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Mar 20, 2009 10:01 AM

Toronto drinker wants to throw off LCBO shackles

The monopolistic Beer Store and LCBO means that only certain beers are available here in Toronto. We can get Maudite, Fin du Monde and Trois Pistoles here. (Ok , so I'm a niche drinker).

Is it possible to buy beer from New York brewery called Ommegang when I'm next in Quebec?

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  1. Never heard of it.

    But as a transplanted Ontarian, lemme tell ya, the LCBO ain't so bad. Better selection of spirits at better prices, and ditto for any non-French wine. And the more upscale the scotch/ wine /etc, the more marked the difference in both selection & price.

    Obviously, this will be paradise for Quebec beers, but its impossible or near-impossible to get western microbrews here, even bigger names like Big Rock which have been available in Ontario ten+ years now. So that should give you idea about finding anything from the States - it ain't gonna happen.

    Beer is way, way cheaper here, though -or is it that Ontario drinkers are just held for ransom? Still, on the whole, especially if you like the hard stuff or really nice wine, the LCBO isn't bad at all.

    17 Replies
    1. re: Shattered

      «And the more upscale the scotch/ wine /etc, the more marked the difference in both selection & price.»

      During lunch, I was looking over the latest issue of Vintages magazine, which lists all the wines in the LCBO's March 28th release. Was shocked at the price difference for Ridge's 2006 Lytton Springs, one of California's top "Zinfandels" (it's actually a Zin-based blend): $45 vs $58.95. Except it's $45 at the SAQ and $58.95 at the LCBO. So, I spent the rest of my break comparing the prices on all the wines in the release with the same wines in the same vintages at the SAQ. The results of this exercise are appended below. The advantage appears to be strongly in the SAQ's favour, especially above the $20 mark, and that's not taking into account that the prices include sales taxes, which I believe are about 1% higher in Quebec.

      SAQ / LCBO
      15.65 / 13.95 - Alamos Torrontés Catena 2007
      15.95 / 17.15 - Palacios La Vendimia Rioja 2007
      19.20 / 19.95 - Pieropan Soave 2007
      20.00 / 19.95 - Château Harlaftis Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
      21.40 / 21.95 - Sportoletti Assisi Rosso 2006
      22.00 / 23.95 - Capillo Reserva Rioja 2002
      25.00 / 21.95 - Saltram of Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon Mamre Brook 2005
      25.15 / 29.95 - Clos du Val Chardonnay Carneros 2006
      25.50 / 29.95 - Marqués de Caceres Gran Riserva Rioja 2001
      32.75 / 29.95 - Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenère 2005
      34.75 / 39.95 - La Vite Lucente 2006
      45.00 / 49.95 - Château Haut-Sarpe St-Émilion 2004
      45.00 / 58.95 - Ridge Lytton Springs 2006
      57.50 / 64.95 - Tenuta San Guido Guidalberta 2006
      62.75 / 64.95 - Pintia Toro 2005

      1. re: carswell

        I just did an analysis on this data and statistically, and with 95% confidence, there is a difference between the prices of the LCBO and the SAQ based on 15 samples. good job guys, case closed.

        1. re: celfie

          That's about 15 more data points than you and the other SAQ bashers have provided, celfie. It took about half an hour to put together. Sorry you can't appreciate that.

          Yeah, it's a snapshot. But it's a very current and impartial one. And like it or not, the fact that of the release's 15 overlapping wines, 11 are more expensive -- sometimes far more expensive -- in Ontario kind of gives the lie to the so-far unsubstantiated claim that the SAQ is a total ripoff, especially at the higher end. You're welcome to provide evidence to the contrary.

          1. re: carswell

            i wasn't being facetious - i was being serious

            1. re: celfie

              HEE HEE! Celfie, I love that you ran the stats on this. Awesome. Well Carswell, you win this point in our old debate about the SAQ. Apparently wine at the SAQ isn't so expensive after all. I must admit, that although I have done less travelling to other wine shops in North America and the world, my general impression has been that prices can be quite reasonable in Quebec.

              I have often railed about the snobby attitude of some of the SAQ employees in the past, and I have experienced some of this snobbism first hand. But I have also started having much better experiences with the SAQ, and I am particularly happy about the selection of importation privee wines, as well as the service provided by these agents. I'm slowly being won over. I still think the selection of California wines, Canadian wines and Australian wines could be much better, but the scene has improved a lot since I moved here in the 1990s. And I do feel that being an anglophone has hampered my ability to appreciate some of the SAQ services. But I am being won over....

