The Biggest Change Since Prohibition…NOT!

Within days we will be entering a brave new world in Ontario with lots of competition in beer sales from private retailers, with wine following close behind.  At least that is the hype from the provincial government as it announces “the biggest change since the repeal of Prohibition”, with its recent amendments to the Liquor Control Act.  It’s now time to take a closer look at what these “changes” really are.  This post is more about beer than my usual wine theme, because that’s what’s happening right now, but the current situation illuminates the mindset of the folks who came up with this scheme.

The Beer Store Monopoly

First, a little background to beer sales in Ontario.  Many, many people believe that The Beer Store, which has a near monopoly on beer sales in the province, is government owned.  In an Ipsos Reid survey in 2013 (reportedly, as the survey results can no longer be found on line), only 13% of responders knew it was foreign owned [buzzer sound]  Yes, it is owned by three giant multinational foreign beer companies, none of which is majority Canadian owned:  Molson Coors (read Coors), Anheuser-Busch InBev (owners of Labatts), and Sapporo from Japan (owners of Sleemans).  I say “near monopoly” because there are only two other ways for the consumer to buy beer in Ontario, at the LCBO (also a near monopoly) and at the breweries themselves (not very convenient).  Now here are the facts that will make the situation clearer:

  • The Beer Store (we’ll call it TBS from now on) is privately owned.
  • It sets its own prices, unregulated (to be accurate, prices are set by the brewers, but as we have seen, that is effectively the same thing).
  • Correction, the only government regulation is to set a minimum retail price.
  • Any other beer retailers must sell at the price set by TBS.  Therefore it is effectively a monopoly if competitors cannot undercut on price.

There is no other jurisdiction in the world that licenses a private company to have a monopoly on alcohol sales and then to have no regulation or oversight on pricing.  It’s madness.  And here’s one more point that will make you sit up.  The Beer Store also supplies bars, restaurants, etc. for selling on to consumers.  Since that activity is effectively wholesaling, the price charged will be somewhat less than the price consumers pay, right?  WRONG!  TBS charges up to 30% more to drinking establishments than to retail customers.  They are out of control.  You can see the actual numbers in the recent C.D. Howe Institute report on “The Need for More Competition in Ontario’s Alcoholic Beverage Retailing System”; check out Table 1.

The Truth about Grocery Store Sales of Beer

Starting December 15, 2015, grocery stores are commencing sales of beer to the public.  What we gain is some more outlets selling beer.  That’s good.  More importantly, there’s finally some competition for TBS, right?  Wrong again.  As pointed out in the previous section, the new retailers must sell their beer at the same price as TBS in order to protect it from serious competition.  Here are a few more interesting points:

  • The new retailers can only obtain their beer inventory through the LCBO.
  • There was a bidding process to obtain the right to sell beer at a grocery store.  The regulations required that the retailer’s application stipulate a profit margin of between 3% and 9.9%.  Well, just imagine how successful you would be if you went with the high end.  Therefore the retailer will only have a margin of a few % and the LCBO retains almost all the profit for acting as a middle man.
  • The beer sales counters can only be open during the same hours as the LCBO or TBS, not grocery store hours, so you’ll often go and find beer unavailable.  That surely doesn’t contribute much to the convenience factor.
  • Beer cannot be sold in any package larger than a six-pack, a rule also designed to protect TBS.
  • Stores must have at least 10,000 square feet of food retail space, and must sell a complete range of fresh and packaged foodstuffs.  These rules are designed to shut convenience stores out of the market.

All right, that’s enough about beer – you get the idea.  The government has designed the system to protect the big boys while appearing to increase competition.  The only advantage to the consumer is a very modest increase in convenience while the huge advantage to the government is that they may be able to fend off some lawsuits that are challenging their right to monopolize the business and inflate prices.  Now let’s see what the implications for wine sales might be.

Grocery Store Sales of Wine

At the moment the enabling of grocery stores to sell wine is up in the air because of the purported additional complications in this market, related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The possible problem is that there is an exemption in NAFTA that grandfathers winery owned stores that existed before NAFTA came into effect.  At that time many different wineries had retail stores (they were only allowed one each) that were stand alone or on the premises of supermarkets, for example.  Because the number of stores was then fixed in perpetuity, larger wine companies started buying up the little guys in order to gain the retail store space, thereby limiting competition.  We have now reached the point where 260 of the 292 stores are owned by just two companies:  Constellation Brands (the “Wine Rack”) and Andrew Peller (the “Wine Shop”).  This situation has put most small producers at a disadvantage in the marketplace, perhaps contributing to the decline in Canadian wine sales over the past 40 years.

