Brett happens

All wine, most of the time

The Private Import FAQ

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You’re dining in a restaurant and the waiter pours a wine that knocks your socks off. You ask to see the bottle. “Is this available at the SAQ,” you ask. “No,” the waiter replies. “It’s a private import brought in by the XYZ agency.” The next day, you call XYZ and order a case. A week or two later, you receive a call from a nearby SAQ outlet telling you your wine has arrived. You drop by the outlet, pay for your bottles and take them home with you.

Yes, ordering private imports can be that simple and straightforward. Except when it isn’t.

And since you’ll find not a word about private imports on the SAQ.com website, I’ve put together an FAQ on the ins and outs of ordering wines through the private import channel. You’ll find it after the jump.

THE PRIVATE IMPORT FAQ

What are private imports?
A private import is a product that can be purchased in Quebec but not in a retail outlet (an SAQ outlet, a grocery store or a dépanneur).

When drinkers talk about private imports, they’re usually referring to wine, but the category actually encompasses any packaged alcoholic beverage (beer, spirits, cider, etc.).

Where can I buy private imports?
In restaurants and bars or through the agency that represents the product in Quebec (the so-called private import channel).

Why would I want to buy private imports?
To gain access to thousands of products, including some of the most interesting, that you won’t find at the SAQ.

Why won’t I find them at the SAQ?
For any number of reasons. The SAQ may already have enough products in the category in its catalogue. It may consider a product too recherché or limited in appeal. Since unmanipulated, low-sulphur wines are naturally unstable and should be stored at cool temperatures (ideally 15ºC/60ºF or less), which the SAQ can’t do, you won’t find natural wines on the monopoly’s shelves. The quantities of a given product received from the producer may be too small for the SAQ to bother with (sometimes as few as three or six bottles). The agency representing the product may not pitch it to the SAQ, may prefer to keep it exclusive, to sell it only to its most faithful clients. And so on and so on.

What is an agency?
A Quebec-based company that contracts with the producers of wines, spirits and other alcoholic beverages to represent and promote their products in Quebec. Agencies come in all shapes and sizes: some are large and have huge, wide-ranging product portfolios, others are small and tend to focus on a specific niche like sake, natural wines or a certain country or region. The agencies pitch their products to the SAQ for sale in its outlets, to restaurants and bars for inclusion on their wine and drink lists and, increasingly, to individuals for personal consumption. The agencies also organize promotional events for their products and producers: marketing campaigns, advertisements, tastings, special displays in outlets, winemakers’ dinners in restaurants and so on. All told, there are over a hundred agencies in Quebec.

Does the agency import the wine or other product?
No. With the exception of bottles that travellers bring back with them (often dubbed importations valise), only the SAQ is authorized to import beverage alcohol into Quebec. What the agencies do is arrange for the SAQ to import the products they represent. The SAQ picks up the products at various collection points around the world, transports them to Montreal or Quebec City (usually by ship or truck), stores them in its warehouses and handles sales and distribution on behalf of the agency.

How do I order and buy a private import?
It has become pretty effortless in recent years.

  1. Find out which agency represents the producer (see below).
  2. Contact the agency and, assuming the product’s available, order a case (or more!) of it. You’ll also need to provide your contact information and specify which SAQ outlet you want it delivered to. The list of outlets that handle private imports is here (PDF file that opens in a new window).
  3. A week or two later, after you receive a call informing you that your private import has arrived, drop by the outlet, take delivery of the order and pay for it like you would for any other product. The outlet will hold the order for two weeks, after which the cases will be returned to the SAQ’s warehouse, the order will be cancelled and the agency will be fined.

How do I find the agency that represents the producer?

  • If it’s a product you tasted in a restaurant, ask the waiter, sommelier or wine buyer for the agency’s name.
  • Otherwise, search for the producer on local agency association websites (RASPIPAV and AQAVBS). If it’s listed, the website will give you the agency’s contact info.
  • Many agencies also have websites that list their available products and several let you sign up for their product announcement mailing list.
  • Not every agency is an association member, has a website or offers a mailing list, however. In such cases, you can try googling the producer’s or wine’s name plus Quebec. You can also try emailing, faxing or calling the producer and asking who represents it in Quebec.

Can I buy single bottles?
No, not officially. You have to buy a full case of the product concerned.

Wines usually come in six- or 12-bottle cases. And since the SAQ slaps a hefty handling fee on each case, the per-bottle price is cheaper with 12-bottle cases. (Occasionally agencies will offer the same wine in both six- and 12-bottle cases. When they do, the price works out to about $1 a bottle more for the smaller cases.) Several agencies have a policy of offering everything over a certain price threshold – $30, say – in six-bottle cases and everything below the threshold in 12-bottle cases.

There is a loophole you may be able to take advantage of. A few years ago, the law was changed to allow licensed restaurants to sell beer and wine with takeout and delivery meals. If the restaurant is willing and offers private imports, you can order a bottle to go with the food you’ve ordered, though you may be charged restaurant prices (often a markup of 100% or higher). And there’s an additional wrinkle: the bottle can’t be one that’s on the restaurant’s regular wine list.

A case is too much for me. Can I split cases with friends?
If there’s an official policy on this, I’ve not seen or heard about it. In any case, the practice is widespread. Wine tasting groups, including the MWG, do it all the time. Some SAQ employees do too, splitting cases with co-workers and interested customers. Participants on local wine discussion boards regularly post messages looking for people to go in on a case with them. That said, I don’t imagine the authorities (the RACJ more than the SAQ) would look kindly on an individual who tried to turn a profit by reselling private imports.