            2. re: carswell

              It would appear the LCBO has gotten alot greedier since I lived there 4.5 years ago, or last took a good look around a store on a visit back. Or maybe the SAQ is just ahead in slashing back to recessionary prices?

              I agree selection has improved here the last few years, but I still think Ontario has a superior selection in everything but French wines, especially for beers and spirits (and I'm quite sure because that's what I drink the most of).

              1. re: Shattered

                There's a good reason why the LCBO has the edge on beer selection, that's because it's not the SAQ's job to sell beer, they leave that to depanneurs.

                1. re: Campofiorin

                  It's odd ... the dépanneurs are often stocked with quite an acceptable range of beers but all sell almost exactly the same things at almost exactly the same prices. There is some regional variation (more dépanneurs west of St-Denis sell Pabst Blue Ribbon lol) but it rarely varies by more than one or two brands. I find it can be slightly grim shopping for beer in Québec, knowing that you'll never "discover" anything or ever find a store that sells your favourite brew for cheaper than another.

                  1. re: Delmare

                    The price of beer is regulated in Quebec by Régie des alcools et des courses meaning that there's a ground price for it below which stores cannont go. That'S why prices tend tend to be the same. I'd suggest you head to Marché des saveurs du Québec at Jean-Talon market for a great selection of local non commercial brew.

                  2. re: Campofiorin

                    "There's a good reason why the LCBO has the edge on beer selection, that's because it's not the SAQ's job to sell beer, they leave that to depanneurs."

                    And that's what so messed up. As Delmare points out, in Quebec it's the same stuff over and over. I realize ultimately the province decides what beers get sold here and Quebec doesn't exactly have the easiest bureaucracy, but you'd still think a somewhat deregulated marketplace would have the edge over the govt-controlled Beer Store in Ont.

                    More proof that democracy is a mob rule, I guess, and it takes the higher-ups to force refinement on us (in Ont). Or, ot complete oh, that the higher-ups have a freaking strangle-hold on everything here, and the deps and byob are just an illusion of choice.

                    My dad put it very well once: "They run Quebec like the Soviets: the taxes are high, the wages are low, everything is broken down, but they keep the booze real cheap!"

                    1. re: Shattered

                      "I realize ultimately the province decides what beers get sold here[...]"

                      Ultimately it's Molson-Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev who decide what beer they want us to buy. They are also the ones fighting for shelf space. Whatever is left is is for locals and the few imports that don't come from the big boys. I don't think the SAQ has much to do with that.

                    2. re: Campofiorin

                      «it's not the SAQ's job to sell beer, they leave that to depanneurs»

                      While the SAQ isn't involved in beer sales to the same extent as the LCBO, they do sell a number (currently 76 according to of imported beers mostly not distributed by the private sector mammoths SnackHappy mentions. Also, from 1996 until, I believe, the early years of the millennium, the SAQ operated a premium beer outlet on St-Denis that sold several hundred products (400+ sticks in my mind for some reason), including some rarities. Have heard they closed it due to poor sales, though the powerful dépanneur/brewery/distributor lobby may also have had something to do with it. I'd also lay the blame on poor implementation; they should have opened more than one store and concurrently expanded the beer offering in their regular outlets. Unfortunately, they decimated the selection in the outlets in order not to cannibalize beer store sales and then, after the store folded, never restored the regular outlet inventory. So, no more Florisgaaden Chocolate or Traquair Jacobite Ale at your neighbourhood SAQ...

                      Poor sales may also have had something to do with the short life of the Whisky & Cie outlet in the Cours Mont-Royal, which specialized in spirits and eventually became the first Signature store, then a Sélection Art de vivre and now nothing.


              2. re: carswell

                Hi Carswell

                Move to Saskatchewan. Lytton Springs is $36.55 a bottle here!!


                1. re: carswell

                  I Don't think Quebec payes taxes on there Alcohol

                  1. re: roiberto

                    If you think that you must have been drinking something rather stronger than alcohol. Of course we pay taxes on alcohol in Quebec - at punitive levels compared to the civilized world (speaking from experience at the US/Canadian border bringing in too much wine and paying 66% provincial duty).

                    1. re: pyropaul99

                      I think the poster probably assumed there were no sales taxes because the sticker price is the price you pay.

                      In both Ontario and Quebec, the sticker price includes sales taxes, but they're definitely being paid. In Quebec, the amount of PST and GST paid is shown on the cash register tape. Not sure about Ontario, but it probably is there too.