The rule (and I think there is something similar in the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA) is based on the premise that additional stores selling only Canadian wine would put foreign producers at a disadvantage.  But grocery stores wouldn’t be limited just to Canadian wine, so this sounds like a bogus argument to slow down the process until the LCBO figures out how to hamstring the grocery stores so much that the LCBO makes as much money as ever for less work.  Legal opinion seems to agree with me.

So, heaven only knows what the LCBO is plotting (the government basically takes their marching orders from the LCBO in the area of alcoholic beverage sales) but you can be sure that increased competition is the least of their concerns.  We are supposed to find out more early in the New Year.

Wine Mythtakes, Part 1: Buying Wine

I frequently find myself providing reality checks for folks who have bought into some of the myths that are floating around about wine.  There are a lot, so I’ve just picked some of my favourites.  A few of these are frequently cited, so that there is already a good amount of explanation and debunking available on line.  However, I have included them here to provide a more complete set and to provide my personal take on these beliefs.  In the end I came up with enough myths, 18 in all, that I have had to divide them into two main sections in order to keep my postings to a reasonable length – the second half of them will be the subject of my next post.

The first eight myths that I discuss all have to do with buying wine – the first four are of interest to wine buyers in general, while the remaining four are specifically geared to Ontario residents who are stuck with the LCBO.

Buying Wine

 1. High Scores / High Prices / Varietals Indicate the Best Wines

There are many clues that the average consumer uses to help make a wine decision, such as critics’ scores, pricing, the label, varietal vs. regional, and recommendations from salespeople.  The problem is that most of these indicators contain a kernel of validity surrounded by a thick husk of irrelevancy for any particular individual purchaser.

First:  scores and critics’ recommendations.  Take a look at my post on scores and you will see that the correlations both between scores and quality, and between different critics’ scores, are weak at best.  The preferred approach should be to try recommended wines from a variety of critics until you find one (or more) whose tastes are a reasonable match for your own.  Then use that critic as a guide.  Now, coming up with that solution takes quite a bit of work, the direct opposite of the intent of easy-to-understand scores.  But then, most of the work is drinking wine after all, so buck up!

There is, of course, some correlation between price and quality, but remember price is really determined by what people will pay.  Therefore a high quality wine will generate consumer demand and the producer can charge a higher price.  Every other consideration is subordinate to that point.  For example, you often hear that low yields, organic cultivation, hand crafted wine, good oak, etc., etc. cost money and the wine will cost more.  However, that only works if the wine is better than a more industrially produced version, and only then will consumers pay more.  Otherwise the winery will not be able to continue along that path.  Famous names and critical hype, will generate demand and higher prices.  That’s why the best quality/price ratios are in the lesser known regions – southern Italy, southern France, northwestern Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Austria, for example.

Varietal labelling is favoured by many consumers because it is easy to remember and comfortably reliable.  However, most of the great wine regions of Europe do not use varietal labelling, so it is in no way an indicator of quality – there is no correlation.

2. All Wines Should (or Should Not!) be Under Screw Cap

Here I am wading into a highly controversial subject.  Producers from Down Under (Australia and New Zealand) insist that all wines should be under screw cap.  In Europe only a very small percentage are sold this way.  Who’s right?  Well, here are my thoughts.

First, any wine intended to be drunk within a year of purchase should be under screw cap – this dictum actually covers the bulk of wine.  Second, any white wine meant to be consumed within a few years should also be under screw cap.  Then we are left with red wines for medium to long aging and the few white wines able to be aged for a decade or more (i.e. most quality Rieslings, white Burgundy, vintage Champagne, and quality sweet wines).  Here the preference should depend upon the tastes of the consumer.  Wine does age differently under different closures.  Many people are familiar with and enjoy the flavour of mild oxidation and related transformations that provide complexity in older wines.  Others like the retention of fresher fruit flavours, but at the risk of chemical reduction, which engenders less familiar (often sulphur-based) flavours that may or may not be appreciated.  Therefore the decision of the producer will depend on some combination of tradition and the preferences of the consumer base for that particular wine.

