Our wine scribe, Jim Walker, uncovered more than a long forgotten bottle when he plumbed the depths of his wine cellar.
A little while ago I was rummaging around in my wine cellar. As I poked away in the dark recesses, behind the cobwebs, mould and other nastiness I came upon a particularly gnarly bottle. “Hello, what’s this?” I muttered. As I scraped away the dust and grime I discovered it was a 1975 Château Giscours! And, the price tag was still on it … $7.99 – Century Discount Liquors. I know I didn’t pay that much because the proprietor would have accompanied me to the cash register and have knocked the price down by at least 10 per cent. Man, did that bottle bring back memories.
It all began back in the early eighties when my brother Doug called to say that, while on a training course at Kodak in Rochester, New York, he had stumbled (this can well be taken quite literally) upon a somewhat dingy wine store that had more great wine from more top vintages at better prices than quite possibly anywhere else on the planet. Further, he went on breathlessly, the owner, someone named Sherwood Deutsch was very, very knowledgeable and also very, very hospitable. I accused my sibling of having spent too much time in the presence of Kodak’s developing fluids and dismissed him as quickly as I could. But he persisted and finally persuaded Dad (perhaps even more sceptical than I) and me to accompany him on a trek to this purported vinous Valhalla.
We rendezvoused at the Holiday Inn in Burlington (at the time I lived in Montreal, Doug in London, Ontario, and Dad in Oshawa) and headed off in one car to Rochester. Crossing the border was a breeze. We stopped by the Tops Friendly Markets in Lewiston where we stocked up on Tone hand soap (a favourite of Dad’s) and a large tin of Blue Diamond Roasted Salted Almonds to sustain us for the remainder of our journey (I must confess that a couple bottles of Michelob might also found their way into our shopping bag). Then it was on to Smokin Joes for cheap gas and cigarettes before finding ourselves on Route 104 (also known as Ridge Road) where the farmland and lovely houses clad in round stones whizzed by. After an hour or so we knew we were not far from our destination as gas stations, fast food joints and strip malls (one with a Walmart) imposed themselves on our scenic route. All of a sudden, there it was, Century Discount Liquor and Wines, the flagship store of the rather grotty West Ridge Plaza.
Before I go any further, let me tell you how this vinous emporium came to be. Its owner, Sherwood Deutsch graduated from the University of Buffalo College of Pharmacy in 1955 and opened a small pharmacy called Sherwood Drugs in the West Ridge Plaza. In time an enterprising liquor salesman called on him and noted that, as a pharmacist, he was entitled to sell products containing alcohol of sufficient strength to include wine. “Why not set up a couple of racks of wine at the front of your store to create more traffic and revenue?” he suggested. “Sure, but how should I price the wine?” Sherwood asked. It should be noted that the salesman’s mother didn’t raise no fool as his reply demonstrated, “Mark them up minimally and advertise that you are selling them at a discount.” This worked marvellously. Soon there were four racks, then eight and soon Sherwood took over a little store a couple of doors down and devoted it to liquor sales (at a discount, natch). The customer line-ups literally went out the door. However, at the time and unbeknownst to Sherwood, selling liquor at a discount was illegal in the State of New York. He was called before the courts and eventually he and his lawyer were successful in having the law rescinded. Business thrived to the point that he closed his drug store and moved his discount liquor business into a vacated A&P store. And this was the establishment into which Doug, Dad and I entered on that fateful day.
Gasp! It was everything Doug said it would be. Row upon row of booze as far as the eye could see. Mountains of hard liquor, stacks of cordials and heaps of wine everywhere. Proudly displayed on the left side and back walls on their dark wood shelves were the treasures, wines that up to that moment we could only dream about. This was quite something, for back in Ontario we were used to filling out little chits for unseen hooch that was ultimately presented to us in brown paper bags.
After a brief reconnoitre, we had need of a bio-break (must have been the almonds). The washroom was located at the bottom of a creaky stairway in the case-filled basement. Once inside, we had to squeeze our way around piles of well-aged Pétrus sitting in their beautiful wooden boxes in order to use the facilities. Where else would you find stacks of one of the world’s most costly wines in the privy?
Later, as we were poking around in the fine wine corner, a smiling fellow approached us and asked in a most remarkable New York twang if we would like any help. It was Sherwood. Many called him Woody but that didn’t seem right to us. We always called him Sherwood. One thing led to another and soon we were all seated in his back storage room cum office that was a jumble of open cartons, bottles and wine paraphernalia. He opened a bottle of 1er Cru Burgundy (he was particular to the wines of Burgundy) which we happily sipped as we chatted away. Nothing like this ever happened at the LCBO. It was getting on to lunchtime and we asked Sherwood if there was a nearby restaurant that he would recommend. “Sure,” he said, “Gigi’s just a few doors down. They’ll let you bring your own wine in to enjoy with lunch, no charge.” So we selected a couple of bottles and trotted over to Gigi’s.
As the name implied, Gigi’s was an Italian restaurant. It was dark, cozy and smelled terrific. We selected Clams Casino to start and convinced the server to let us have the sirloin steak from the dinner menu.
