There are those who think that a wine agent’s life is a great big bowl of cherries – slurping the finest wines, visiting exotic locales and dining in utter splendor. But nature loves symmetry. So, to even things out, she sent us the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Jim Walker, our wine scribe tells us about the joys of picking up his wine from the LCBO warehouse in Toronto.
I’m going back about 10 years. Our wine club had been in operation for several years and was flourishing. More than 500 thirsty souls had enrolled, many of whom were actually buying our wines! We represented over 30 wineries, most located in the south of France but a few in Bordeaux and Champagne and three in Italy. And, we had learned how to peacefully coexist with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario – no mean feat. This link, this link and this link to past stories on Gentleman’s Portion will give you an idea of what it was like doing business under the thumb of the LCBO.
Here’s how the wine business worked in Ontario at the time and, for the most part, still does. First, a winery could only be represented by a single agent. In essence, the agent had the monopoly for representing that winery’s products throughout the province. This was obviously done for the convenience of the LCBO and at the expense of effective market penetration for the wineries.
At the time there were two basic ways for the agent to peddle their vinous wares. The first was to get a listing with the LCBO, a brutally difficult and perilous task, particularly for small independent agents (see the above referenced Gentleman’s Portion articles). The second was for agents to bring in their wines on a consignment basis and then flog them to restaurants, clubs and other purveyors of liquid refreshment. Called ‘licensees’ by the LCBO, these establishments liked this process. Their patrons would have no idea what the wines cost, assuming the wines weren’t available at the LCBO. Thus, the licensees could mark up their potables with impunity. The consignment option wasn’t a bed of roses for the participating agents though. There were numerous terms and conditions imposed by the LCBO along with punitive fees extracted if the inventory wasn’t cleared out of their warehouse in short order. It wasn’t an option for the faint of heart.
There was a third way to legally get the fruit of the vine into Ontarian goblets – form a wine club. This was thanks to the Opimian Society, a non-profit wine club established in Montreal in 1973 that had grown too large (now boasting some 20,000 members across Canada) for the LCBO and the other provincial wine monopolies to ignore. The LCBO was, no doubt reluctantly, forced to permit them and imitators to exist, but not without tight reins and draconian restrictions. For example, for some unfathomable reason the wine had to be sold to the members by the case. The LCBO controlled all aspects of ordering and shipping. The wine had to be inspected by the LCBO’s lab (at considerable cost to the winery or agent). And club members who resided in the metropolitan Toronto area had to pick up their purchases from the LCBO’s loading docks at 33 Freeland Street, a grim experience to say the least. Inconsistently, the LCBO would deliver through their retail stores for those residing outside of Toronto. This mistreatment of Toronto patrons made no sense at all to me. First, it greatly inconvenienced terrific customers. Second, tell me one other retailer who wouldn’t want such first-rate buyers in their retail establishments to cross sell and up sell?
We valiantly tried the first two approaches to sell our wines and found them to be miserable. The only thing worse than trying to get an LCBO listing was getting one. Shlepping cases of wine, unassisted during torrid summer days into dark, dank restaurant basements was not my idea of a good time and payment always seemed to be a problem (except for Le Sélect Bistro – we loved doing business with them, no matter how much shlepping was involved).
Determined to stay in the game, we settled on the wine club route. Now then, we weren’t going to ask our good Toronto clients to duke it out with the trade down at the LCBO loading docks. No, we personally delivered this wine. While a bit of a bear, it afforded us the opportunity to get to know our customers and their wine preferences and to promote other wine we had on order.
Here’s how one of our orders would typically work. We’d introduce the winery and its wine in an email bulletin to our members. They would tell us what they wanted (and would pay in advance), we would accumulate their requests and deliver them to the LCBO (we lived in Oakville at the time and would have to drive the 40 or so kilometres to the LCBO). Subsequently the LCBO would notify us when the wine arrived and been cleared for delivery, including the lab inspection (incidentally, over the years they tested hundreds of bottles of our wine and never rejected a single one due to a flaw in the contents). I would then drive back to the warehouse in Toronto to pay for the wine and pick up the cases to be delivered to our Toronto clientele. Then on Sunday mornings Hélène and I would drive back to the ‘Big Smoke’ and deliver our wine. We really enjoyed this time together. It gave us the chance to discuss various matters of import and to see some very delightful people.
