My fellow blogger, and friendly acquaintance, David Pelletier from www.lesommelierfou.com has cornered the market in comparing pricing at the two largest liquor monopolies in Canada, Quebec’s SAQ and Ontario’s LCBO. Those terms are only slightly sexier than the fully expanded Société des Alcools du Québec and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario names. David’s head-to-head comparisons have value, and tend to show that when comparing apples to apples on pricing, the LCBO may offer slightly better pricing. Inspired by le sommelier fou, I will take a more macro look at my interactions with these two behemoths and draw some comparisons and point out some contrasts from a wine drinker’s perspective. Let me come right out and draw my conclusion in the first paragraph: given the choice of being dropped off at an average LCBO or an SAQ, I would rather an SAQ any day of the week. Before my Ontario friends throw hate on me, please read below.
What they have in common: Liquor monopoly employees from both sides of the border are dressed in a business-casual hierarchy of golf shirts for the cashiers and all the way up to different coloured oxford shirts for the expert consultants. The are generally polite whether or not their shirts are embroidered by the logos of the SAQ or LCBO. Prices in both institutions represent the insatiable need for governments to draw profits from their booze outlets, and as monopolies they seem unhindered to mark-up at levels a free market would not tolerate. David’s blog tends to show a slightly smaller gouge level in Ontario.
The outlets both share the same format, wine separated by country of origin, spirits divided by type and refrigerated beer sections offering imported choices, and in Ontario domestic national and local premium brands. Select outlets in both Quebec and Ontario may have premium wine sections adorned with wood shelves and dimmed lighting to suggest a wine cellar and pricier bottles.
Benefits of the Monopoly System: Joe Roberts from www.1winedude.com may hate me for saying this, but Liquor monopolies do have their benefits, and from that set of benefits one really has an important draw for the very large provinces of Quebec and Ontario: far flung rural corners get access to good wine, responsibly governed liquor distribution and equal pricing to those paid by folks in the big cities.
Contrasts: The LCBO stores seem to stock relatively equal portions of wine, beer and booze. This reflects the generally held consensus that Ontario drinkers gravitate towards spirits more than Quebecers do. Quebecers can buy beer in grocery and convenience stores, whereas, Ontarian citizens are forced to source beer from either the LCBO or a virtual monopolistic brewer’s marketing cooperative, ergo the smaller beer offering at the SAQ caused by greater supply competition.
However, the real value of the SAQ for a wine buyer is this: the folks working the floor know their wine. They have been given thorough training, they are kept up to date with tastings and they generally dedicated to wine as a lifestyle and they do a great job of sharing that passion with pretty much anybody that comes into the store and is shopping at any budget. At times the sales team can seem almost evangelical about the products they work with. I think any retailer would be thrilled to have such a talented and dedicated sales force. (In all honesty they are probably making more than times what any other retail worker would, so along with the wine samples they are encouraged to sample, I am not surprised to see them so happy.) This culture makes it easy for consumers to understand the concepts behind wine making techniques and styles and fosters conversations that almost ensure that when a client buys a wine, he will get a great wine to match with the meal or occasion the bottle is being purchased for.
Over at the LCBO, the staff may be equally friendly, but generally speaking they do not know much more than the average consumer. Chances are they have not been given wine tasting training beyond what I would call rudimentary. It does not seem like they are encouraged to sample the wine they sell, generally not necessarily inclined to take the personal initiative. Exceptions certainly exist, but from my experience, LCBO floor staff who are passionate about wine are outnumbered by those who aren’t. I visited a flagship premium LCBO in Ottawa last spring and was gobsmacked by the sheer lack of knowledge of one salesman. I asked him about for a recommendation and his only answer was, “I don’t know much about Italian wine.” Not withstanding his lack of knowledge, the store was nicely stocked with a deep selection of wines from many of the top wine producing regions of the world. Sadly, that depth came at a price: a lack of breadth in the offering and very few wines from off the beaten path were available for sale.
Ontario, as a province, is richer than Quebec in two important senses that effect their offering. They are a much more culturally diverse population, therefore, more demand for wines coming from more “homelands” and secondly they are much more developed in growing grapes and making wines with a broad appeal. This results in a very healthy buy local culture that has been nurtured generously by the LCBO. Most LCBOs I have been in offer more than a dozen labels from Niagara and smaller amounts of Prince Edward County and Pelee Island wine. On my last trip to my Ottawa based in-laws I brought eight bottles of wine home from the following regions Two from Canada, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay, Montenegro, Georgia. I was happy to see wines from those last three countries available so I snapped them up. The sales staff was clueless as to whether they were any good or not, so I rolled the dice.
The LCBO used to sell wine from behind a counter, where customers would walk up to the attendant, place an order which would be fulfilled in paper bag ready to be hurried off like you would clandestinely dispatch a pregnant teenager to her aunt’s place in North Bay. The institution has made great strides, but has yet to come close to the wine culture at the SAQ.
The SAQ, for reasons probably tied to French heritage are obsessed with French wine. I love French wine, but when you find three AOC Bandol choices in the same store, and not a single German Pinot Noir, narry an Argentine Tannat or a Chardonnay from Prince Edward County which is a mere two hour drive from the Quebec border, you gotta scratch your head. Truth be told, SAQ outlets do have extensive inventory coming from new and old world wine regions and even a corner reserved for wines coming from “other countries,” but France still looms large and in charge.
In no outlet is that French bias more evident than at a high-end boutique version of the SAQ in downtown Montreal, called SAQ Signature. This is where a tiny selection of bottles start at 35$, but many bottles are in three digit and even four digit price range. I knew for a fact that they had one Swiss wine, a Petite Arvine, in stock and I wanted to pick one up… but could not find the “other country,” shelf it was so hidden away. I had to interrupt the three salesmen who were enjoying tasting session of several open bottles to GPS me to the right spot. I have been in there a few times and more often than not I am offered the chance to sample some of the wine with the staff, which is fun when you see a price tag of 195$ on the bottle! I would say in terms of square footage and certainly inventory value, 85% to 90% of the store is made up of offerings from France. The regular stores are much more varied, so don’t worry you will find lots of Italian, American, Chilean and wines from another dozen or so countries available for your tippling.
As much as I would like to see some greater geo-diversity from my friends at the SAQ, and would appreciate if they offered a price matching programme with the LCBO the SAQ gets my vote because if you want to know which Riesling will go with your ceviche that has a bit of a spicy kick to it, you will get the right wine, and probably a ceviche recipe, whether or not you asked for it.
So what do you think, how does this compare to where you buy your wine?