Second, the risk of cork taint/corked wine/TCA has been greatly reduced over the past couple of decades.  Where I used to find a corked bottle every week or two, now it’s only once or twice per year.  And remember that TCA doesn’t just arise from cork treatment – it can arise from the winery environment and is therefore even found from time to time in screw capped bottles.

Lastly, let’s ditch the fatuous statement that using a cork is some prehistoric practice of “sticking a piece of tree bark in a bottle.”  One could as easily mock the practice of “sticking a piece of industrially modified petroleum on the end of a bottle.”  (i.e. plastic, in particular the plastic insert that makes the seal in a screw cap.)  In fact, cork is one of the most amazing materials known, a material whose properties cannot be duplicated in any laboratory.  One might as easily mock the use of a hunk of tree to make my computer desk or the frame of my house.  Let’s have a rational discussion, please.  And last but not least, cork is a green renewable resource, contrary to metal and petroleum products.  There is room for both closures in the business – neither is an indicator of quality, low or high.

3. Avoid Wine from a Region where there has been a Scandal

I know someone who won’t buy Chateau Pontet-Canet, one of the greatest ones of Bordeaux, because over forty years ago the owner of Pontet-Canet at the time (Cruse) was caught strengthening their cheaper wine with stiff southern swill.  There are other folks who won’t buy Austrian wine because of the antifreeze scandal of thirty years ago.  Then, what about the Brunello scandal from the past decade?  Should you buy Brunello di Montalcino?

There are two points to keep in mind here.  First, wine has been adulterated (to stretch the limited volume of famous quality wine available) since the beginning of time.  However, there is apparently much less of that sort of fraud now than in the past because of regulations that are at least partially successful, and because global warming means that marginal wine regions have less need of assistance.  In fact, there is more concern nowadays about fraud with respect to older and collectible bottles than there is about good everyday wine.

Second, your best bet for fraud-free wine is often the specific region or producer that originally had the problem.  In the process of cleaning up their act, implementing damage control, and attempting to regain market share, the offenders need to be squeaky clean and above reproach.  There’s the good news for the consumer.  So buy and enjoy your Pontet-Canet, Brunello di Montalcino, and Austrian Riesling with abandon!

4. A Sommelier will Always Try to Sell You an Expensive Bottle

A good sommelier is like any good retailer:  she/he does want to make a sale and generate cash flow, but real long term business viability comes from good customer service, a satisfied client, and repeat business.  Therefore a sommelier needs to provide a wine that you will enjoy with your meal and for its own sake, and that falls within your budget.  You will likely have more than one possible wine offered to you, all appropriate matches to the food, but at different price points.  If the suggested wines are too expensive for your budget, just point to a cheaper part of that section of the wine list and suggest that you are looking for “something more along these lines.”  The sommelier will understand and at the same time you will actually sound knowledgeable to your guests!  But don’t forget that the wine is a significant contributor to the enjoyment of the meal.  Divide that cost by the two or three or four people drinking it and compare to the cost of one person’s meal.  You may then feel more comfortable about a slightly more expensive, and perhaps more appropriate, bottle.


You readers who don’t live in or near Ontario and are unfamiliar with the government liquor monopoly, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), are excused at this point and can sit back and await my next post.  For the rest of us, here are four myths about the LCBO.

For a good backgrounder exploding publicly perceived myths about privatization, take a look at this article.  I won’t repeat all the information contained within it.

5. The Status Quo Returns the Most Money to the Province

This myth was exploded by a report from the past decade, authored by a blue ribbon panel that was tasked by the LCBO to determine its future business strategy.  I won’t go into detail since I devoted an entire previous post to this report, but the bottom line is that they unanimously recommended full privatization as the means to make the most money for the government and to provide the greatest customer satisfaction.  Needless to say, the report was deep-sixed by the LCBO and the government as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

Remember, the government of Ontario receives almost all of its advice about alcohol sales from the LCBO, so everything they hear is designed to support the LCBO.  They then parrot the LCBO’s words to the press and the public.  How often do we hear that the LCBO provides billions of dollars to the government coffers? – we couldn’t give that up!  The facts are that by eliminating the enormous costs of running the LCBO (stores built like palaces, inventory costs, high priced help, etc.) and raking in the income from licensing retail sales establishments (along with all the other taxes and duties that would not go away), the government would make more money from privatization than from the status quo.

Recently a new report on the subject was published by the C.D. Howe Institute.  Once again, the strong recommendation is to enable private alcohol sales in order to boost revenues and to provide better customer service.  This report is also an interesting and convincing and unsettling insight into all aspects of alcohol sales in the province.