Now let me tell you about the wines. We started proceedings with a 1978 Meursault-Genévrières from J.-F. Coche-Dury, a premier cru white wine from Burgundy. It was unlike any white wine I had ever tasted. To say it blew me away would be an understatement. It was a lovely pale yellow colour. The nose, concentrated and elegant, was reminiscent of almonds, warm bread just out of the oven, fine spices and finally candied tropical fruit. In the mouth it was both ample and generous, developing aromas of vanilla mingling with citrus notes. The lovely aftertaste seemed endless.
The second wine to make the ultimate sacrifice was a 1960 Léoville-Barton, a Second Growth Saint-Julien from Bordeaux. I just loved the label with its splendid warthog and could never understand why they abandoned it in later years. (Actually, they have recently brought it back, but on their second-label wine.) It was a dark ruby/garnet with a ripe, complex nose of black currants, vanilla, cedar, fruitcake, tobacco and minerals. Only 12.5 per cent alcohol by volume, it was medium-bodied and remarkably sweet with lovely soft tannins. It was a wonderful companion for Gigi’s perfectly prepared bit of beef.
As an aside, we always offered our servers and the proprietor (if available) a glass of the wine we were relishing. It just seemed like the right thing to do and it usually personalized and thereby enhanced our dining experiences.
We repaired back to Sherwood’s world of wine immediately following lunch to select the treasures we would be bringing home. Doing this right after a two-bottle wine lunch is not necessarily the smartest plan of attack, for we quickly filled up two shopping carts of succulent little devils, with Sherwood’s help, of course. We then proceeded to the cash registers where Mr. Deutsch intervened by further marking down the already bargain basement prices. Nevertheless, we vowed to never show our wives our respective VISA bills!
The ride back was uneventful and crossing the border was a cinch. We paid duty of a little over two dollars a bottle that, while annoying, still left the excursion more than worth it. What a grand introduction to that vinous treasure trove in Rochester: Century Discount Liquor and Wines.
The three of us repeated this routine, little changed for several years, making the trek two or three times annually. But, one day as we drove into the West Ridge Plaza we had a nasty surprise. To our horror, Gigi’s had been closed and something called Bathtub Billy’s Restaurant and Sports Bar had emerged in its place. This was hardly the environment in which to savour fine Burgundy and Bordeaux. Someone in Century mentioned that there was a very good restaurant in Lewiston and we thought that would be a fine place for a late lunch. Why, we’d be more than half way home and already have purchased our wine. We had selected a 1987 Ch. Haut Brion and a 1987 Ch. Lafite Rothschild as our luncheon libation. That year was deemed a poor vintage in Bordeaux and hence they were affordable. But alas, when we found the restaurant it turned out to be closed: open only for dinner. We searched for an alternative and all we could find was a McDonalds! So, we bought three Big Mac Meals and stopped in a local park where we poured out the Cokes and happily sipped our First Growths as we munched on our burgers. Now you might well think this a rather odd combination. But it turns out that Big Macs and Ch. Margaux were favorite luncheon fare of Malcolm Forbes, who would reply when anyone had the effrontery to ask him about it, “If you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it.”
On a subsequent visit to Lewiston we discovered Apple Granny, a family-style restaurant that featured home-made comfort food and a most congenial atmosphere for slurping Sherwood’s latest recommendations (no corkage fees). We enjoyed many a fine meal at this marvellous establishment on numerous subsequent expeditions to Century Discount Liquors and Wines. But, alas, it seems that all good things must come to an end. Here is a reprint of an article written by Joseph Ward for The Financial Post, January 16, 1993, titled ‘Ontario unveils a nasty surprise.’
Ontario wine lovers, unhappy with the limited selection provided by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, have traditionally found the wines they covet in Buffalo, Rochester or Detroit. In an unpleasant New Year’s surprise, however, the provincial government has decided to stop this trade by imposing a prohibitive tariff on purchases made outside Canada. Beginning February 1, all wine beyond the one-litre duty-free allowance will be subject to a 39.6 per cent tariff on entry into Ontario. The markup will be calculated on the retail price plus federal excise duties, and GST.
The LCBO, unable to serve the fine wine market properly, prefers punishing the consumer over reforming itself. Make no mistake: this is not an attempt to tap a vast revenue source.
“Its primary effect is to deter cross-border shopping,” says Robert Dutton, the LCBO’s director of economic policy and planning, “Revenue considerations are secondary.” According to Dutton, the LCBO did not consult anyone in the trade – or any of its customers – before deciding on this punitive tax. Astonishingly, there was no discussion about grandfathering purchases made prior to the introduction of the bill.
How blessedly arrogant is life in a monopoly.
Thus ended our glorious excursions to Sherwood’s to buy his fine wines and enjoy his wonderful hospitality. Thank goodness we had the opportunity that we did and for all the grand experiences along the way. Sherwood sold Century Discount Liquors and Wines to the Wegman family a few years ago, but still shows up most afternoons at the impressive new premises to greet old friends (of which he has legions). He speaks very highly of his association with the Wegmans. And, not too long ago he donated a million dollars to his alma mater, the University of Buffalo College of Pharmacy.
Yes, we discovered our vinous Valhalla, but more importantly we found Sherwood Deutsch.
PS: I invite you to visit my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club homepage to find out about the delicious wines from the Southern Rhône that we have (and will have) on offer.