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Rumour confirmed

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For those of us outside the SAQ, trying to understand the machinations, motives and plans of the company’s decision-makers is like being an inmate in Plato’s cave. Sitting with our backs to the entrance and forced to face a wall, we attempt to divine what is happening beyond the cave by studying the shadows the actors cast upon the wall.

For several years now, the shadows have seemed to indicate that the SAQ was preparing to make a major shift in its sales model: to begin selling private imports directly to consumers (instead of forcing them to pass through an agency) and to stop requiring that all private imports be purchased by the case.

Though rumours to that effect abounded, concrete signs were few. One of the earliest was the announcement that the SAQ intended to double its offer from the current 12,000 or so products to somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 products in the next few years. How could it quickly and cost-effectively pull that off without massively expanding its store network, sales force and supply chain? Selling private imports online seemed the only answer. That in the neighbourhood of 10,000 to 15,000 products are currently available through the private import channel – exactly the number needed to pull off the trick – lent credence to the hypothesis.

Other signs? The monopoly’s increasing focus on online sales, including its recent introduction of products available only on The roll-out of the Click, Purchase, Pick Up service. Factoids like the Montreal Distribution Centre’s reportedly setting aside a large area for an unspecified purpose.

In an interview with Bill Zacharkiw in today’s Gazette, Alain Brunet, the SAQ’s president and CEO, finally puts the rumours to rest (emphasis mine):

BZ: Now we are seeing a complete fragmentation of the market. Go to any wine bar or fine restaurant, and the vast majority of wines on the list aren’t even available at the SAQ, only as private imports. I don’t even know most of these wines.

AB: The private import market has really developed over the past five to 10 years. Over 70 per cent of the sales of private import wines are restaurants.

BZ: But that’s mostly due to restrictive policies that allow these wines to be purchased only by the case, which limits the individual consumer access to all this choice.

AB: We know this is an important trend and it’s over a $125-million business. We aren’t trying to slow it down; in fact, we want to accelerate it. What we have lacked is an effective way to distribute all these niche products. Now we have the technology, and within two years our goal is to have all wines available by the bottle on

Insiders I’ve spoken to say the target launch date is the fall of 2018.

Agents I’ve spoken to don’t appear particularly excited about the concept. Then again, like the rest of us, they’ve been kept in the dark and have little idea of how it might work. That being said, most feel it is unlikely that every product in the private import channel will be available through

This change and the overall push toward online sales will probably have major implications for the SAQ’s store network. Look for some thoughts on that in a future post.

Written by carswell

February 25, 2017 at 11:23

Posted in Commentary, News

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The horse he rode in on

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Emilia Rosso 2014, Trebbiolo, La Stoppa ($23.10, 11896501)
A blend of Barbera (60%) and Bonarda (40%) from organically farmed three- to 20-year-old vines. Fermented with indigenous yeasts. Matured five months in stainless steel. Unfiltered and unfined. A small squirt of sulphur dioxide is added at bottling. Reducing sugar: 1.5 g/l. 13% ABV. Quebec agent: oenopole.
Some barnyardy funk on opening but also mulberry, raspberry candies, old wood, earth and hints of game and papier d’Arménie. As is sometimes the case with this cuvée, there’s a bit of spritz that mostly dissipates, especially if the wine is carafed. That aside, it’s medium-bodied and very dry, full of tangy fruit, tart acidity and medium tannins with a nice rasp and an appealing astringency that lingers through the minerally finish. Virtually begs for casual fare – think pizza, sausages, grilled pork – and can handle tomato with aplomb. Just don’t serve it too warm. A return to form after the verging on off-dry 2013, this has some of the rustic appeal of the much missed Gutturnio, which cuvée it replaces. (Buy again? In multiples.)

Preparing this note for posting has my mouth watering, so much did I enjoy the wine. Several friends have also expressed delight with the 2014 (“back to being eminently quaffable” to quote one of them). All of which gives the lie to another local blogger’s claim that (translating here and below) “No one could like this. Undrinkable!”, something said blogger knows is untrue as he goes on to cherry-pick Cellartracker comments in support of his position while ignoring the majority of favourable reviews appearing alongside them. (Not that I place stock in scores, but the Cellartracker average is 89 points for the 2013 and 2014 and 87 points for the 2012. Wine Spectator reportedly rated it 89 points. Hardly undrinkable.)