So why is the government so reluctant?  It’s not the money to be made; it’s not the public perception (a majority of Ontarians are in favour of privatization, according to a 2013 Angus Reid poll); it’s not the social implications (see Myth #6).  The only thing I can think of is that they are scared to death of the unions and the impact of eliminating so many highly paid union jobs.  That opinion is supported by the reality that the NDP is the only political party not to have favoured privatization at one time or another (the other parties have backed privatization, but only when in opposition, never as the government).  Then, maybe the only roadblock is that governments hate change (and the accompanying uncertainty).  Really, all that it will take to provide a big step forward for the Ontario consumer is a little political courage.  Oh well, perhaps in the 22nd century.

6. Private Liquor Stores Are Not Socially Responsible (Contrary to the LCBO)

There are several counters to this particularly insidious myth – I describe it thus because it is circulated by the LCBO itself.  First, private stores operate in jurisdictions all over the world, including other Canadian provinces (and Ontario, see below), without permitting a tsunami of teenagers to buy booze.  I could point to the study that I brought up in a previous post, where the LCBO rated last in responsibility after the Beer Store and corner stores (selling cigarettes in this case).  However, common sense alone should make it clear to any thinking person that private stores have a great deal more to lose than publicly owned stores if they abuse their privilege and sell to minors or intoxicated customers.  A private store could lose its lucrative AGCO licence to sell alcohol.  The LCBO would only get a rap on the knuckles.  And think carefully about those boasts from the LCBO about how many minors were turned away each year.  What counts is how many got through!  They never publish those numbers.

The biggest counter-argument, however, is the fact that there are already hundreds of successful, socially responsible, private alcohol retailers in the province!  And I’m not talking about the privately (and foreign) owned Beer Store.  I am referring to the over 210 operating LCBO Agency Stores.  These are small retailers (general stores and their ilk) in more remote, and not so remote, locations in the province, where it would be uneconomic for the LCBO to build a full scale palace of a store to serve a relatively small customer base.  These stores profitably and responsibly sell LCBO products themselves, using their own sales people.  No wonder the LCBO doesn’t want to bring these stores into the discussion!

7. The LCBO is Customer Oriented

I have patronized many a wine shop around the world and I’ve been to many other retailers, so I have a reasonable idea of what good customer service should be like:

  1. Provide what the customer wants – In the LCBO’s world, the definition of what the customer wants is what sells the most, sort of like Walmart.  Then you throw in some labels in Vintages that have been awarded high scores by critics (see Myth #1).  But where are the really interesting and unusual wines, the small producers, the Greek wines, the Swiss wines, the trocken wines from Germany, the orange wines, etc. that we read about and salivate over?  Sure, one or two of them will show up from time to time, and from the LCBO’s viewpoint that means that the subject is covered.  However, even then the only remaining bottle may be in a store elsewhere in the province.  Then if you want to ratchet up your frustration a little, try to get an inter-store transfer set up.  Success is up to the whim of the local store multiplied by the whim of the remote store, resulting in a depressingly low probability of success.
  2. Put good products on sale – To the LCBO, the word “sale” means “let’s get rid of the stuff that never sells.”  They don’t have to put anything else on sale because there is nowhere else to buy it (see Myth #8).  And what about the case discounts of 10-20% that almost every other wine merchant in the world provides?
  3. Work with the local community – One of the most infuriating practices of the LCBO involves staffing.  Every three years or so they feel obligated to ship your local Product Consultant off to some other cookie cutter store, just when you had established a good customer/retailer relationship – then you have to start all over again.  But at least they promote Ontario wines, right?  Well, many local wines are produced in small quantities, but the LCBO business model requires wines to be available through a large number of their stores – that cuts out many of the small producers (the problem exists equally for BC and small foreign producers).  On the other hand, they are happy to provide lots of prominent shelf space for “Cellared in Canada” (but mostly imported) swill produced by the large corporations.