Are there any special fees?
Not really but… All agencies charge a commission on the products they sell. For some agencies, the commission is included in the price you pay at the SAQ. For other agencies, the SAQ price doesn’t include the commission. When you buy a private import through one of the latter agencies, you’ll pay less than the list price when you pick up the wine but will also receive a bill from the agency to cover the commission (usually called frais de consultation, frais de représentation or frais d’agence).

Is the commission the same for all agencies?
No, and it can vary considerably from agency to agency. Unfortunately, agencies aren’t always upfront about the amount, even when you ask. To avoid unpleasant surprises, when placing an order for a product, you should ask the agent for the all-inclusive price.

Some agencies list two prices for each product, a restaurateur price and a consumer price. What’s up with that? Is the difference the commission?
Restaurateurs also pay the agency’s commission, so the difference isn’t that. But restaurateurs don’t pay GST or QST on liquor sold in their establishment. (Well, technically they do, but they eventually get it back in the form of a tax credit.) So, while the quoted consumer price includes the sales taxes, the quoted restaurateur price doesn’t. However, the difference between the two is a little less than the total of the sales taxes because another Quebec tax on each bottle, the so-called specific tax, is higher for restaurateurs than for consumers (currently $1.97 vs. $0.89 per litre of wine or spirits). Got that?

Can I return a private import that I’ve bought?
Only if the product is defective and only in the 12 months following the SAQ invoice date. You bring the defective bottle (which must be at least 3/4 full) and the invoice to the SAQ outlet. The outlet takes the bottle and fills out a form with your contact information, the invoice number and the reason for the return. The form is then faxed to the SAQ’s Private Import Department, which eventually mails you a refund in the form of a credit note that can be exchanged at an SAQ outlet. Be aware that the SAQ reserves the right to test the returned product to ensure it is defective and, if they decide it isn’t, not to issue a refund. If that happens, you have no further recourse.

What’s the difference between a private import and a private order?
A private import is a wine or other product that is available in Quebec but that has to be ordered through an agency (the so-called private import channel).

Of course, there are lots of products that aren’t represented by a Quebec agency. If you want one of them, the SAQ can special order and import it for you. These are called private orders. You fill out a form, submit it with a hefty deposit and the SAQ does the rest. Note that delivery times can take months, there’s a certain amount of red tape involved and it isn’t cheap. For details, see the private order section of SAQ.com.

UPDATED MAY 8, 2013

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Written by carswell

April 5, 2013 at 12:36

Posted in FAQs

Tagged with ,

6 Responses

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  1. Merci pour la bonne explication. Cyril.

    Cyril kérébel

    April 5, 2013 at 14:33

    • Merci pour tes réponses à mes mille et une questions, Cyril.

      carswell

      April 9, 2013 at 13:11

  2. Contrary to what is stated, all this information IS available on the SAQ website.

    Shawn

    April 16, 2014 at 19:01

    • I’m pretty familiar with the website and, having scoured it once again, find information about private imports nowhere, Shawn. (Private orders are a different matter, as discussed under the last question of the above FAQ.) Can you provide a link or pointer to the page or pages on the SAQ website where the private import information is located? Thanks.

      carswell

      April 16, 2014 at 19:10

  3. How do I become a private importer?

    Marco A.

    June 2, 2016 at 11:42

    • If you want to import a product FOR YOUR PERSONAL USE and the producer isn’t already represented by an agency in Quebec, you can submit a private order request for individuals as outlined in the private order section of SAQ.com and linked to in the last question of the FAQ.

      If you want to import a product TO SELL IN A BAR OR RESTAURANT YOU OPERATE and the producer isn’t already represented by an agency in Quebec, you can submit a private import request for permit holders, as explained in the relevant policy, which will be found on the SAQ-B2B site linked to below.

      If you want to import products TO SELL THROUGH THE PRIVATE IMPORT CHANNEL, you need to meet the requirements set out in the SAQ’s Private Order Policy – Version for Promotional Agents:

      “…an agent is an individual who represents at least one product sold in the SAQ network in Québec, or an individual who, if he does not meet the previously mentioned condition, satisfies the following three requirements:

      a) Submits a private order request;

      b) When placing his first private order request, sends a letter to the SAQ in which the supplier of the ordered product notifies the SAQ that the Agent represents its product in Quebec;

      c) His company is listed in the Régistre des entreprises individuelles, des sociétés et des personnes morales du gouvernement du Québec, and the registration documents indicate that the business operates in Québec in the field of promoting the sale of alcoholic beverages.”

      In other words, you have to form and register a company, a so-called promotional agency (technically not a private importer as the SAQ always does the importing), get the producer of the product you want to have imported to sign an agreement declaring your company to be its Quebec agent and submit a private import request to the SAQ. You also have to pay a deposit and guarantee that you will pay for any unsold bottles. When the product arrives, you have 150 days in which to sell it, after which point a per-bottle penalty on any unsold bottles is applied for the following first 30 days and a double per-bottle penalty for the second 30 days. After the 210 days have elapsed, you have a choice: either buy and take delivery of the unsold bottles yourself or cover the SAQ’s cost for them and allow the SAQ to destroy or otherwise dispose of them.

      Details and forms can be found on the SAQ-B2B site: http://www.saq-b2b.com/wx/en/MEMBERSZONE.PRESENTATION.STATIC_PAGES_DISPLAY_PREP/PRIVATE_ORDERS

      carswell

      June 2, 2016 at 13:58


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