Maybe the wine’s not to the blogger’s taste. Fine: de gustibus non disputandum est. Maybe he doesn’t “get” natural wines. Maybe he is unaware that wines from this area and nearby parts of Piedmont sometimes have – and are prized for – the funky, fizzy qualities he objects to. Maybe his particular bottle was actually defective, a possibility that doesn’t appear to have occurred to him. Or maybe his declaring not just his bottle but every bottle to be a “foul horse,” his suggesting that the winemaker, agent and SAQ were asleep at the switch, his screaming in all caps that the wine should “be withdrawn at once” point to another agenda.

Notwithstanding such irresponsible reporting, the 2014 Trebbiolo has been selling well and is already in low supply at or long gone from stores like the Laurier and Beaubien Sélections, whose customers tend to be more clued-in than others. If you look, you’ll find bottles here and there on the island in addition to the 60 or so on And if it’s the kind of wine that pushes your buttons, look you should.

Written by carswell

October 7, 2016 at 15:17

Cause for regret

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Bardolino Classico 2014, Tacchetto, Guerrieri Rizzardi ($19.50, 12132465)
Corvina (80%), Merlot (10%) and Rondinella (10%) from vines averaging five to 42 years old and grown in the dry-farmed Tachetto vineyard. The grapes are picked by machine and hand and destemmed. Fermentation at 25-30°C with selected yeasts lasts 10 to 15 days. Matured three to six months off the lees. Sees only stainless steel until bottling. Filtered. Reducing sugar: 3.8 g/l. 13% ABV. Quebec agent: Valmonti.
Lilting nose of funky cherry, fall leaves and sandalwood spice. In the mouth, it’s a featherweight, a caress of faintly sweet-and-sour fruit, fluid acidity and gossamer tannins that lend an ephemeral astringency to the finish. A light wash of mineral and wood flavours adds interest but not enough to stop you from thinking there’s not much there there. Serve lightly chilled. (Buy again? Probably not but… see below.)

While I didn’t taste them side by side, this 2014 initially seemed paler, sweeter and less alluring than the 2013, which I rather liked (“dry, tart, supple tannins, clean finish, moreish” per my May 2015 note). After Sunday dinner, I transferred the remaining wine into a half bottle (filling it right up), corked the bottle and stuck it in the fridge overnight. And lo, the wine was better the next day – slightly rounder and more vibrant, with the morello cherry to the fore – maybe even better enough to convince me to buy a second bottle.

And yet, as enjoyable as this and similar wines can be, I increasingly find drinking them a cause for regret – regret at what might have been. That point was driven home by a bottle of Ca’ de Noci‘s Sottobosco, a “natural” Lambrusco in everything but name, savoured the evening before I opened the Rizzardi. Though similar in weight and application, the Sottobosco delivered energy, refreshment, personality, engagement, charm and satisfaction that made the Bardolino pale in comparison. Imagine what the Tacchetto could be if the vineyard was farmed organically, if the yields were less than 85 hl/ha, if the grapes were picked only by hand, if native yeasts were used for fermentation, if intervention in the cellar was minimized, if the wine was bottled unfiltered and unsulphured. Unfortunately, at this point, imagine is all we can do.

Written by carswell

November 27, 2015 at 13:27

The SAQ does natural wines – part 3

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The mystery wine is brought out in a decanter. The bouquet wafts around the table even as the glasses are poured. And what a lovely bouquet it is, a mix of crushed blackberry and blackberry jam with hints of pumice dust, smoke and game and a floral note pitched somewhere between violet and rose. In the mouth, the wine is fresh and pure, medium-bodied and supple, filled with sun-ripe yet ethereal fruit, dusty minerals and juicy acidity, framed by springy tannins that persist through a long, savoury finish. What can it be?

The wine’s solar quality has us immediately eliminating northern climes. After dallying with southern France and considering the flavour profile, we turn our attention to Italy. The fine structure and excellent balance are not unlike those of a Nebbiolo, yet the taste isn’t Baroloesque and that touch of jamminess seems incongruous. The host demands a guess. A newfangled Piedmont blend from a hot vintage?