                  2. re: carswell

                    hey carswell ,the price for he Pintia Toro is a steal it gets a 94 in the guide Penin, the notoriously stingy Spanish Bible of wine I was in Montreal last week and was a bit surprised by the prices but that sounds likea steal!

                2. Have never seen it this side of the border except when brought in on an "importation valise" basis.

                  The brewery's website -- -- lists a distributor (Don Scammell Inc.,
                  518 891-3160) for Essex and Franklin counties, NY, which probably means you can find it in Lake Placid and other Adirondack tourist spots. No distributor listed for Clinton or St. Lawrence counties, which may mean it's scarce in Plattsburg, Massena, etc. Still, you might e-mail the brewery or give Scammell a call. Looks like some of the products may be distributed in Vermont, too.

                  The brewery itself is worth a visit. The scenic drive takes 5-6 hours from Montreal and the Cooperstown area has several other attractions (the Baseball Hall of Fame, Glimmerglass Opera, Sharon Springs, caverns, antiques, etc.) and some decent restos.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: carswell

                    As a transplanted westerner I agree with shattered. So disappointed with the selection of non-French wines. Also the selection of beer is so limited. Does anyone know why? I expected quite the opposite, especially with wines.

                    1. re: eatwell

                      Because the SAQ is a juggernaught nonopoly who knows better than you and I on what we want to drink. Its also a profit driven system which has no place for niche products.
                      Thats my outlandish guess, anyway.

                      1. re: porker

                        Yes, but the LCBO is also a monopoly, and aside from beer, it passes down the savings of buying in bulk to the consumer. They also have incredibly better selection, as I said. Particularly in the last 10-12 years, they have become much smarter retail-wise, building large, diverse big-box style liquor stores in urban areas. As a monopoly, they don't have to do this. They do this because Ontarians are sophisticated drinkers who demand more from their govt, and because the govt is marketing savvy and profit-driven. LCBO makes $1.3 Billion profit for the Ontario govt a year. SAQ makes $760 million. That might sound okay adjusted for population, but Quebeckers are significantly bigger drinkers per capita, so SAQ should be doing better.

                        I have an idea why they don't, aside from anyone wanting higher end products going to the U.S. or Ontario and 'smuggling' it back; SAQ has taken the exact opposite tack of building boxstyle or highend Vintages outlets ala Ontario. Instead, we have loads of tiny express stores, all open til 10. How TF does this make sense when they have only marginally better wine than the deps which are on every corner and open til 11?

                        The SAQ has basically taken a retail strategy which is the complete opposite of what they should be doing. They should be doing fewer larger stores with wider, higher-end selection. Instead, the selection of wine above $20 is just brutal, including acres of so-so French wines, and my jaw dropped when I first went to one of the large SAQs and saw Germany didn't even have its own section -only a foot-wide space in misc. international.
                        Nevermind anything aside from the usual 6 dozen standard cheap barrail scotches, rums, vodkas, etc. -all of which are $1-2 more than Ontario, depending on size. Another example: I've never seen 75.5% rum here, but you can now find it at many LCBOs.

                        1. re: Shattered

                          Well the SAQ does have some higher end stores downtown, up on Beaubien, where there is an OK high end selection.

                          I have a lot of problems with the SAQ though. They really seem to want to force what they feel "taste" should be onto the Quebec consumer. There is a real overemphasis on wine, and specficially French wine. When once I asked about a couple of Niagara rieslings at a local SAQ I was quickly dismissed by a (quite snotty) "wine expert" and was told "well I don't know about that, I only drink quality wine" or some such drivel.

                          Unfortunately I suspect language plays a role in the overemphasis on French wines - since these wines come ready labelled for a "French only" retail market. Other wines have to either produce a separate french or bilingual label, or - worse - have all the tasting notess/winery information covered by a white sticker if it is in English only. That last tactic really gets me going.

                          1. re: Shattered

                            Woooah! I happen to be a short walk from three SAQ outlets including the Beaubien Sélection (the others are Petite Italie and Jean-Talon market) and a slightly longer but doable walk from the one next to Loblaws, but it is important for people in all neighbourhoods to have accessible shops. Big-box shops mean that people have to own cars and use them to pick up a decent bottle of wine. It means those of us who don't own a car or don't want to use it for local shopping are stuck with dépanneur plonk.

