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Wine Price and Markup [split from the Quebec board]

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Your experience of Europe is certainly different from mine or my friends'. One of said friends, in fact, is heading to his home town of Bésançon (population 220,000) this Friday and, as he does every visit, he'll be taking with him a few bottles of European wine purchased at the SAQ because his family there can't buy, for example, decent Chianti (his choice last visit).

As for the availability of some categories of wines you mention, saq.com currently lists 350 South American wines (113 Argentinean, 203 Chilean, 2 Peruvian, 31 Uruguayan and 1 Brazilian) and 77 South African wines. (These figures are approximate, since reserved bottles, lost bottles, bottles poured at staff tastings, etc., that haven't been removed from inventory are still listed and since a wine available in more than one vintage is listed as only the latest vintage.) There are 63 Riojas, a few more than "two random bottles" you claim. You're absolutely right about the current total lack of Cretan wines, though there are 53 wines from elsewhere in Greece. The Hungarian (15) and Austrian (20) situation is pretty dismal, I'll concede. And while New Zealand has only a less-than-inspiring 35 wines, the selection is constantly changing and the choice is far better than the five wines the monopoly stocked a couple of years ago.

That points to another issue: there's not -- or hasn't been -- a huge market here for New Zealand, German, Hungarian or even California wines. (US wines may gain in popularity if the prices drop due to the strong Canadian dollar, but don't hold your breath.) Part of the problem is a Catch-22 lack of exposure: the SAQ doesn't import many Austrian wines, so people aren't familiar with them, so there's not much demand for them, so the SAQ doesn't import many. I think the SAQ's monopoly status behooves it to be more educational, to stock wines that may not meet sales targets but that are representative of the world's production. That said, it's hard to blame them for not carrying stuff that doesn't sell.

"And, the main difference, in EU, if you can't find the wine you need in your local wine store, you just call another one."
The SAQ will do store-to-store transfers. This is useful, since some stores specialize in wines from certain regions: 900 Beaubien, for example, always has a broad selection of Italian wines, Jean-Talon Station one of the better assortments of Greek wine, etc. SAQ.com is your friend.

"And here, if it's not in SAQ, well, you have to fly for it to Europe or the US."
Not true. Individuals can buy wines from the so-called "private importers" (technically, they're agents, since the SAQ does the importing). I'd say a quarter to a third of my purchases for personal consumption are private imports these days. What's more, it's recently been made easier. You order the wine, giving the agent your address and telephone number and (assuming you're based in Montreal) specifying which of a half dozen or so outlets you want it delivered to. A week or two later, you get a call from the outlet telling you they've received the wine. You pick it up and pay at the cash. Not surprisingly, many agents now how websites that list their private imports.

"local wine prices (about 2-3 times more expensive then in EU) [...]"
Quite possibly. But not so for North America, though these kinds of comparisons are screwed up by the recent rise in the Canadian dollar vis-à-vis its U.S. counterpart. Case in point: I recently read a tasting note on Bruno Clair's wonderful 2005 Marsannay rosé from a guy in Minneapolis. He gave the price as US$25 (I assume that's before sales taxes, usually the case in the U.S.); the same wine sold here for around C$22. Yes, Ontario is often 5% or even 10% cheaper, especially at the low end, but other provinces (with the possible exception of Alberta) are usually more expensive.

"[...] but even more so by poor choice of wines."
Again, compared with the rest of North America and much of Europe, the choice is hardly poor, especially when private imports are taken into account. SAQ.com currently lists over 7,000 wines. Yes, the selection in NYC, Boston, D.C. Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area and possibly L.A. is broader. But compare what's available in Montreal with U.S. urban agglomerations of approximately the same size -- Dallas, say -- and it's clear we're hardly suffering. Yes, I'd love to put my hands on some Nikolaihof or Domaine de la Pépière wines. On the other hand, there are more interesting wines around than I have the budget to buy or would have the opportunity to drink. And as a regular drinker who regularly organizes tastings, I buy and drink a lot of wine.

"I think the system should be privatized and unregulated ASAP."
As a Montrealer, I'm not necessarily opposed to privatization. If I lived in Baie Comeau or Drummondville or Chibougamau, it'd be a different story. In any case the question's moot: the unions and hence the government would never stand for it.

