“So Jim, you are going to become a wine importer are you? Well, the perks are wonderful, but you won’t make any money.” — John Tait, former manager of the Sherwood Park LCBO Vintages store, Toronto.
It was more than a decade ago. We had had a most enjoyable and successful visit to the wine fairs in Cannes and Montpellier where we sought wineries for our embryonic wine importing agency (check out the Gentleman’s Portion archives for all the delicious details). Not only did we have a grand time, but we had picked up a more than a dozen wineries and a huge order. Boy, were we going to prove our old friend John wrong.
Here’s how our great good fortune in respect to the order came about. We had met Marie-Pierre Bories, owner of Domaine de Blanes at the exclusive three day pre-Vinisud tasting event in Cannes. There she had agreed to sign on as one of our wineries. Then a few days later we met again at Vinisud in Montpellier where she gave us the exciting news. Courtenay Wint, Head of European Wines, General Listings for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), who had been strutting his stuff in Cannes, told her that the LCBO was prepared to give her a very large order for her splendid 2001 Côtes du Roussillon, a wondrous blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. All her Ontario agent (me) had to do was to contact Claudius Fehr, Head of European Wines, Vintages and the order would be ours.
I had barely gotten off the plane back in Toronto when I called Mr. Fehr. I had heard about him and knew he was a legend in the Ontario wine world. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, he emigrated to Canada in 1962 and earned an honours Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto in 1969. He joined the LCBO as a product consultant in 1972 and moved on to the new Vintages department in the early 80s. He was well-respected for his knowledge and passion for fine wines.
I addressed him as Mr. Fehr when he answered the phone, but he immediately insisted that I call him Claudius. This was a most propitious start. As I explained the purpose of my call, I could hear him gently chuckle at the other end of the line. “Jim,” he explained, “it doesn’t work like that. We send out requests for proposals on a periodic basis and you respond if you have appropriate products that might be of interest to us.” “You mean that what Mr. Wint said to Marie-Pierre Bories was incorrect!” I exclaimed in astonishment. There was that good-natured chuckle again. “I’m afraid so. Let’s just say that there was a little misunderstanding. But, I do wish you all the best with your new agency and please do drop in and say hi the next time you visit our offices.” Sadly, I never got the chance because he retired shortly thereafter.
Well, so much for the huge order. So far, John Tait’s prophetic words were right on target. The next order of business was to set up our wine club that we had dubbed Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club, a play on my middle two names, Arthur and Sellers. We wanted to operate a wine club for two reasons: to make certain that we and our friends had access to the wonderful wines we had discovered in southern France; and to keep our newly acquired wineries content with regular business as we awaited the LCBO bonanza orders that would surely come. But, how to get a wine club sanctioned by the LCBO?
It turned out that in order to be registered as a wine club we had to provide the LCBO with a list of our members along with their addresses and phone numbers. Another Catch 22 moment! How do we get folks to sign up for a wine club that doesn’t exist? It proved to be remarkably easy. I simply sent out a sign-up notice to the 111 names on my email contact list. Surprisingly, 110 of them agreed to become members. I presented the list to the LCBO and within a couple of weeks we were granted permission to commence operations.
There were a number of operational issues to work out. I needed a logo and turned to our dear friend Brenda Murray to design one for us. Instead, she presented us with four which you see here.
Brenda preferred the third one from the left (I thought it looked like a guy using a urinal). We chose the first one on the left. Then she developed these two business cards. We sent them out to each of our new Members and asked which they preferred. The overwhelming choice was the glass.
Next we needed an operating system, one that would allow our members to order and pay online and help them, and us, keep track of the flood of orders that we hoped would come. I turned to ex-business colleague and good pal Jamie Winterhalt who happened to be something of a systems guru and wine aficionado as well. He created a nifty operating system that effectively knitted our little enterprise into an efficient whole. And, he looked after our electronic newsletter publishing as well.
How were we to get the wine to our members once the wine had crossed the Atlantic and been cleared by the LCBO? It turned out that the LCBO would send the out-of-town members’ wine to an LCBO retail store of their choosing. Out-of-town meant anywhere but in the downtown Toronto area defined by Lake Ontario, Highway 427, Highway 401 and the Don Valley Parkway. Downtown members would have to pick up their wine at the LCBO loading docks at 33 Freeland Street just off Queens Quay between 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM, Monday to Friday, jostling with all we agents picking up our payloads. I thought that this was pretty crummy service for our Toronto members, so I decided that we would deliver the wine to these folks’ homes. We determined that the best time to do this was on Sunday mornings when traffic was the lightest.
Our ancient Chevy Lumina APV had done yeoman’s service transporting our family and dogs around, but it wasn’t up to the task of being a delivery truck for 40 or 50 cases of Miss Sailor Blue, my trusted delivery companion wine. So, with the finagling assistance of eldest daughter Kate, I scoured the local dealerships in search of an appropriate vehicle. Kate had prepared a detailed shopping list and actively discouraged me from selecting a perfectly serviceable wagon (“Horrible front end, Dad”) or a suitable van (“The payload is way too small, Dad”). Last on her list was the Land Rover dealer. There on the lot was a gleaming black Range Rover HSE. Kate’s demeanor changed abruptly. “This is just perfect, Dad.” Funny, she had already decided on its nickname – ‘Big Ben’! So our delivery vehicle had been secured. It would prove to be a most worthy and stalwart chariot. And, when Hélène couldn’t ride shotgun on our Sunday delivery runs, Miss Sailor Blue was more than happy to take her place.
All of this reminiscing and writing worked up a barely tolerable thirst. So I trotted down to ‘Arthur’s Cellar’ in search of something appropriate to slake my parched throat. On the way I was, for some reason, reminded of a Brigitte Bardot quote, “Champagne is the one thing that gives me zest when I feel tired.” I am sure you can understand why I decided to select a bubbly. A 1998 Vintage 1er Cru Brut from Champagne Forget-Brimont was chosen to make the ultimate sacrifice. Crafted from 60 per cent Chardonnay and 40 per cent Pinot Noir, this wine was a blend of Têtes de Cuvée (the best wines) made from grapes grown and harvested in 1998 (1er Cru and Grand Cru grapes only!) and kept in the Forget-Brimont cellars for more than five years (and in mine for a further 13). In the glass, the beautiful luminous golden colour provided an ideal backdrop for its steady stream of tiny bubbles. It had a complex nose of stewed fruits, toasted bread, hazelnuts, almonds and vanilla. A wonderfully mature, round wine with a silky finish it would be perfect companion for roasted chicken, foie gras or sweetbreads with morels. This elegant fizz cost but $49 when we presented it to our wine club a decade ago.
I see it is time to pack it up for another few weeks. When I come back I will tell you more about our initial encounters with the LCBO and the first winery we introduced to our wine club, Château Saint Jacques d’Albas. Cheers!
PS: Click here to find out about our current wine club offerings; some tasty little devils await!