                            1. re: Shattered

                              I'll take your profit numbers at face value, but isn't it a bit of camparing apples and oranges? As the SAQ 'competes' with the dep, there will be market share. The *only* place to buy wine in Ontario (plonk or otherwise) is the LCBO, so I think their numbers will naturally be higher.

                              That aside, I agree with you on the LCBO's market savvy; many stores are a pleasure to enter, their Food&Drink magazine is actually interesting (rather than a pure, blatant form of advertising), and their offerings in many areas seem wide. I think the SAQ is trying to catch-up here and has made some progress, but it seems to have waned in recent times.

                              I agree, buspirone, that language has something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.
                              I was speaking to some brewers at a wine and food show years ago. I don't recall who they were, but they were from Ontario. I asked them if one of their products would be listed at the SAQ. They kind of shrugged, laughed, and spit in one motion. The gentleman said it isn't just labelling, which can be solved easily, but the unyielding bureaucracy. "Its as if they *don't* want new products." he said. And at the end of the day, why jump through all those hoops and kiss so much ass? Just isn't worth it for them. His attitude was if the SAQ doesn't want to do business, why should he bend over backwards?

                              1. re: Shattered

                                «That might sound okay adjusted for population, but Quebeckers are significantly bigger drinkers per capita, so SAQ should be doing better.»

                                Quebecers drink more wine and beer per capita than Ontarians but only about half as much spirits (4.0 litres vs 8.4 litres per annum). According to its annual report, the LCBO's sales figures include 62.4 million litres of wholesale beer sales to The Beer Store; the SAQ's don't, though I believe they do include wine sales through their wholesale grocer network. LCBO profits may or may not include sales though Ontario winery retail stores, on-site brewery stores and on-site distillery stores (I don't have the time to wade through the financial statements to try to figure it out). Profits can also include dividends from firms in which the government corporations hold an interest. In other words, comparing the dividends paid to the respective governments without taking any number of other factors into account is misleading, is a little knowledge.

                                «Instead, we have loads of tiny express stores, all open til 10. How TF does this make sense when they have only marginally better wine than the deps which are on every corner and open til 11?»

                                The SAQ has begun opening Express stores in cities -- usually one per district/borough, except in areas like the Plateau with its high concentration of BYOs -- in response to customer demand (they're popular!). What is it now -- eight for the greater Montreal area? Hardly loads. A fairly good dep will have maybe 30 or 40 wines for sale. If I recall correctly, Express stores have several hundred. All dep/grocery wines are made or bottled in Quebec, are not vintage dated, cannot list the constituent grape varieties, are overpriced even in comparison to the SAQ's prices (plus the dep prices don't include sales tax), are stored in abysmal conditions and -- correct me if I'm wrong -- cannot be sold chilled. They are also for the large part undrinkable. None of those negatives applies to the vast majority of Express wines. Deps don't sell specialty wines like port. Express does. Deps can't sell spirits. Express does. And while I don't find the Express selection exciting, it is serviceable. My preference would be for select Classique or Sélection stores to be open till 9 p.m. seven days a week, but overhead/staffing issues and union pressure mean that's probably not going to happen.

                                You also fail to note that the SAQ has been assiduously expanding the Sélection network in recent years, both by converting Classique outlets and by opening new stores. Several of the new Sélection stores in the 'burbs are big boxish. The SAQ Dépôt stores, true big boxes, have not been huge hits, which is why there aren't more of them.

                                Complaints about the selection of German, Austrian and New World (South America excepted) wines and spirits are justified. My feeling is that the SAQ's monopoly status behooves it to offer a broad sampling of the world's wines and spirits. On the other hand, they have begun making an effort. We've enjoyed access to German wines at a wide range of price points in recent years and from some of the country's top producers (Muller-Catoir, Donnhoff, Christoffel, St. Urbans-Hof, etc.). The selection of fine Greek, Lebanese, Portuguese, South African and New Zealand wines is not bad at all -- light years ahead of where it used to be. Half of the issues and related wine releases of the SAQ's quarterly Cellier magazine have focused on non-French and non-Italian wines. As far as I can tell, the SAQ is a leader among retailers in promoting organic and biodyanmic wines. We also have access to oddities like Brazilian and Turkish wines these days.

                                From the SAQ's standpoint, a large part of the problem is that California wines, for example, don't sell very well, partly because of their high prices, partly because Quebecers' palate and interest lean to Old World wines. German wines don't sell well because of the labels, because there are few Germans in Quebec and no tradition of drinking their wines, because Quebecers are fonder of dry wines and because of Quebecers' consumption patterns (we drink more wine than the ROC but less per session, we tend to drink wine with food and Quebec food isn't particularly German-wine friendly).