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  1. Unfortunately, I don't know your friends, but I didn't visit Europe, I lived there.
    And if you're talking about a town with 220000 population, it would be fair to compare it not with Montreal, but with Trois Riviers or something like that.
    As for 77 South African wines and 63 Riojas in SAQ, it's decent in theory, but in practice I never saw more then 3-4 wines from South Africa or Rioja in any given store. Same for wines from Chile, Argentina, etc. And that's the whole point. You would have at least dozen of Riojas in any wine store in any major European city. Your single Brazilian wine in the SAQ list of 7000 is a fine example. I had 4 Brazilian wines just in my corner wine store, which was quite far from sophisticated.

    7000 is not much, taking into account how many wine producers you have in the world. I used to like Fleur du Cap chardonnay of years 2003 or 2004. They didn't have it in any local store, bien sur, but it wasn't a problem to find it. SAQ lists just year 2006. And that's the case with most of the wines here: you can probably chose the name, but not the year.

    About prices in US - my friends from Vancouver visited Seattle a week ago. They bought a wine there for 4.99 USD, which they buy in their local store for 18 CAD. And it's a rule, not an exception. It's hard to believe that prices in BC are so much higher then here.

    About Drummondville - you don't have to have SAQ to deliver you wines. If the trade is unmonopolized, your supermarket chain can do it for you.

    You say: "Individuals can buy wines from the so-called "private importers". (technically, they're agents, since the SAQ does the importing)."

    Could you please explain me the system? Is it that I can chose a wine that I can't find in the SAQ list, order it from an agent and it'd be delivered in a couple of weeks? How much do you pay for such a delivery in addition to the price of the wine in the country of origin?

    Anyway, I would greatly appreciate if you give me some addresses, telephones or web-sites. I tried to find something like that myself, but I didn't succeed, probably due to my poor knowledge of French.

    7 Replies
    1. re: ostap

      Sorry to butt in...

      Regarding the "private import" system, the big catch is that you must buy a full case. You'll have to check whether the prices are acceptable to you, but the few times I've dealt with this they seemed to be comparable to retail prices for regularly listed SAQ products. www.rezin.com and www.invino.ca are just two of the companies you can deal with. Note that these are companies that also have products stocked in regular SAQ outlets, so you have to be sure to look at the "importation privée" lists (or items marked as such if there's only one list) to see those you can buy through the private import system.

      There was a news story about a year ago suggesting these wines would become available through the SAQ website. If this happens, I would expect the one-case minimum would still apply, but there would be three major improvements: you wouldn't have to know how to find this or that agent, you'd be able to have the goods delivered to your home or office, and the whole process would be faster.

      There is also a way to import directly through the SAQ. Go to SAQ.com and click "private ordering" on the left side. This looks to be a much more expensive option (price in country of origin + duties + shipping + markup + GST + TVQ), but if you really want something particular and are prepared to buy a minimum amount, the option exists.

      As for British Columbia, you only need to browse the provincial liquor commission's website to see that prices there are often significantly higher than here. Quebec has a reputation as having the highest prices around, but it isn't always so. There's a good chance the wine that's $5 in Seattle and $18 in Vancouver is $13 here.

      I doubt any oenophile would disagree the SAQ can be frustrating and even infuriating, but it's not all bad and there are certainly more options than just walking into a store and picking from what's in stock that day.

      1. re: Mr F

        Thank you for the explanations

      2. re: ostap

        My friend, a wine lover and business consultant, spent his first 25 years in France and spends four to six weeks every summer in various parts of that country. He considers the SAQ, on the whole, superior to anything outside the largest cities.

        "if you're talking about a town with 220000 population, it would be fair to compare it not with Montreal, but with Trois Rivieres"
        My point is that anything available in Montreal can, in theory, be had in Trois-Rivières through inter-store transfers. And while I've never been there, I'd bet the Trois-Rivières Sélection outlet has a decent, er, selection of Chiantis.

        "As for 77 South African wines and 63 Riojas in SAQ, it's decent in theory, but in practice I never saw more then 3-4 wines from South Africa or Rioja in any given store. Same for wines from Chile, Argentina, etc."
        I don't know which stores you frequent, but Rockland, 900 Beaubien, de Maisonneuve and Laurier (to name only those) usually have more than three South African wines available. South American wines they have coming out the patoozie when you take their Classique and Sélection inventories into account.

