We’ve had some good times, it’s true, but I think we’d both agree that our relationship has been rocky since the start. Lets call a spade a spade – a Merlot a Merlot. When we first met, I was doe-eyed and new to the wine scene, while you were experienced and empowered. I naively trusted your selections and figured you knew what you were doing. After all, you’d been in the game for a very long time.
But then I began to see signs that made me question your commitment. My “spec” orders of wine would almost always take two weeks (!) to arrive at the restaurant, and sometimes they wouldn’t show up at all. When I’d call to inquire, your people would be rude and impatient. I once attempted to buy wine from the shelves in one of your stores, but was refused the purchase because the manager “didn’t want the shelf to look empty.” Pardon me? I thought. Are you no longer in the business of selling?
I’ve always been loyal, but I’m writing you today because my purchasing colleagues and I are tired of being treated like second-class citizens when we are, in fact, your biggest customers. Have you not read Dale Carnegie or Guy Kawasaki? Why are you making our exchanges so difficult? For the longest time I quietly resented the poor treatment. Indeed, why complain? You were the only game in town, and enduring was the only option.
But then I began to travel. I saw that the grass was not only greener, but more vibrant, luscious and beautiful elsewhere. I saw alternate realities and my mind and heart began to wander. The abuse and inadequacy you dished out daily was replaced by prompt, friendly and professional service. Service! I saw businesses working hard to keep their customers the way businesses should. And the prices! They were a fraction of what you were forcing me to pay. The selections were vast and the costs were hard for me to comprehend. Being confronted by how, for example, the San Franciscan people experimented with their wine choices, how they bought inexpensive bottles for dinner at the grocery store, how they flocked to wineshop tastings, how they intelligently discussed wine and obscure Italian regions, how they filled seats in the restaurants with clever wine lists and talked about sommeliers like B-level celebrities, how they truly had a wine culture…made me feel cheated and severely wronged by you. I wondered how you slept at night.
From what I could see in San Francisco, there was no chaos in the streets. There were no police cars on fire. Order was maintained. And then there’s you, the Great Stifler, the grand obstacle to our emergent wine culture. You make interesting wine inaccessible for the average Joe with ignorance, absurd pricing and curtailing what is made available. Your stores offer row upon row of Aussi Shiraz and Argentinean Malbec, but not a single bottle of interesting desirables like Loire Pineau d’Aunis or Jura Trousseau or Ligurian Rossese or even Basque Txakoli. And should – by some stroke of luck or happy accident – any of these eclectic beauties make land in your stores, the prices would deter even the most adventurous.
What’s more, your store employees are paid handsomely, but often come supplied with very little wine knowledge (though you’ve embedded enough bitterness to turn even the steeliest of stomachs). Worse still, your system doesn’t support the little guy – the independent owners who dream of operating small, niche shops or specialized wine bars (it certainly doesn’t help that the shops are both your clients and your competition). You are blind to people with knowledge and people with passion. You don’t even give wholesale prices to restaurants! Seriously, how can you justify that? You make it nearly impossible to survive in an already impossible industry by remorselessly asphyxiating the eager. You are killing the passion in our new generation of sommeliers and restaurateurs. And for what? Greed and fear of change.
I thought we all deserved better. I had a lot of questions and I was confused. Always an optimist, I came home and gave you another chance. Perhaps you’d changed or perhaps I could change you. Unfortunately, it seemed you were still up to your old tricks. We hosted the Olympics, but none of the tales of sensible and liberal liquor laws spread by our visitors had moved you. Laws may have been relaxed to lessen your shame and make our province look fun and happening, but the world saw through that, and so did we. Then the HST came along. You saw your chance to squeeze more life from the people and raised our import taxes on wine from 117% to 123%. You consistently embarrassed me and my colleagues in front of our visiting southern neighbours. When Americans asked me why the Napa Cab that they pay $10 for at home is $25 on your shelves and $60 in our restaurants, I could only laugh uncomfortably and say “Tough pill to swallow sir, eh?”
Today, exhausted, I can no longer defend you. We have a disheartened wine scene, and you’re squarely to blame. Quebec’s easygoing – nay, enlightened – SAQ makes you look ridiculous with its more modest, sliding scale of markups and impressive, varied selections. Just look at all those gorgeous wines that Quebec wine blogger Aurélia frolics in! And she hardly pays anything for them! Even Alberta makes us look bush league with its fun-loving, privatized system. A little healthy competition would be good for reasons that transcend us being seen as a population of bores who are regulated by teetotallers. Haven’t you never been inspired and moved by a bottle of wine? No? Well, shouldn’t you have been? Do you really feel that a bottle of fine Burgundy – a wine with vast history, best shared with your friends and family at the dinner table (one capable of arousing conversation and evoking emotion) should really be regulated and taxed similarly to a big brand vodka, a tasteless product with no other purpose than to get you drunk? Are you truly that daft and blind to the difference? Do you have no feeling or compassion or empathy? You’ve been consumed with regulation and so intent on raising your bottom line, that you’ve become a monster.
I think it’s time you and I called it quits for good. I’m sure even you’d agree that you don’t belong in the booze business (no government does, really). It’s too much of a headache for all of us, don’t you think? It’s not 1920. The Volstead Act has long been abolished. You don’t want this anyways, do you? Think about how happy you’d be, how much money you’d save, how free you’d feel, if you just let it go. You could be replaced by private companies that would work efficiently and effectively to fight for my attention. They’d treat me like a customer and not a nuisance, encouraging healthy competition by allowing our wine shops and restaurants to operate profitably without having to gouge their customers just to survive. My colleagues wont be forced to head out on illicit, monthly runs to Calgary or Seattle to keep the shelves stocked with interesting spirits and wines (where they are even offered a licensee discount…what a novel fucking concept!). Sounds a little like prohibition, doesn’t it?
I’m pleading with you both as your old friend and a stakeholder. If you exit, the people will be able to afford high quality wine more regularly. The new private wine shops will be staffed by a knowledgeable and passionate generation. I know that they wont all be the romantic vision of ‘ma and pop’ stores (we’ll have our Liquor Emporiums for sure), but the best shops will get better and our local wine culture will blossom. It wont happen overnight – I know that, too – but eventually it will be great; our grass transforming from dry and dying sod to thick, healthy patches with promise.
Go ahead. Privatize! And then privatize some more. You can do it. Be free!
Jake Skakun | Sommelier