                                Still, though I sometimes feel frustrated at not having access to wines that, say, NYC geeks I follow rave about, my problem is that I don't have the time, opportunity, budget or strength of liver to taste more than a fraction of the interesting wines available to us. And I say that as someone who organizes monthly/semimonthly new arrivals tastings and attends others.

                                As for the SAQ's higher prices, you can blame the Quebec government at least as much as the SAQ. And even then, for $30+ wines, the advantage is not always in Ontario's favour. And, again, with wine prices there are several factors at play: when the wines were purchased, what currency they're paid for in, the producer's ex cellar price, the agent's (aka "importer's") markup.

                                As someone who tastes and buys a lot of wine, subscribes to the LCBO's Vintages magazine and Classic Catalogue and occaionally visits LCBO stores, if I had to choose between the LCBO and the SAQ, I'd pick the SAQ in a flash, especially now that they've made the process of buying private import wines (which enormously expand the selection available to us) so painless. So would most wine people (agents/importers, sommeliers, wine writers, serious collectors, assorted wine geeks) I know. And so, probably, would most Quebecers: in independently run customer satisfaction surveys, the SAQ consistently ranks 90% or higher.

                                1. re: carswell

                                  I'm not really getting the LCBO love either. Last time I was in one of their big-boxish stores (New Year's, somewhere in North York), I saw a lot of shelf space devoted to cheap hooch (vodka coolers, low-end rye, rotgut rum, etc.), pyramids of Labatt's Blue, poor selection of European wines, overpriced Ontario wine (e.g. Clos Jordanne Village Reserve @ $30 vs. $25 in QC), oceans of "Cellared in Ontario" plonk (equivalent to dépanneur wine?), and so on. It was not a wonderland that had me cursing the SAQ. It was more like a SAQ Express on steroids. But, to judge by what other customers were buying, it seemed to be exactly what the people want.

                                  Most of the other LCBO stores I've visited could be described similarly, though I have been to one or two with very good high-end offerings. But those, in my experience, are not the norm; my impression is that they are no more common than SAQ Sélection stores. (These would be the Vintages stores... and they're great. But a regular LCBO store? Oh my.)

                                  True, the SAQ favours French wine. But it also tends to be ahead of the LCBO on Italian, and probably also Iberian wines though I haven't paid close attention there. And if you're like me and you appreciate fine sweet wines, then Ontario is most definitely not for you. The itty bitty dessert wine shelf at the Westmount SAQ Classique puts any LCBO I've visited to shame, never mind the selection at stores like Laurier, St-Jacques W., or the one facing Atwater Market.

                                  As for the Express... in addition to the benefits vs. dépanneur mentioned by Carswell, here's a biggie: it's the day after a party and you find two unopened bottles that you don't want. One came from the dep, one from the SAQ. The latter, you can return for a credit, few or no questions asked. AFAIK you're stuck with the dep wine, though.

                                  A final point: if the SAQ is profitable, maybe it's because they make an effort to respond to local tastes, rather than simply trying to shape them?

                          2. re: carswell

                            That`s where I tasted it, touring the Adirondacks and Finger lakes last year. Fell hopelessly in love with it. I need some requiting. Thank you for the research and advice.

                          3. if we could only get creemore and steamwhistle in quebec

                            21 Replies
                            1. re: celfie

                              hmmm, Mr. F.,
                              Respond to local tastes?..... Is it not progressive to introduce other products? Perhaps expand local tastes? Sure it's profitable, people won't stop buying what's available if there aren't other choices: conversly, doesn't mean they wouldn't buy other products if the option presented itself! We who have moved here from other areas of the world would certainly be responsive to "new" products.

                              1. re: eatwell

                                Sure, new products are a good thing. And if you've been here a while I think you'll agree that the SAQ does seek out and sell new products, and does make an effort to bring them to public attention. They take a different approach than the LCBO, but that doesn't mean they don't do it.

                                Bottom line, for me, is that the SAQ and LCBO are each other's evil twin. Neither can hope to sell everything that's out there. Both have a mandate to turn a profit for their shareholders.

                                That means they have to strike a balance between carrying a wide enough selection to satisfy most customers, and avoiding getting stuck with inventory that moves too slowly or not at all. So both must respond to demand and local tastes, and make "expanding local tastes" a lower priority. I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to keep stocking products that don't sell.

