It was with great fanfare that the LCBO announced the opening of its French wine boutique in Ottawa. Our wine scribe Jim Walker saw an opportunity to forge a mutually beneficial working relationship with the staff at the fledgling purveyor of French tipples. So, he and his wife Hélène decided to pay them a visit. To say it was an interesting experience would be an understatement.

On July 13, 2017 the Liquor Control Board of Ontario heralded the arrival of  DESTINATION FRANCE: LCBO OPENS NEW “PRODUCTS OF THE WORLD” STORE, 275 RIDEAU STREET, OTTAWA, ONTARIO.

We knew it was coming. In fact, we had decided to wind up our wine business but our friends at the LCBO convinced us to keep at it thanks to this program coupled with their new online customer ordering system –

Ottawa liquor store

It was the online ordering part of this new LCBO program that gave us renewed hope. But, in that the Ottawa store was going to carry some of our wines, I thought it would be a good idea to get to know the staff and promote our products. I learned the name of the boutique manager and I gave him a call. I introduced myself and told him that I would like to meet him and his staff, see the section and conduct a tasting. He was very enthusiastic and thought that would be a fine idea. We agreed to get together on a Thursday afternoon at 2pm.

Some things struck me as odd about this announcement. First was the choice of Ottawa for a French boutique considering that Gatineau, Quebec with its SAQ outlets well-stocked with French libations was located just a few kilometres away. Second, it was in a rough part of the city. I know because at one time I was responsible for the Royal Bank’s branches in Ottawa and one of them was just across Rideau Street from the LCBO store (the stories I could tell). Third, that it was the 17th outlet in the LCBO’s Products of the World program. Sixteen outlets featuring products from such places as Croatia, Greece and East Asia along with one dedicated to Kosher products preceded it. One would have thought a store dedicated to French potables might have been one of the first and that it would have been located somewhere in Toronto. But what do I know?

Adam and a treasure from the French boutique

Hélène and I had an uneventful drive up to Ottawa on the day of our meeting. We arrived at the LCBO Rideau Street store at 1:30pm, parked, wormed our way through a phalanx of street folks looking for handouts and entered the people’s booze emporium. It was large, very impressive and neatly stocked with all kinds of libation. But darned if we could locate a section dedicated to alcoholic beverages from France. We approached one of the helpful staff and explained that we had a 2pm appointment with the French boutique manager and would be conducting a tasting with him and his staff. “He’s away at lunch and I don’t know anything about a meeting,” she replied. “Would you please tell us where we can find the French boutique?” I inquired. “Oh, it’s in the basement with the Vintages section.” 

We had missed the sign in the entryway, retraced our steps and took the elevator to the lower level. The boutique area turned out to be quite impressive with well-stocked, handsome wood racking that included several of our wines. It took a while for a staff member to appear and when he did, we explained why we were there. His name was Adam, a very pleasant chap indeed. But he had no idea about either a meeting or a tasting! He told us that tastings were usually conducted in the nearby staff lunchroom.

Adam led us to the lunchroom. It was a mess and included a broken wooden chair that Adam demolished and tossed into a corner. It was obvious that a tasting had not been anticipated. So, we tidied up best we could, cleaned some glasses that we found by the sink and brought in our wines in from the car. Everything was ready to go at the appointed hour. Several other of Adam’s colleagues showed up, but there was no sign of the manager: 2:15pm, no manager; 2:30pm, no manager. Finally, at 2:40pm he rolled in, sat down and announced he was ready for the tasting. No apologies, no reasons for his tardiness proffered.

Apart from the manager bouncing up and down and leaving throughout, the tasting went very well. They enjoyed all our wines, particularly those from Domaine Roger Sabon. We arranged for Adam to be our main contact and agreed to consult with him in advance about order quantities for the boutique. He noted that the LCBO was not providing promotional shelf tags to support their wines. So, our tech guru Jamie Winterhalt designed ones like this for them. The Product Consultants were delighted!

Everything went along swimmingly for quite a while. Sales were solid, we kept producing the shelf tags and we collaborated effectively on ordering. Then Adam moved on. We tried valiantly to re-establish lines of communication but to no avail. This created some major difficulties.

The boutique featuring glorious tipples from France 

The most serious was order coordination. The boutique had access to all our wines before they were made available to our wine club membership. I would order a small number of new wines for our members to try. Invariably the boutique would take all of them. They would often order too much of our wine for their market. This meant that it would sit on their shelves for months and even up to a year. This posed a problem due to the bar codes on the bottles. All of our wineries were relatively small and if they did have bar codes (we had to produce them for those that didn’t – they considered bar codes to indicate cheap supermarket wines) they wouldn’t change them from vintage to vintage. The LCBO controls everything via the bar code. This meant that we could not release a new vintage till all of the previous vintage had been sold.

We would try to help the boutique sell the slow-moving inventory, but they were extremely reluctant to transfer them to another LCBO outlet. When the pandemic struck, they refused to transfer altogether. What Covid does to prevent such transfers is beyond me. But once again, that’s just me.

That’s pretty much the story of our encounter with the LCBO’s French Destination store in Ottawa. Some of the staff did express their disappointment when they heard we were forced by the LCBO to wind up our wine importing business. No more Domaine Roger Sabon, Domaine Palon, Domaine Giuliani or Château Malijay. And, the LCBO has yet to open that second French boutique in Toronto.

A postscript – Hélène contracted a rather nasty virus while on that trip to Ottawa that left her hospitalized for a month. I assure you it wasn’t our wine.

Featured Image: Les vins de France

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This is Jim’s 73rd 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.

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