        "About prices in US - my friends from Vancouver visited Seattle a week ago. They bought a wine there for 4.99 USD, which they buy in their local store for 18 CAD. And it's a rule, not an exception"
        There are some great bargains to be had in the larger US cities, especially at the low end and especially when you're talking about domestic wines: there is no "Two-Buck Canuck" in Quebec or, for all I know, the rest of Canada. That said, I can cite you example after example where higher-end wines cost less here than in the States. Famously, the 1995 Bordeaux sold here for 1/3 to 1/2 of what they went for in the U.S. (there was even a Wine Spectator article about it). Visiting Americano wine geeks are frequently stunned (in a good way) by the prices they encounter at places like L'Express. A couple of weeks before its chef did himself in, I ate at Jongleux Café with an American who insisted we order a 1997 Chave Hermitage because the restaurant's price was less than the going *retail* price in the States.

        "It's hard to believe that prices in BC are so much higher then here."
        Do searches for specific wines on the websites of the various provincial liquor commissions (again, Alberta excepted). Or, even easier, check the English-language edition of Ricardo magazine; the Cheers column lists the prices of featured wines in various provinces. A few examples:
        - Chianti Classico 2003, Fonterutolli QC $24.85, ON $24.95, BC $34.80
        - Valpolicella Classico 2003, Zenato QC $15.30, BC $19.01
        - Verdiccio dei Castelli de Jesi 2004, "Le Moie", Fazi Battaglia QC $18.20, BC $20.11
        - Riesling Reserve 2005, Niagara, Cave Spring ON $18.15, QC $19.35, BC $24.99
        - Cabernet Franc 2004, Niagara, Inniskillin QC $12.90, ON $13.15, BC $13.98
        - Champagne Brut Reserve, Charles Heidsieck ON $54.95, QC $58, BC $59.99

        "Could you please explain me the system? Is it that I can chose a wine that I can't find in the SAQ list, order it from an agent and it'd be delivered in a couple of weeks? How much do you pay for such a delivery in addition to the price of the wine in the country of origin?"
        In addition to the wines they pitch to the SAQ, agents bring in wines the SAQ isn't interested in stocking. Most of these go to restaurants, though the agents are usually happy to sell to individuals. Technically, one is supposed to buy in case lots (cases are usually 12 or 6 bottles and, occasionally, 3 bottles), though some agents have been known to sell in smaller amounts or mixed cases (called a *caisse panachée* in French) to customers they trust. The price is usually slightly higher than it would be at the SAQ, more in line with what a restaurant pays. For example, the private import Tselepos Mantinia I recently reviewed on the Wine board -- www.chowhound.com/topics/398654 -- cost $19.60; the SAQ is reportedly thinking of stocking it and, if they do, it will go for about $2 less.

        It's impractical for me to list all of the agents in the province. A few that I like:
        www.rezin.com (go to the Importations Sauvage section)
        www.vinealis.qc.ca
        www.reserveetselection.com
        www.lesvinsalainbelanger.com
        www.lemaitredechai.qc.ca
        www.oenopole.ca

        1. re: carswell

          I buy wine mostly in Plateau, Mile End or Downtown stores. That's good to hear that there are stores with better choices of South African wines, I certainly will visit them. But it doesn't deny my point: in any (major) European city wine choice is much better. You don't have to go looking for a special location to find more then 3-4 SA or Chilean wines, you can find it in any big supermarket. And particular cellars can have some 20 or more wines of a selected (not French) region on their shelves. I believe your friend, but Montreal is a big city, bigger then many European capitals, and it's incomprehensible for me, why wine availability here should be so much worse then in, say, Prague, where I live. Taking into account that Prague is famous for it's beer drinking, not wine drinking traditions, and Montreal consider itself a French city, it's even more strange.

          But, anyways, I doubt there'll be a revolution in wine business while I'm here, thanks a lot for your advices on good SAQ locations and independent agents. It's really very helpfull.
          Thanks a lot for your advices.

          1. re: ostap

            If you wish to see more about what is available in the SAQ, you should try searching on their website, saq.com. It allows quite detailed searches. It also provides you with availability of the wine, including the particular store.

            1. re: thomasein

              I did it recently. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to view the full wine list for any particular store, but otherwise it was quite helpful.

            2. re: ostap

              "You don't have to go looking for a special location to find more then 3-4 SA or Chilean wines"

              That's an unfair characterization of the SAQ. There are standard Classique outlets in nearly every neighbourhood in Montreal. The one nearest to me is fairly typical if maybe slightly above average from a selection standpoint. Yesterday, I stopped counting at 25 South American wines but would guesstimate the total number on offer to be between 40 and 50. Sélection stores have far more than that.