                                And that is why each tends to carry products that reflect its customers' tastes. It's why the German wine selection is so meagre in Quebec, while Ontario is a dessert wine desert, etc. etc.

                                1. re: Mr F

                                  I happen to think that the LCBO has better selection of wines than the SAQ - have you ever been to the LCBO in what was once a train station in Toronto, the wine selection was magnificent. The incompetence of the SAQ is staggering. But what else can we expect from our nanny state.

                                  1. re: celfie

                                    No, but I have spent some quality time in a major Vintages outlet. It was an excellent store. But while it was much stronger than the SAQ in some areas, it was much weaker in others -- not necessarily a *better* selection on the whole, just different. And like I said, the non-Vintages LCBO stores I've seen were about on a par with SAQ Express (but with more floor space).

                                    When it comes to everyday drinking, I'll take the Classique and Sélection stores over non-Vintages LCBO any day. Would I like to combine the best of Vintages and Sélection for fancier stuff? Sure, but I can't. Luckily for me, Sélection tends to suit my tastes better.

                                    As for incompetence, I've encountered many very competent, courteous SAQ employees, and some incompetent ones, and have heard tales of inexcusable snobbery. And I've generally found customer service at the Signature store to be appalling. (But if you signal that you're prepared to drop big bucks, you'll get very good service.) On the whole, it's uneven. But I have to disagree with the notion that the SAQ is uniformly incompetent.

                                    1. re: Mr F

                                      Well I am referring to scandals at the management level. They should just privatize the whole thing.

                                    2. re: celfie

                                      Celfie, if you are referring to the Summerhill LCBO outlet, then I have to comment that my last few visits to this outlet have been disappointing re: wine selection. If I wanted to spend a lot of cash, I could pick up some nice wines, and it was fun to see a selection different than what I am used to at the SAQ. But I felt the depth of selection was a bit disappointing, and I was hoping I would see more bottles of interest to me. Please note that I mostly drink wine, and i have a pretty diverse palate in wine, I am not just a French wine drinker, I like a lot of new world wines. So I expected to find tonnes of Australian, New Zealand, North American, German, etc. wines that I would be drooling over, and I expected to spend a wad. It didn't happen on several occasions. I do like that LCBO, and I think the selection was very good, but I was less impressed than I though I would be. As I mentioned above, the SAQ is slowly winning me over.

                                      1. re: moh

                                        Up until a couple of years ago, I found that pretty much all wines were $2-$4 cheaper per bottle pretty much across the board compared to the SAQ. When I worked in Vaudreuil, I would head over to Cornwall a couple of times per year and pick up a case or two of interesting things and the savings would kinda offset the gas to get there.
                                        Over the last few years, the prices at the LCBO have really crept up to equal or surpass SAQ pricing, and the selection at the SAQ has vastly improved.
                                        I will be making a trip to an LCBO soon to pick up a case or two of inexpensive Ontario Vidal for warn weather drinking since it's the only thing I can't get here at all.

                                        1. re: davidpg

                                          Well, I guess I was mostly wrong in my initial post (aside from beer), and hadn't realized how much prices had crept up in Ontario, nor appreciated how much better selection had gotten here.

                                  2. re: eatwell

                                    But the SAQ has been introducing other products. In a SAQ thread on eGullet maybe five years ago, I lamented the fact that there was a grand total of five New Zealand wines sold at the SAQ and not a single red. Today lists 52 NZ whites and 52 reds as well as two rosés (and there'll be more pink wines in the summer). While some of them are end-of-run bottles now found only in far-flung outlets, there's no denying that the change has been enormous. Same thing with South African, German, Austrian, Lebanese, Greek, Portuguese, Uruguayan and dry Portuguese wines. At various times, the SAQ has sold wines from Virginia (Horton Norton!), Long Island and India, much like it's doing now with a few Turkish and Brazilian wines. If they don't restock them, it's usually because they don't sell. To some extent, that's also the problem with Californian and Australian wines.

