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:
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.
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?
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.