The answer – and some thoughts about the SAQ’s first ever natural wine operation – are after the jump.

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Written by carswell

June 1, 2015 at 15:58

Privateimportize the SAQ!

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Every few months there’s a wave of talk about privatizing the SAQ. Regardless of your feelings on the subject (I see at least as many downs as ups and suspect the idea is dead in the water because the unions won’t stand for it), if it ever happens, it won’t be soon.

In the meantime, here’s a modest proposal that would go some way toward assuaging those who disparage the monopoly’s purportedly pathetic selection: privateimportize the SAQ.

How would it work?

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Written by carswell

June 11, 2013 at 20:04

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The case of the missing Noilly Prat

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Ask people to name the different types of vermouth and most will probably answer red and white. Actually, vermouths are divided into three main styles: Provençal, Savoie and Italian. (In fact, it’s even more complicated than that; see here for details.)

The first of these styles, the Provençal, is generally considered the most complex. And the last remaining representative of the style is Noilly Prat.

Straw-coloured Noilly Prat Original Dry is arguably the quintessential ingredient for a classic dry martini. Many martini recipes specify it by name while leaving the choice of gin up to the mixologist. As the New American Bartender’s Handbook says, “No martini should be made without a splash of this.” What’s more, Noilly Prat Original Dry is a key ingredient in several Provençal dishes, especially fish dishes. T. S. Eliot even named one of his cats after it. The lighter, more delicate Savoie vermouths can be delicious but they lack Noilly Prat’s heft. Italian dry vermouths tend to be sweeter, heavier and less refined. The bottom line: Noilly Prat is both an icon and an essential addition to any self-respecting liquor cabinet.

And it isn’t available in Quebec or Ontario.

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Written by carswell

May 25, 2013 at 12:28

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MWG March 8th tasting (1/5): Four Campanian whites

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While this was technically a Cellier tasting, only two bottles from the March 7th release made it into the wine-up: Mastroberardino’s Falanghina and Umani Ronchi’s Verdicchio.

All four wines in the first flight were made similarly: fermented (for a couple of weeks) and matured (for a few months) in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. If the estate favours organic farming, uses native yeasts and avoids manipulation, fining, filtering and sulphur dioxide in the winery, they certainly don’t trumpet it.

Greco di Tufo 2011, Mastroberardino ($22.10, 00411751)
100% Greco di Tufo from c. 15-year-old vines. 12.5% ABV.
Muted nose of lemon-lime and chalk. Smooth and rainwatery on the palate, with stealth acidity and a bitter undercurrent. Wax and pear flavours linger though the tingly finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio 2011, Mastroberardino ($19.20, 00972877)
100% Coda di Volpe from c. 20-year-old wines. 12.5% ABV.
Straw, pear, hot stones and something floral. Slightly denser than the Greco, drier, more savoury. High in acidity and lean on fruit. Lemon-pithy, minerally finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

IGT Irpinia 2011, Morabianca, Falanghina, Mastroberardino ($19.75, 11873026)
100% Falanghina from c. six-year-old vines. 13.5% ABV.
Fragrant nose: mostly lemon blossom with some faint candied pineapple and a whiff of what one taster pegged as “freezer ice.” Probably the driest of the four. Underripe stone fruit sprinkled with lemon juice and set on sea shells. Bitter, puckery finish. (Buy again? Maybe.)

Fiano di Avellino 2011, Mastroberardino ($22.10, 00972851)
100% Fiano di Avellino from c. 15-year-old vines. 12.5% ABV.
Lime leaf, green pear, sweet pumpkin, bath salts, hazelnut skins. Somewhat less acidic and bitter than the others but also more saline. Pear and a little honey. Sustained finish. Balanced and refreshing. (Buy again? Definite maybe.)