                                    A few years ago, the California wine-loving manager of my local SAQ outlet (a well-stocked Classique in CDN with a customer base of university students, profs, professionals, TMR commuters, etc., who are open to new experiences) decided to promote Golden State wines. He brought in Sélection bottles, taught his staff about them, trained them to include them in their suggestions to customers, featured them in in-store tastings. Many of the wines sat there gathering dust. Customers found they provided poor QPR or weren't to their taste. A lot of the bottles went back to the warehouse or ended up being marked down 25%, and even then mostly didn't move (to my great delight, since for a few months there I was able to pick up Ridge Zins and Tablas Creek whites at fire-sale prices). Wine advisors at other SAQ outlets have similar stories to tell. Despite being released with considerable fanfare, many of the interesting New World wines brought in through the Cellier program sit on the shelves. So, to some extent, people AREN'T buying other products when the option presents itself.

                                    (My theory as to why New Zealand wines have proven popular here is because they are stylistically closer to France than, say, Australia.)

                                    As others have mentioned or implied, it's cultural difference. We who have moved here from other areas of the world constitute a very small share of the Quebec wine market, which, especially at the middle and high end, has a Franco-Italian palate. (The low end's a different story, as sales of Little Penguin, Liberty School and Fuzion attest.)

                                    1. re: carswell

                                      Fuzion isn't the same phenomenon as Little Penguin (and the other creature names) or Liberty School. Fuzion sells well because it costs 8 dollars and is drinkable - its competitors are the cheapo Spanish wines. Penguin and School must sell because of marketing campaigns, cute names or something, otherwise I don't understand the phenom at all as there are infinitely better wines at the same price.

                                      And the other best-selling ultra-cheap wines are practically all Italian litres. Table wine, nobody has any illusion that it is anything else.

                                      One thing I do wish, for reasons of sustainability (food miles) is more Niagara and other (real) Ontario wines available at the SAQ. Some are surprisingly good, especially the whites.

                                      1. re: lagatta

                                        The point about Fuzion is that it's Argentinian, i.e. New World. The only segment where New World wines hold a significant share of the Quebec market is the low end (though checking prices, I see that Liberty School hardly qualifies as low end anymore).

                                        1. re: carswell

                                          I checked prices before my post, but I thought you meant "low end" in terms of knowledge and appreciation of wine. That applies a lot more to people who can afford Liberty School or even the Penguins and co., because there are many better wines at SAQ - or LCBO - at the same price. Fuzion drinkers might just be broke, or used to ordinary table wines with "l'ordinaire", and better wines with special dishes or for company.

                                        2. re: lagatta

                                          I too would love to see more Niagara wines here, but really a major issue is also production. Some of the best Niagara wineries are quite small and are not really interested in the Quebec market.

                                          I have not tried to import wines via the SAQ from Ontario. In my greatest wine dreams I would be able to order a case directly from a Niagara winery to be delivered to my home here. (I could do this when I lived in Ontario).

                                          1. re: buspirone

                                            It is technically against the law to ship -- or even transport -- alcoholic beverages across provincial borders in Canada. That said, some BC and Ontario wineries have been known to ship cases to Quebec, though at least a couple have stopped doing so (whether because they were threatened by government authorities or because their carrier refused I don't know). In any case, you can always try contacting the winery and see what they'll do. Or contact them and ask if they have a Quebec agent, in which event you can order a case through the agent (e-mail, phone or website) and have it delivered the following week to a nearby Sélection store, where you can pick it up and pay for it at your convenience. At least one agent (Vinealis) has even begun offering Prince Edward County wines (Norman Hardie).

                                            1. re: carswell

                                              If I recall correctly certain provincial governments started to get antsy about this about a year ago - there was a G&M story on it. I'm usually in Ontario enough that I can get what I want at the winery itself.

                                              Going through an agent is possible, I guess, but kind of a hastle when compared to the convienience of to-my-door shipping. In all it is a foolish law that is left over from days long past. Of course it is there to stay now to keep the monopolies protected.

                                              1. re: buspirone

                                                «Of course it is there to stay now to keep the monopolies protected.»

                                                Yes but, like so many of the criticisms levelled in this thread, not entirely accurate. Governments, as distinct from liquor control boards, are also resistant to the idea because of the potential for lost tax and duty revenue. Unions (brewery employees at present but if winery workers unionize, they'll probably sign on too) are resistant because of the potential for lost jobs and pressure to lower wages and benefits.

                                                1. re: carswell

                                                  I too would like to see more Niagara wines on the SAQ shelves as I drive there every summer to stack up. I'd like to see things like Hillebrand, Stratus, Tawse, Peller Estates, more Vineland and Peninsula Ridge, Daniel Lenko (although he only sells at his small operation), The Organized Crime, Coyote's Run, Reif, Konzelmann and Thirty Bench, just o name a few.

