In search of wine

4 Dec

You can’t find a bottle of plonk for much less than $15 (£9.30) in Canada. And if you can, you probably don’t want to drink it.

It took me months to come to terms with this, and many fruitless hours of searching the shelves for a label cheap enough to sustain my midweek wine habit. There are certain rituals to which I’ve become accustomed over the years – just like the Queen, but her vices probably don’t involve £4 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

The high prices suck. But a seasoned expat offered some sage advice when I first arrived, concerning  relocation-related annoyances: “Don’t think of it as stupid or backwards, just see it as different.” Wise words.

The history bit

I was surprised to learn that the reason for the hiked-up wine harks back to the prohibition era, when bootleggers compelled the authorities to enforce strict controls over the sale of liquor which, to this day, is regulated by provincial agencies.

In practical terms this means you can’t pile wine into your supermarket trolley or pick up a quick bottle from the all-night offie – you can only get it from official Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, or from wineries. You can’t even import more than a case of wine from another province within Canada. This means there’s a monopoly, which means high prices.

You’re probably thinking: “That’s stupid! Backwards!” No, no, remember: Just “different”.

The LCBO also has a paternalistic mission to curb alcohol consumption and it claims the mark-ups generate revenue for health and education services.  Others argue the government would save more money by axing a $300m a year bureaucracy and privatising liquor retail sales.

But this long pre-amble, whilst fascinating I’m sure, is just background info. It helps to explain our trip to the Prince Edward County wineries last weekend – the original point of this post.

Prince Edward County

PEC’s a two-and-a-half hour drive north east of Toronto and, since the early 2000s, has attracted a growing wine industry thanks to its rich soil, cheap land and the temperature-moderating effect of Lake Ontario.

It’s also home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, which bills itself as “the world’s largest fresh water sand bar and dune system”. Also known as a bloody big beach:

Sandbanks Provincial Park Prince Edward County

December probably isn’t the prime time to visit Sandbanks

There are now over 30 wineries, most of which are pretty small – too small to get their products onto LCBO’s shelves and, since selling elsewhere isn’t an option, their customers have to go to them.

Attracting bus loads of wine fans in the winter, when the more established Niagara region’s closer to Toronto, isn’t easy, so they came up with the “weekend wassail”. This sounds like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, but there was no sign of mead, peasants  or ill-fated heroines. Instead, there was lots of free (woo!) wine, rum balls, s’mores, mini beef Wellingtons, spiced cider and carol singing.

Prince Edward County wine map

Where to go

The fact the wineries aren’t overly commercialised made for a really personal experience – maybe slightly too personal in one case, when the two of us were forced to sing a carol of our “choice” in exchange for wine and my husband chose the famously easy-to-sing Good King Wenceslas. The owner was good enough to reward my tuneless mumbling with a fruity Chardonnay. I don’t normally enjoy Chardonnay, but the ones in PEC seemed to be less oak-ey and crisper than normal.

Naturally we treated ourselves to a few choice bottles…well we were bound to be getting some sort of discount, straight from the supplier, right?

Our stash

Our stash

Lots of the wineries are clustered together in the west, and it’s possible to tour them by bike. I might save that for a weekend when it’s not minus 6.

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6 Responses to “In search of wine”

  1. Zhu December 6, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    I don’t drink and I don’t know anything about wine–shocking considering I’m French, I know! I do hear a lot of French complaining about the wine situation in Canada though. Apparently, there are some great local wines from the Niagara region and LCBOs do offer good international wines you wouldn’t find in France because French are so damn picky about their booze.

    I did find the concept of LCBO strange though, and at first I actually did look for wine in supermarkets. Now it’s the opposite: when I go to France walking in the extensive “wine” section feels weird!

    • torontonewbie December 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      Interesting about the “reject” French wines! Torontoist.com’s written a piece today, saying the majority of people in Ontario are “basically indifferent” to the rules. http://torontoist.com/2012/12/public-works-selling-the-lcbo/

      Even if that’s true, I suspect if there was greater awareness of the gap between the price of foreign wines here and what the rest of the world pays people would be less apathetic.

  2. kathy December 8, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    LCBO in Ontario (specially in Toronto) seems so ….old …and out of date. It really is amazing, Whenever I come to visit my daughter to get my Toronto or my Ontario fix, I usually have to trek to half a dozen places before I find THE wine I drink….and it’s Ontario Wine…pshaaaa. Compared to Alberta or BC booze selection, where there is either a liquor store or wine store on every corner. The best LCBO is in Downtown Ottawa – can’t remember the name of the area exactly …but it was HUGE with an incredible wine selection.

    • torontonewbie December 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      Hi Kathy, yeah the wine situation did seem a bit better in BC & Alberta thanks to the slightly more relaxed rules out west. Am hoping to travel to Ottawa at some point over winter for some canal ice skating, so will look out for the big LCBO – thanks for the tip!

      • kathy December 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

        I called my daughter, she’s much more familiar with all things booze related in ontario. The area in Ottawa is The By Mart or By Market . I suppose with all the diplomats etc hanging out in ottawa by the parliament bldg’s, stand to reason the lcbo would be accomodating. Also she mentioned that the “manulife” center downtown toronto was almost as big.
        Skating the Canal…wow..that would be fun…friggin cold …but fun I would think.

      • torontonewbie December 13, 2012 at 8:46 am #

        Thanks, useful booze tips!

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