Ontarians are still considered “green” amongst the rest of the wine world and it’s no wonder. Unless you were a lucky member of an exclusive wine club, had ties with an importer, or were rubbing shoulders with the well-heeled, access to great wine – to put it gently – has been limited. With the LCBO’s tight restrictions placed on both international and local vintners, smaller producers haven’t been able to flourish in the Ontario market. But that’s all changing for the better. With all its immeasurable faults, COVID-19 has challenged the LCBO’S monopoly and the market is finally opening up.
Restaurants have always been a gateway for wine lovers to sample the bounty of international bottles that were too small, too funky or too cool for the LCBO. As of January 1, the reforms to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission Ontario’s liquor policies are permanent, transforming wine lists into year-round sales catalogues and former wine bars into bodega-style wine shops. The birth of Ontario’s private wine retailers and restaurant bottle shops finally means drinkers can get their hands on the bottles they love, sold separately and minus the 200% markup.
Private wine sales in Ontario not only allow agents and small retailers to import exciting bottles, they also allow sommeliers and wine aficionados the opportunity to sell them. Think about the last time you were at a restaurant. I know it must seem like ages ago, but bear with me.You’re sitting at your table, the server comes over and recommends a wine by the glass. At first, you scoff because of course you’re ordering a bottle, but then the server explains that the glass would pair perfectly with the appetizer you ordered, so you go for it. Ten minutes into your first course, you’re wooed by the pairing. You’re so satisfied you decide to dump your predetermined choices and let the server wine and dine you through the rest of the evening. Sounds heavenly, no? Well, imagine getting that kind of dutiful service when purchasing wine at the retail level.
Private wine shops are run by folks who know their wine. Not only do they understand what they’re selling, they care about the product and they want you to care about it too. Small local shops are interested in not only building their business, but also fostering a wine community through their individual shop. With the emergence of more wine bars and restaurants converted into bottle shops across the province, there is space for everyone to learn more about the wine they’re drinking and the people who make it. Breaking down the barrier between wine, producer and consumer also breaks down the old elitist ideals that once defined the wine world. Young sommeliers, importers and agents are making the wine more accessible and reenergizing it in the eyes of the consumer.
These new outposts also allow for wine connoisseurs to get their hands on some pretty exquisite and rare bottles of vino. Take Domaine Francois Chidaine's cellar (see right). His extra-organic, biodynamic and regenerative farmed grapes are so special that there's only a small yield every season. This makes his wine a rarity among the general market and too small a production for him to be forking it over to the LCBO. Because the liquor board is adamant about the amount of bottles they need to put on the shelf, it’s often that wines of this calibre are not made available to the general public. Finally, the permanence of these new reforms allow for Chidaine’s chenin blanc to be appreciated by Ontarians without having to purchase a whole case. Although, I don't know why you wouldn't.
The natural, organic and biodynamic wines that are dominating the millennial market are also way more accessible through a private retailer. Sure, there are some more sustainable options at LCBO, but private shops allow for bottles like Matthieu & Camille Lapierre's ‘Raisins Gaulois’ Gamay to reach cellars in homes across Ontario. Increasing the variety of wine and allowing for small and lesser-known producers to take centre stage, these private wine shops are transforming Ontario’s once “green” wine market, to technicolour. So, although the birth of the private wine shop was long past due, the availability of truly beautiful and interesting bottles is not something we’re taking for granted. And hey, whoever said being fashionably late to the party was a bad thing?
-Nicole Richie (@n1colerichie)