                                                  1. re: Campofiorin

                                                    The SAQ carries three Tawse wines, maybe not the best ones, but there are some. (Some of the others may be available, but I haven't checked; it's just that I happened to see the Tawse Bistro White in Westmount a couple of days ago.)

                                                    But in general the basic point remains that most of the better Ontario wines are made in such small quantities that the wineries don't have enough wine to qualify for LCBO shelf space, let alone worrying about "exporting" to Quebec.

                                                    Allowing direct-to-consumer shipping within Canada would be the best solution IMO, but the provincial governments have bigger fish to fry these days...

                                        3. re: carswell

                                          I am not sure its just about the "palate," but there is also a lot the SAQ, as a monopoly, does to shape that palate. Its going to take a lot more than just one store opening up a larger selection of California wines to expand people's ideas.

                                          With regards to the idea that Quebec tastes run to drier wines, everytime I serve a reisling (which is a lot since I tend to go heavy on the spices when I cook) along with a drier selection, its is the sweeter wine that gets finished off first and most people ask to take down the name of whatever I've served (Usually a Niagara selection). People in Quebec (and elsewhere) tend to think they should like dry wines more than they actually do.

                                          I also hear a lot of weird myths from friends that run along the lines of "only French wines are free of additives and therefore are the only wines you should drink"... and the opposite "Australian wines are full of additives... etc" This kind of talk means that many people I know here won't even consider tasting a new world wine.

                                          I agree that the selection has vastly improved since I moved here in 1992, but I still appreciate the diversity the LCBO offers.

                                      2. re: celfie

                                        Creemore at Old Montréal Keg 25 Rue St. Paul Est

                                        1. re: celfie

                                          You can get Creemore on tap at Kitchenette on Rene-Levesque. Has to be one of my favourite Ontario brews too.

                                        2. In general, I like the SAQ and in the 3 years that I have lived here, the selection at my local outlets has improved. My only complaint is that in comparison to the wine stores in Manitoba (many of which are independently run, I might add), there is pitiful selection of Canadian wines other than those produced in Quebec. I used to be able to get lots of interesting stuff from BC and Ontario (although no Quebec wines). It was fun because you could keep up with the exciting changes and improvements in Canadian wine production. This is what I miss.

                                          All in all though, I'll take the SAQ. Also, the beer in Quebec alone is worth the move.

                                          1. These threads have a life of their own. I hadn't realised that Quebec had a similar province controlled distribution system. I'm somewhat disappointed to discover that. From what one correspondent says I cannot carry beer across the the provincial boundary, but I can bring it in from New York. (Have I got that wrong?).

                                            And as Malbec and Carménère are two of my favourite grape varieties I had better not emigrate to Quebec. Maybe I should get back to my own board after stirring up the hornets' nest.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: Paulustrious

                                              "I cannot carry beer across the the provincial boundary, but I can bring it in from New York. (Have I got that wrong?)."

                                              Technically, yes: you aren't allowed to transport any alcohol across provincial boundaries.

                                              But in practice, you'll be subject to limits (24 12-oz bottles?) and a high likelihood of a search when coming from the U.S. to Canada, while the odds of getting caught hauling a trunk full of beer across provincial boundaries are virtually nil. Not only would you have to get pulled over for some reason, the police would have to have cause to search the trunk. It's not like there's are SAQ border patrols.

                                              (I should add that I am not advocating illegal activities, but pointing out that this particular violation is pretty routine. It's beyond being an open secret -- it's probably more accurate to say that as far as the individual is concerned, the law is a dead letter.)

                                              1. re: Mr F

                                                "Not only would you have to get pulled over for some reason, the police would have to have cause to search the trunk. "
                                                I'm guessing if it was a totally routine stop and search (I've had cops ASK if they could look in the trunk), they wouldn't care about a trunkful of Ontario beer either. I say 'routine' as in the officer isn't pissed off, you weren't doing 170kmh, you weren't DWI, etc.

                                              2. re: Paulustrious

                                                I drive to Niagara every summer and bring back as much as 3 cases of wine and never got any trouble. It's an old law that the police officers don't bother enforcing. Coming back from the US in a whole different story though. They might tolerate one and even 2 bottles over the limit but beyond that, you'll pay. But they're quite relax on the actual pricing of the bottles. Coming back from California last fall, we had 8 bottles instead of the 4 we were allowed and the officer at the border cut the prices by half although I provided him with the receipts.