As a concept, this flight had enormous appeal: four mono-varietals from four different Campanian grape varieties from the same vintage and made in the same way (cleanly in stainless steel, with no interfering oak) by the same producer. In practice, the flight was a study in shadings more than colours. On the plus side, all the wines were technically flawless and quite drinkable. And yet a little more personality wouldn’t have been out of place. It’s not as if they have to be low on character: Feudi di San Gregorio’s Fianos, for example, have character in spades and Mastroberadino’s high-end bottlings may well too. But we don’t have access to those, do we? As it is, these impeccably made but somewhat nondescript whites will work as an aperitif or an accompaniment to simply prepared seafood.

Speaking of Feudi di San Gregorio, has the SAQ dropped their products from its catalogue? If so, it’s a shame. The monopoly’s current Campania selection is small and dominated by one producer (Mastroberardino) and by affordable but relatively insipid bottlings, especially on the white side. With more than 100 indigenous grape varieties and a couple of thousand producers, the region is a potential source of a wealth of authentic wines. Yet we’re limited to a handful of mostly innocuous reds and whites from an even smaller handful of producers. Why?

Written by carswell

March 15, 2013 at 11:04

Sweet and low

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Riesling 2011, Mosel Qualitätswein, Mönchhof (Robert Eymael) ($18.60, 11334920)
Mönchhof’s so-called estate Riesling. Most of the fruit comes from the renowned Würtzgarten vineyard in the town of Ürzig. 9.5% ABV according to the label; 9% according to Whatever. It’s low.
Faint sulphury matchstick aroma blows off leaving a subtley complex nose: chalk, lemon-lime, white flowers, hints of roast chicken juices and petrol. Light, tingly and a shade sweeter than off-dry. Apple and lemon with minerals and spice in the background. Bright acidity sours and saves the finish. With more presence than the Dr. L, this worked well enough with stir-fried shrimp in garlic chile sauce, though I wouldn’t have complained had it been drier.

Mini rant: What is it about German wineries that prevents them from providing even minimal technical information on their products? Want to know where and how the grapes are grown, how old the vines are, how they’re pressed, what kind of yeasts are used, what kind of containers the wine is fermented and aged in, whether malolactic fermentation is stopped, whether the wines are filtered, fined, sulphured or cold-stabilized? You won’t find any answers on the Mönchhof or Loosen websites and precious few from their distributors and retailers. Who do they think they are? PECers?!

Written by carswell

February 20, 2013 at 10:14

The new cons (miscellaneous)

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Product pages

  • Vintages are no longer shown for inexpensive wines.
  • Wines in outlets may not be the vintage shown online or, when two or more vintages are available, no vintage may be shown online.
  • The product info doesn’t include a link to the producer’s website. (EDIT 13/02/17: Looks like they’re doing it for some large producers, e.g. Cousiño-Macul.)
  • The product info doesn’t include the agency that represents the producer in Quebec.
  • The information for specific products (taste tags, tasting notes, drinkability windows, etc.) appears to be one-size-fits-all-vintages.


  • There’s no “wish list” or “favourites” function. Want to make a shopping list to take with you to the store? You’re going to have to print each product’s info or availability page or copy and paste the names into a word processor or another application.
  • There’s very little in the way of personalization aside from a “favourite outlets” list.
  • Why doesn’t the site remember my postal code? Or point me to the nearest outlet that has the product when none of my selected outlets does? Or adapt its product suggestions to my search and purchase history? Amazon can do this but not the SAQ?

Weak translations

  • The “practical tools” should be useful tools.
  • Mead is here called “honey wine.” Go figure.
  • No anglophone would ever say “terroir product,” which should probably be translated as Quebec product.
  • The alcool category should be called the neutral grain spirit (or neutral alcohol) category in English; instead it’s “alcohol.”
  • “Empyreumatic” means nothing to 99.9% of anglos, isn’t found in most dictionaries (e.g. the Canadian Oxford and Merriam Webster’s, though it is defined on and would be better rendered as charred or burned aromas.
  • One of the price ranges is “$40.00 and more.” “$40.00 and over” sounds more idomatic to me.
  • Literally topping them all, the HTML title “Wines, alcohols & spirits” is a calque of the French Vins, alcools, spiritueux. Do anglos even use “alcohols” in everyday speech? And, regardless, what can it possibly mean here? A better translation would surely be something like “Wine, beer and spirits” or “Wine and liquor.”

