Wine

THE SUN SETS ON ARTHUR’S CELLAR

They did it! It took 16 years, but they finally did it. Our wine scribe Jim Walker relates in bone-chilling detail how the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, after inflicting many near-mortal wounds over the years, delivered the death blow to his once thriving Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club.

One would think that the LCBO would worship the very ground that wine clubs walk on in pursuit of fine wines for their members. The wine clubs select the wines, find the customers and do all the marketing. And they generate terrific walk-in traffic for the LCBO stores when their members pick up their wine – a retailer’s dream. What it boils down to this – the wine clubs do most of the work; the LCBO makes most of the money.

Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club lurched valiantly into being in March of 2006. As described in a couple of my first Gentleman’s Portion posts – Strange encounters of the LCBO kind and Launch of Arthur’s Cellar — it was a birth fraught with challenges. But we prevailed and in time the wine club grew to over 500 members and we brought them wines from some 30 wineries located in France and Italy.

While it wasn’t easy, we managed to co-exist somewhat gracefully with the LCBO for the first several years. Then in a flash it all fell apart. An Ottawa lawyer, who represented a local wine club, filed a complaint with the Ontario Information and Privacy Commission. He argued that the LCBO had no need to collect the personal data of wine club members who purchased the club’s wines. After all, this sort of information wasn’t gathered when a booze buyer conducted a transaction at an LCBO retail store. In her ruling on February 27, 2013, Commissioner Ann Cavoukian concurred and ordered the LCBO to cease collecting such information. In a pique of spite, the LCBO responded by refusing to accept all wine club orders. On April 8, 2013 I duly informed our membership about this wretched turn of events.

Shortly thereafter I met with two senior LCBO managers responsible for wine clubs to determine how best to keep the flow of yummy wines going to our loyal and thirsty members (read all about it in my note to our members of April 18, 2013). The LCBO had issued revised wine club regulations and for many reasons they simply wouldn’t work for us or our members.

Fortunately, there was a marginally viable, if imperfect solution. We could submit our members’ requests as individual Private Orders and escape all LCBO wine club rules and regulations. It meant we had to create a separate order for each member’s request and attach an email from them confirming the order. If 76 members wanted wine from a given offering, we had to submit 76 separate orders with attachments. But there was a silver lining – the member could request that the LCBO waive the lab test. The Private Order process increased our administrative workload manyfold, but at least we were able to stay in business.

Things lurched along laboriously for the next two years. Then they did it again. I knew it was coming – the LCBO’s Specialty Services (an oxymoron if ever there was one) department was developing an entirely new operating system. I had caught whiff of it several months previously and had volunteered to sit on the committee that would set the specifications for the agents’ requirements. This was met with blank stares: “Why would we ask for agent input,” was the response. I knew we were in for big trouble.

The LCBO first introduced the new operating system to their input staff first. As I explained in my notes to our members of May 18  and July 17, 2015 it did not go well. In fact, it was a disaster … so bad that the LCBO stopped taking orders! In fact, it was so gnarly and wretched that George J. Soleas, then Executive Vice President of the LCBO and now CEO, sent out a note to agents and licensees decrying the situation. It wasn’t quite an apology, but it is the closest thing we ever had to one.

And two months later on September 3, 2015, I sent out yet another update. We had had it and were about to wind things up. But senior management at LCBO Private Ordering told us that they wanted us to remain in operation and would do everything in their power to make that possible. How could we resist this goodwill gesture? We decided to slog it out a bit longer and see if things improved.

Alas, things did not improve. We gave it the old college try for another year, but as I explained in my note to members of August 13, 2016 things had gone from bad to worse. At this juncture, instead of calling it quits, we decided to scale back. We reduced the number of wineries we represented from 30 down to four. And we would order from each just once per year. Our hope was that the LCBO might someday get it’s act together and we could then rebuild our business.

Surprise, surprise — the administrative morass did not improve. However, a senior contact at the LCBO informed us that the LCBO was going to launch an online ordering program (some would say, “About time!”) called LCBO.com. He thought it could be the answer to all our prayers (at the same time they were adding a French boutique in Ottawa under their Products of the World program – more about that in my next Gentleman’s Portion installment). The program featured several enhancements that looked like they would appeal to our members. I announced it all to our members on May 28, 2017.

Placing our winery orders through the LCBO became a breeze. Members found the online ordering process a bit of a bear, but it became easier the second time through (I would order for those who found it just too difficult). And delivery via local LCBO stores went well except for the occasional broken bottle or two. But, and of course there was a but, it took forever to get the wine posted on LCBO.com website and when it was, it was only by the full case and in limited quantities at that. Then the LCBO’s employees threatened to strike, so store deliveries were suspended (see my bulletin of June 18, 2017).

Per usual, the strike was averted. I provided an update on the new process on August 13, 2017. The big news was that our wines would soon be available for purchase by the bottle – yea! It took till April of the following year for this to happen.

Then in October 2018 all hell broke loose. The LCBO suspended new orders for their online program! Clearly, they had rushed the service to market well before the support systems were ready. It eventually went live again but all the old problems remained as this bulletin describes.

Things bumbled along in the usual fashion for the next couple of years. The primary issue was getting our wine onto the LCBO order system. Here’s an example that I told our members about on March 8, 2019. It could take months from the time a shipment arrived at the LCBO until it was finally available for sale.

When a given wine was finally listed, it would be only 12 or 24 bottles. The initial supply sold out instantly. The LCBO had no automatic replenishment process. I had to monitor each listing and request additional bottles be made available. This could take weeks if not months! Sometimes just another case or two would be added. It was all terribly frustrating for our clients and us. Here’s how I described it all on October 5, 2021

At about that time we were told by the LCBO to henceforth place our orders via their New Item Submission System. This was the system agents used to make submissions in response to requests for LCBO listings and was significantly more onerous than the simple ordering process we had been using for the previous four years. I felt a shiver of dread. Something was up. Why would we have to endure this complex process to place our simple orders? For a while it seemed that my fears were misplaced. Our submissions were approved and processed as before — slowly.  

Then this March we submitted several new wines for order approval. One was declined! This had never happened before. But there was more. They wanted us and our wineries to agree to punitive conditions to which we simply could not abide. It’s all here in my note of May 5, 2022.

Shortly thereafter we participated in a conference call with two senior LCBO representatives from the area with which we dealt. Although very pleasant, they refused to budge and thus, after 16 years, we were finished. My farewell note of May 18, 2022 to our members pretty much says it all.

We were forced to throw in the towel. Over our 16 years importing wine the LCBO, as an entity, treated us very poorly, some would say abysmally. This is a sentiment shared by many other agents. Don’t get me wrong. There are many fine folks at the LCBO, and we have had the pleasure of working with a number of them. It is the process developers, the systems creators and the rule makers that made our lives miserable. Fortunately for us, our wineries and our members more than balanced things out. We will miss them greatly.

Cheers, in spite of it all!  Jim

Featured image: A vineyard on a late autumn evening

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This is Jim’s 72nd 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.

3 replies »

  1. Totally disappointed that it has come to this. Jim and Helene were wonderful to deal with and wonderful to be around! The wines were amazing. We always looked forward to getting the listings for the upcoming wine offerings. The C in LCBO can stand for commisariat as well as control, the old original founding culture never died in the organization except for a short period when Andy Brandt was Chair.

    Like

  2. Greetings Tim:

    Many thanks for the kind words. I agree with you about Andy Brandt, and his colleague Claudius Fehr – gentlemen and wine people both.

    Cheers, Jim and Hélène

    Like

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