. I just doubt it will happen soon.
In the meantime, the house wine of choice for most seafood restaurants in New Brunswick is French Cross Pinot Grigio, a blend of Canadian and French wines (one would hope made from Pinot Gris). It tastes as good as it sounds and is available everywhere.