8. The LCBO is Not a Monopoly

This myth is another favourite of the LCBO itself.  They repeat it endlessly with the justification that there are other places to buy alcohol in the province, after all.  But what are those other retailers?  First there is The Beer Store (TBS), a private monopoly run by three large foreign breweries for their own entertainment and profit.  There is nowhere else in the world where a government has granted beer producers a monopoly on retail sales.  And these are monopolies because the LCBO and TBS generally try to sell non-overlapping brands.  The Beer Store sells mostly the brands bottled by its owners while the LCBO handles the rest, meaning that small craft brewers are effectively shut out of The Beer Store, where consumers naturally go first to buy beer.  In addition, a recently revealed agreement between the two organizations limits the sale of larger cases of beer to the TBS only.

The only other vendors of wine in the province are Ontario wine producers and import agencies.  But you generally have to go to the winery to buy small production volume, quality Ontario wine, and most of us don’t live in those areas.  Forget about the private off-winery stores – almost all of them (Wine Rack and Wine Shop) are operated by the two giants of the Canadian wine industry – Constellation Brands and Andrew Peller.  Of course, they only sell their own brands – hardly a threat to the LCBO monopoly.  OK, what about foreign wines?  There are only two ways you can buy foreign wine outside of the LCBO:  through agencies or by belonging to a wine club.  In general, you have to buy by the case from these vendors and wait days or weeks for delivery, so they aren’t a viable alternative for the average wine buyer either.  Of course there is also no meaningful competition in sales of spirits, but that’s not my main concern here.

The LCBO is not a monopoly?  Sure, pull the other one too.

A False Dawn

Over the past few months the LCBO has been making a lot of noise about how it is growing and changing to provide greater service to the Ontario consumer.  However, if you look at the grandiose announcements and press releases more carefully, it is clear that this is the false dawn of a new era at the LCBO.  In fact they are playing their same old tricks of kill the competition and feed propaganda to the consumer.

So what’s been happening?  Let’s look at some new LCBO initiatives and try to understand what they really mean, beyond all the hype and government pronouncements.

First we heard, in late 2012, that the KGBO would be increasing access to their products by opening ten “Express” outlets attached to major supermarkets and the like, similar to the way winery stores are currently located; the first will open some time in 2014.  Such an attempt at so-called increased access is pitiful – ten stores?  That’s hardly 1% of the existing number of outlets, including Agency Stores.  In fact, the LCBO wants to restrict access, as then Finance Minister Dwight Duncan made quite clear during the announcement, stating that he wished to “…make sure we don’t have alcohol on every street corner in Ontario.”  (This is certainly a  differentiator from private industry, which would commit the unpardonable sin of placing stores where the market and the demand are.  If there is more demand a store opens; if demand wanes, a store closes, whether it is on a street corner or not.)  So increased access is not the objective of these “Express” outlets – then what is it?  Well, the locations give a clue.  They will clearly compete with winery stores and maybe put them out of business because of the LCBO’s broader selection.  That fulfills the twin related goals of killing the competition and reducing independent sales by wineries (independent of maximum LCBO profits, that is).  Of course, these locations beg the question:  Isn’t is silly to to have a separate retailer right next door to, say, Loblaws, who could do a much more efficient job of stocking and retailing, with more convenience and lower cost to the customer?

A related move by the LCBO took place this summer when they revealed their plans to place “Our Wine Country” VQA boutiques within selected stores.  Let’s once again give the finance minister (this time Charles Sousa) a chance to explain:  “These new stores will give smaller wineries increased access to larger markets.”  OK, the smaller wineries, who can’t ordinarily get SKU’s in the mother ship, as well as limited production labels from Ontario wineries in general, should have better access to consumers.  Of course, the first few of these corners will best fulfill the stated goal and reach the largest number of customers by locating in the major population centres (the “larger markets”) of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and London, right?  So then why are they are being located in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Windsor?  Wait, aren’t those cities all in wine country where locals already have access to limited production wines?  If one were cynical, one might almost think that the aim (again) is to limit competition and reduce the amount of direct sales by wineries.  I did hear a contrary view from one small winery proprietor who pointed out that most people, even in wine country, don’t head to a winery for something to accompany their evening meal; they just stop at the LCBO.  But through VQA boutiques her products could reach that audience.  Perhaps, but the selected locations really put paid to that idea.  It is increasingly clear that the LCBO considers Ontario wineries to be a nuisance.  They cut into profits and the sooner they are put out of business the better.  After all, then they would be in a true monopoly position and could just sell millions of bottles of Fuzión and make tons of money with little effort.

