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 store telling you your wine has arrived. You drop by the store, pay for your bottles and take them home with you.
Yes, ordering private imports can be as simple and straightforward as that. 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 the following FAQ on the ins and outs of ordering wines through the private import channel.
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 store, 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.).
And don’t take the “import” too seriously. Though most private imports are foreign products, plenty of Canadian and even Quebec products are available only on a private import basis.
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.
- The SAQ may consider a product too obscure 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 many 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 stores, 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 stores, 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 buy a private import?
It has become pretty effortless in recent years.
- Find out which agency represents the producer (see below).
- Contact the agency and, assuming the product is available, order a case (or more!) of it. You’ll also need to provide your contact information and specify which SAQ store you want it delivered to. The list of stores that handle private imports is here (PDF file that opens in a new window).
- A week or two later, after you receive a call informing you that your private import has arrived, drop by the store, take delivery of the order and pay for it like you would for any other product. The store 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.
- Note, too, that Quebec-based agencies represent only a small fraction of the products made worldwide. The only way to obtain an unrepresented product is to have the SAQ import it for you. See “What’s the difference between a private import and a private order?” below.
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.
However, there are two exceptions to the only-by-the-case rule.
First, at a few major wine shows, in particular RASPIPAV’s Salon des vins d’importation privée, some of the wines being poured can be purchased by the bottle. You order and pay for the wines at the show and receive them at home or work a couple of weeks later.
Second, 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. And 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, before 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 purchased for use 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 wine and spirits, the so-called specific tax, is higher for restaurateurs than for consumers (currently $1.97 vs. $0.89 per litre). 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 one of the designated SAQ stores. The store 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 redeemed at an SAQ store. 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 product that is available in Quebec but 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 – confusingly – called private orders. You fill out a form, submit it with a hefty deposit and the SAQ does the rest. Note that delivery 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 November 25, 2014