Assorted WTFs

  • No info is provided on how to order and return private imports, which account for a significant and growing percentage of the SAQ’s sales, especially among buyers of specialty products.
  • There’s no direct link to the online shop. You have to click a product category (e.g. wine) and then filter the results by selecting the online option.
  • People who use the online shop complain that they can’t save a session and return to complete it later.
  • Since the Our Suggestions products do not reflect the user’s preferences (as established by his/her search and purchase history), they’re useless. They’ve got nothing to do with products you might like, everything to do with products the SAQ wants to move. “Featured products” would be a more honest description. And, just wondering, but does the SAQ charge producers/agencies to display their products here?

Written by carswell

February 14, 2013 at 12:24

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The new cons (search engine and results)

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While searches are much improved on the new site, they’re far from perfect.

  • The typing cursor used to default to the search box on every page. Now it doesn’t. You now have to click the search box before entering your search string. Why?
  • The search engine doesn’t recognize Boolean or other operators. The search string alsace -riesling displays – wait for it – Rieslings. Why can’t I search for every Alsatian product that isn’t a Riesling?
  • From the search results page, you used to be able to get to the Availability in Outlets page with one click. Now if you click the Available in Outlets bar under the product’s picture, it takes you to the product info page, where you then have to click the Availability in Outlets button.
  • Narrowing the search results down to a district of a city used to require selecting an option from a single drop-down menu. Now it requires selecting a option from two drop-down menus (more clicks, more mousing).
  • The search results take up far more real estate. On my monitor at the site’s default size setting, I see the full results for a grand total of four products and partial results for four more. To see the remaining 12 products (at the default setting of 20 results per page), I have to scroll.
  • You can’t select more than one option in a filter. If you want to know which champagnes are available in 375 ml and 500 ml formats, you have to do two searches.
  • The Price filter tops out at $40. That’s too low a bar these days: there are currently more than 3,000 wines that meet that description! I’m often asked to recommend an expensive bottle to mark a wine lover’s birthday or anniversary, so it’s clear people would find it useful to search for bottles priced between, say $75 and $125. Or sparklers over $150. You can’t do that now.
  • The Price filter brackets over $20 are too broad: $20.00 to $29.99; $30.00 to $39.99; $40 and more. At the very least, the ranges should be in increments of $4.99.
  • On the other hand, why not just let users set their own price range parameters? It’s not hard to imagine people looking for wines that cost, say, $30 give or take a couple of bucks. Why can’t they set the price range filter for $28 to $32? As it stands now, they’d have to do a search for bottles between $20 and $29.99 and then another search for bottles between $30 and $39.99 and then sort each set of results by price. Same thing if you’re looking for a product between $20 and $40. Ridiculous!
  • When you search for a product’s availability based on your postal code or district, the results are displayed as a list. Why not on a map?
  • You still can’t display a given outlet’s inventory (reportedly to come in a future version).
  • ADDED 13/02/18: The product descriptions on the Availability in Outlets pages have been condensed to the point of obscurity. For example, take the two currently available wines from Clos Canarelli. Vintage, price and SAQ code aside, the descriptions for the red and white are identical. Unless you remember that the red is the 2010, say, or the white runs $39.25, you’re not going to know which product’s availability you’re looking at. The description on the product info page includes the category (e.g. red wine) and size (e.g. 750 ml). Why not include them on the availability page too?
  • ADDED 13/06/09: The search engine distinguishes between accented and unaccented characters. It shouldn’t. Many anglos (and quite a few francos) don’t type accents or don’t know how to. Confounding the issue, the SAQ is inconsistent, sometimes spelling Barmès (as in Barmès Buecher) with the accent and other times without. As a result, searching for barmès currently finds four wines (three of them from Barmès Buecher) while searching for barmes finds three different Barmès Buecher wines. In an ideal world, searching for barmès or barmes would turn up all seven wines.
  • ADDED 13/07/31: Language discrimination! Plug Noilly into the French search engine and you’ll get back: Cinzano extra sec, Martini sec and Stock extra sec. Plug it into the English engine and you’ll get back zilch.

Written by carswell

February 14, 2013 at 12:08

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