Just to underscore this message, and here’s my third point, we find that the LCBO/Ontario government combine has found yet another way to stick it to Ontario wine producers and Ontario consumers.  As described in an earlier post, federal Bill C-311 now allows the private importation of wine from one province into another for personal use.  This action should finally remove that ridiculous impediment to trade that makes it illegal to order wine from one province for delivery in another, as if the provinces are separate countries.  No wait, you can freely move goods between countries in the European Union, so we have been even more regressive than sovereign nations!  But now, problem solved, right?  Wrong.  Implementation of C-311 is still subject to the whim of the importing province.  So far, according to Free My Grapes,only BC and Manitoba allow wine to be shipped directly to their residents from a winery in another province.  Nova Scotia is in the (slow) process of changing their rules.  Even the territories have made no change to the federal statutes governing wine purchases, although it was the federal government that changed the rules!  Most other provinces are dragging their feet, especially Ontario, whose Premier Wynne who has been quoted as saying that she would not allow the LCBO to open up the borders.  In fact, there is a legal grey area here as there does not appear to be a statute restricting the import of wine, only an LCBO policy.  For more on the convoluted legal status, check out Mark Hicken’s article.

Now, it has been pointed out, most recently by Rod Phillips in Vines magazine‘s October edition, that few people wish to order wine by the case, especially from out of province, so this is a bit of a non-issue.  That  may be a valid point, but if so, why not get rid of what is a needless barrier to interprovincial trade?  If it does not harm, but helps a few, then let’s go for it.

So how does the Ontario wine industry feel about this?  After all, if BC consumers can import Ontario wines while Ontario consumers cannot import BC wines, Ontario has the upper hand, right?  Well, aside from the extreme dog-in-the-manger nature of that attitude, it misses the point that if all provinces free up their rules, all wine producers are winners since there is a larger market outside of any one province (even Ontario, Premier Wynne!) than within.  And usually it takes some of the larger provinces to lead the way.  As for the producers themselves, some may take the narrow view.  More representative, however, is Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario who, when talking about on-line ordering, reminds us that: “It’s actually called modern wine retailing. That’s what they do all around the world.”

To discuss the fourth and last recent development, I’m going to circle back to the question of access and availability.  A recent initiative from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association is a push to make beer and wine available at corner stores, as is already the case in Quebec.  They have so far collected 112,500 signatures for their on-line petition at  In 2012  a secret shopper study showed that convenience stores are significantly more diligent about checking for underage purchasers than either the LCBO or the Beer Store.  This study was based on cigarette sales in the case of convenience stores, but it highlights how store owners are more stringent than public institutions because their livelihood depends on following the law rather than being an arm of the lawmaking body, as is the case with the LCBO.  Imagine an industry where both the setting of the rules and the ultimate enforcement of the rules lies in the hands of the business owners themselves.  Ouch!

As for the contrary view, there are a few apologists out there drinking from the LCBO Kool-Aid.  An example is this article in the Toronto Star.  The key point made is the assumed loss of revenue; but that argument makes no sense since the province can place whatever taxes and licensing fees on the vendors that it wishes.  Revenue can easily increase.  The second argument is the old chestnut about not putting alcohol into the hands of minors; for the counter point, see the preceding paragraph.  Finally, that meaningless statistic is trotted out once again, that the LCBO denied 322,000 out of 7.8 million customers in a year.  But how many get through undetected?  With respect to that much more significant question, the LCBO is tellingly silent.  Finally, the Star columnist asks, how can these minimum wage convenience store clerks possibly have the training, time, and inclination to ask for ID?  Well, their jobs depend on it, of course!  They do it every day with cigarettes.

The final argument for sales by corner stores comes right from the LCBO playbook – they are doing it already!  There are some 218 Agency Stores in Ontario.  These are small stores licensed by the LCBO to sell LCBO products on their own.  It’s almost as if convenience stores were selling wine and beer!  Except that spirits are included as well.  There seems to be no problem with these clerks and cashiers taking responsibility for selling booze and asking for ID.  All of the LCBO and Ontario government arguments simply fall flat in light of the existence of Agency Stores.  And they are not just in the far north or other parts of the province remote from normal outlets.  I live in Ottawa and I counted over half a dozen Agency Stores in the greater Ottawa area.  So there is no new legislation required to enable wine and beer sales by corner stores.  All that is necessary is that the LCBO increase the number of Agency Stores and remove any rules they have about store location.

