Take your pick

Vines, September 2005

It's a little known fact: over 60 percent of the brands of wine available in Ontario are not for sale at the LCBO or Vintages. Thousands of good - and great - brands are available only through agents, and most of the buyers of these "consignment" wines are restaurants. But you, as a private consumer, can buy them too.

"If you're missing the consignment program, you're missing some of the most exciting wines available," said Steven Campbell, Le Grand Fromage (really, that's his title) at Lifford, one of Ontario's largest wine agencies. "Vintages is changing. They're buying fewer products and they're dealing more and more with big wineries that can afford to advertise. The small wineries with the most exciting wines are being squeezed out."

The LCBO's consignment program has been running since 1989. It grew out of the private order program, which allowed importation of premium wines the LCBO didn't want to stock. Private agents stepped in, but the agents are literally just that: agents working on behalf of the LCBO, which collects its full 68% mark-up from every consignment sale.

"About 75% of our sales are to Vintages and the other 25% are consignment wines which, for various reasons, don't fit into the Vintages profile," said Colin Halpern, vice president of Halpern Enterprises. If you're thinking of shopping for these wines, Colin recommends speaking to an agent first. "Customers call up and say what type of wines they like, and our sales people will direct them to wines they'll enjoy."

Unfortunately, rules against discounting alcohol mean that buying a case costs the same as buying individual bottles, and the ever-tenacious LCBO bolsters its retail monopoly further by forbidding sales of consignment wines except by the case.

The real strength of the consignment program is the wealth of wines from smaller producers, many of which have quantities too limited for Vintages. Howard Wasserman of B&W Wines said, "we have the strongest portfolio of boutique wineries from Australia. We're talking Robert Parker 95-100 point scores on most of them, and they weren't available in Canada before I started bringing them in."

The biggest consignment buyers are restaurateurs, who like both the exclusivity and the fact that the public won't know the retail price (cue hefty mark-up opportunities). For most agents, between 85 and 95 percent of their sales are to restaurants and hotels. As a result, few agents target private consumers. But that doesn't mean agents are not interested in your business: most offer excellent customer service, including delivery to your home or office, as well as tasting notes and information on the wines. Some produce newsletters and almost all agents send out product lists once or twice a year.

A great (and fun) way to try consignment wines is to go to one of the big wine fairs. Most happen in Toronto in fall and spring - including the Big Daddy, the Gourmet Food and Wine show at the convention centre each November - but there are events in other cities too. You can sample a range of wines and get ordering information. You can also club together with friends to share a case.

A new initiative that should help both agents and customers is the "high volume" consignment program launched in July. Rob Groh, who runs The Vine, is excited: "It should help a lot with supply," he said. It scraps case restrictions and opens the way to shipping by the container-load and substantial savings too.

"The cost difference between an Australian wine that is brought in by pallet versus container could be as much as $10 per case," said Lifford's Steven Campbell, who is also in the program. "And what's really important is that freight rates are added on to the cost before the LCBO puts on all their mark-ups. So the actual cost of the wine is going to be reduced by $1.50 to $2 per bottle." Campbell also pointed out that "10 percent of agents sell 80 percent of the wine," and these are the agents who will be permitted to join. This may seem unfair, but consider how consignment works: "We buy it and store it," said LCBO's director of corporate affairs Barry O'Brien. "Under Ontario law, the LCBO is the importer of record for all beverage alcohol. Essentially, the LCBO is selling wines it has purchased to the customer, and the agent acts on our behalf to make the sale happen." So if an agent places a dud order, the LCBO must sit on the unsold goods.

If you try a great wine in a restaurant and want to buy it, ask for the agent's name. If the staff doesn't know, the Ontario Imported Wine Spirits and Beer Association's website has a very effective search engine. The LCBO also offers an information service at 1-800-668-5144. The name of the wine should be enough, but the more details you have, the better. These search methods also work if you've read about an interesting-sounding wine in a foreign publication, or tasted something great while touring Napa or Tuscany.

Another way to improve on the LCBO's limited selection is to buy direct from Ontario wineries - all will deliver anywhere in the province, and you don't have to buy a whole case. Contact wineries directly or visit winerytohome.com. "Approximately 75-80% of the wine brands from Ontario are not available at the LCBO," said Doug Towers, who runs the service. "We deliver province-wide starting at $6.95 for 6 bottles in the GTA. We also offer a 'Wine of the Month' program. We ship two wines a month - pick your price category and whether you want reds or whites, and we send you something different every month, complete with back-up information and tasting notes."

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