Picking up the wine from the loading docks was a harrowing experience. I would venture forth on a Tuesday or Wednesday mid-morning to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the least hectic days on the docks. Miss Sailor Blue would often ride shotgun in our old Range Rover (aka Big Ben and Carzilla) that could hold up to 50 12-bottle cases of wine. It was a tight squeeze, mind. Once we got there, I would drop off our latest purchase orders at the reception and then line up at the cashier stations to pay for the wine I was picking up. There would be two, at most three folks processing payments and they did their jobs well and cheerfully. However, there was usually a line-up and a half-hour or longer wait was not uncommon.
I then had to wait my turn for a place at the docks once payment was completed. There were only five such spaces and usually dozens of other agents waiting for an opportunity to load. I must say that, while this took a great deal of time, it usually went quite smoothly and there were very few disputes. Our purchase receipts were time and date stamped so it was easy to sort things out when an issue did arise.
Finally, a spot at the docks would be secured. The average elapsed time from arrival to this point would be an hour or so. The loading area was like a great big doorless garage open to the elements. In the winter it was freezing, in summer stifling. There was no heating or air conditioning. Everything was cheerless cement. The loading platform that we would back up to was about four feet above ground level. A warehouse employee would occasionally appear through a roll-up door on a forklift laden with skids bearing cases of wine. He (they were all he’s) would determine who the recipient was, position the skids at the edge of the loading platform behind the delivery vehicle and then hop back on the forklift and disappear back into the bowels of the warehouse. The agents would then load their vehicles. Most were going directly to restaurants, so they would often take an inordinate amount of time sorting things out to facilitate their delivery runs.
On a good day it would take another hour or so for my wine to appear. Once the warehouse lads got to my order, they needed time to separate the part I was picking up from the part that would be sent to the LCBO stores outside of Toronto. They did not like this task. The veterans quickly figured out that my orders required extra effort, so they would skip past them for easier ones. This meant my orders were delayed and left to error-prone rookies. How do I know this? Not a single one of the old hands delivered my wine in the fifteen years that I visited the warehouse pursuant to my first few pick ups. There was no need for me to sort out my wine because I was taking it all home to deliver later. But I did have to carefully count it to make sure it was all there. Frequently it wasn’t. Worse still was finding a broken bottle or two; not that uncommon either. I would then have to catch the attention of the chap who had brought me the load. This was like playing Whac-A-Mole. I had to wait for him to pop out from behind the roll-up door and then catch his attention. Heaven forbid he had trotted off to lunch or was attending some sort of meeting. My average wait time to load up once parked at the docks was about an hour and a half. I once had to wait five hours! Invariably I would then be caught up in rush hour traffic on the trip back to Oakville. My normal total elapsed time to and from was around four and a half hours.
One day I invited my brother Doug to accompany me on one of these pick up runs after which we would have lunch at the Le Sélect Bistro (instead of Miss Sailor Blue, whose table manners weren’t quite up to snuff). I’ll spare you the gory details. But we had a very, very late lunch. Doug swore he would never again join me at the LCBO loading docks, even if I treated for lunch (if you knew my brother Doug, you’d appreciate how severely shaken he must have been by the experience).
The LCBO recently relocated its warehousing facilities to a new location outside Toronto and contracted the services of an outside firm to manage the storage and distribution of its wares. Happily, I am no longer obliged to pick up our Toronto members’ wine because the LCBO now delivers to their local stores (and even to their homes for a small fee). Thank goodness, for I simply wouldn’t be able to muster the courage to give the place a try.
PS: Click here to find out about our current wine club offerings; a sensory treat awaits!
PS: My brother Doug adds this memory.
“Two things I recall about the experience:
1. There was another agent driving a 5-ton truck who was in line before us. This gentleman was picking up orders for several large restaurants and was being given an excellent bum’s rush by the LCBO staffers. He was red in the face hopping mad angry about being treated like a mongrel dog and he needed his order before 3:00 p.m. in order to successfully complete his deliveries. He was actually decent entertainment.
2. We decided to leave around 2:30 p.m. to have a ‘late’ lunch at Le Select Bistro restaurant as Jim’s order was nowhere in sight. Could not believe it. Free parking in downtown TO. Best lunch I could remember having in ages and it was past 3:00 p.m. and we were the only patrons! What a memory. I believe it was a little past 4:30 p.m. when we returned to the loading dock. The agent with the 5-ton truck was still waiting for his order. We picked up Jim’s order. Mr. 5-ton was still waiting when we left.”
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This is Jim’s 70th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories or check under the WINE category.