My conclusion is that the alcohol sales landscape in Ontario needs a complete overhaul.  The current system’s attempts at innovation are feeble at best and regressive at worst.  Now, the province did announce recently that it is once again assembling a blue ribbon panel to map out a future direction.  I expect the recommendation will be similar to the last time this was tried – full privatization.  Then will the provincial government follow through on the advice, or will the response be the same as before, to “deep six” any opinion contrary to their own?  Let’s be optimistic and hope that in a couple of years we will be toasting the true dawning of a new age of wine availability in Ontario.

LCBO Competition – an Oxymoron

The LCBO hates being called a monopoly.  Their marketing machine will swiftly counter that label by pointing to their wide and varied competition – the privately run Beer Store, wineries and distilleries and their 472 outlets, brew-it-yourself shops, and…well, I guess that’s about it.  They’ll tell you that half of all beverage alcohol sales in the province are in private hands, in competition with the LCBO.  Of course, this assertion puts paid to the notion that privatization would be a bad thing, since it’s already here, but that’s another story.  The LCBO needs nominal competition so they can try to refute the notion that they are a monopoly but, since they are in any case a commercial business, what they really want to do is quash or at least stifle the competition in order to maximize their own sales and profits.  Of course they won’t admit to this goal, at least not publicly, but in the end actions speak louder than words.

So how do they go about keeping a lid on the competition?  Let me count the ways:

  1. Expensive advertising.  How often do we see glossy promotional flyers from the LCBO in our newspapers or mailboxes?  And don’t forget the free and very attractive Food and Drink magazine.  Then there’s radio advertising – now that’s not so expensive, but then neither is the glossy stuff because the LCBO makes its suppliers pony up for most of that cost anyway.  For more details check out this article by Martin Regg Cohn in The Star.
  2. The LCBO can open a new store whenever it likes, but they and the Ontario government ensure that the number of private winery stores is capped.  Winery outlets can, however, be acquired, usually by big business buying out the boutique winery that owns the legacy retail licence.  In any case, the cap on numbers is clearly not enough, because the LCBO recently announced that they are initiating a program to place LCBO “kiosks” in large supermarkets.  That is precisely the space where we now see most of the winery outlets!  The first ten locations constitute a pilot project with many more in the planning stage.  This is not really a new idea – the LCBO has had agency stores for decades.  There are now 214 of these “stores within a store”.  They were originally meant to supply remote northern communities, but most of them are now located in the southern part of the province, as evidenced by this list.  The only real change is that these kiosks will be in large supermarkets in large cities, rather than in small stores in small towns and cities.
  3. I remember when you couldn’t get beer in the LCBO.  Those times have certainly changed as more and more beer is available there, effectively taking business away from the privately run Beer Stores.
  4. What about lesser known ways of buying alcohol?  For example, Ontario residents can buy directly from the private importers, or agents, but those agents are handcuffed by the rule that they can only sell to the public in quantities of at least 6 bottles, and in practice only in full cases.  The LCBO gets its usual profit in any case, but without all the overhead costs.  The only way to buy (a few of) these wines in smaller quantities is through the Vintages Shop On Line program.  Agents must meet sales targets and do the advertising/marketing. That effectively ends up as advertising for the LCBO because there is usually no competition for a given product in any case.  Even LCBO promotions (see above) are paid for by suppliers.  The agent also takes the hit if a product is discontinued and put on sale – 25% of the retail price comes out of the agent’s pocket.
  5. You are also allowed to order a case of wine from another country or province if you order through the LCBO (but see the next point).  However, you have to be willing to pay 3-4x the retail price in the country of origin!  And that’s only if the LCBO is gracious enough to waive testing and the associated $175 fee.  Importing can also take place through a wine club or similar organization, such as the Opimian Society.
  6. Now we get to the most ridiculous impediment to freer competition – restrictions on the movement of wine from province to province.  Only last year was the archaic post-Prohibition ban amended by Parliament, through Dan Albas’ Private Member’s Bill C-311.  It creates an exception for:

“the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings the wine or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for resale or other commercial use.”

That sounds good – both carrying wine with you and placing an order (e.g. on line) appear to be permitted.  The kicker is the phrase “as permitted by the laws of the latter province.”  In other words, the province must be on board as well.  So far, only BC, Alberta, and Manitoba appear to have acquiesced, according to Mark Hicken’s legal opinion.  Ontario is resisting, of course.  The same legal opinion suggests that silence implies tacit assent, but the LCBO has issued a statement contradicting that idea and limiting interprovincial “imports” to 1 case, brought in person only, not through ordering from a third party.  In the end, it is unlikely that they would risk a legal challenge to their untenable monopoly situation by prosecuting ordinary citizens acting reasonably.  A summary of the various liquor boards’ ultra-conservative viewpoints is given on the webpage of the Canadian Association of Liquor Boards.

A recent Harris-Decima poll found that an overwhelming majority of Canadians (82%) agree that they should be able to purchase wines from other provinces on-line.  If you would like to explore this issue further, check out Free My Grapes.

Whether it’s the Beer Store, winery stores, agents, or private importation, the LCBO has implemented measures to limit or reduce their market share, i.e. to crush the competition.  This is from an organization that already has a monopoly in sales of spirits and a near-monopoly in the sale of imported wines and beers.  This is from an organization that, in tandem with their cousins the AGCO (The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario), is able to set the rules for its competition.  What private business wouldn’t kill for that kind of power!  This situation does not serve the consumer well and needs to be changed.  Please let your MPP know what you think.

Private Affairs

I find that there are two connotations of the word “private” when applied to the LCBO.  First, there are the continuing calls for privatization of the LCBO’s business.  In fact, it seems to be routine for every political party to call for privatization while in opposition.  Right on cue, we have recently heard that familiar call from the Conservative party.  However, as soon as a party takes over the government, the idea is always dropped.  The closest we came to anything happening was in 2005 when the government of the day set up a blue ribbon commission to study and recommend the best future direction for the beverage alcohol business in the province.  The unanimous recommendation of the panel was for full privatization, so naturally the report was put on ice and any further discussion was quashed.  Since it was no longer up for public discussion, it effectively became “private” as well (the second connotation of the word).  Fortunately, the report is still available for perusal on line.  So, let’s take another look at the report and the panel’s recommendations in more detail and try to get a better idea of what the options might be.

There were four members of the Beverage Alcohol System Review Panel (BASRP), none of whom had any financial interest in the industry.  The chairman was a former Vice-Chair of the LCBO, so its workings were well understood.  The other members were a former Commissioner of the OPP, a corporate CFO, and a senior banking executive.  Therefore the major concerns of social responsibility and revenue generation were also well represented.  The terms of reference were to undertake a broad review of the beverage alcohol system and recommend how to get better value for consumers and government.  Any recommendations had to maintain or enhance each of these five factors:

  • Socially responsible storage, distribution, sale, and consumption;
  • Convenience, variety, and pricing for the customer;
  • Value to the taxpayer;
  • Reuse and recycling;
  • Promotion of Ontario products.

In order to fulfill their mandate, the panel members began by studying options from many other jurisdictions in Canada, U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, alongside an operational analysis of the present system in Ontario.  Then they put this information together to identify a number of viable options for Ontario.  Each of these options was subjected to analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, as well as risk analysis.  Five options were identified as the most promising and one was unanimously selected as the final recommendation.  The five options are described in the following table:

1LicensingRetailers and wholesalers are licensed by public sale for five year periods, and pay an annual fee;
Limit the number of retail outlets;
Set a minimum price level.
2Retain/ImproveStatus quo with improvements recommended by an operations review
3DivestmentSell LCBO assets to a non-profit beverage alcohol authority (monopoly) or through a public offering
4Joint VentureLCBO, BRI, and winery stores merge into a single organization
5CompetitionPrivate retailers and wholesalers are licensed while the LCBO, BRI and winery stores remain in business in direct competition

Now I’d like to look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of these systems, especially in terms of the five factors (listed above) that need to be maintained or enhanced.  I’m going to skip a discussion of social responsibility and recycling since both of these can be handled by legislation and enforcement policies that are essentially independent of the distribution and sales model.  The focus is really on value to the customer and value to the taxpayer, with a nod to access to Ontario products.  A summary is provided in the next table, following which I’ll elaborate on some of the most interesting or controversial points (Note:  in this table the advantages are in bold while the disadvantages are in italic).

System OptionValue to the CustomerValue to the TaxpayerAccess to Ontario Products
1 - LicensingImproved price and selection through competition;
Limits on number of retail outlets may limit specialty retailers;
Minimum pricing policy may limit consumer advantage.
Increased revenue (est'd. $200M/year);
Removes operational and investment risks from having government in the retail business.

Improved access to the system for small producers.
2 - Retain &
No improvement and prices may even rise.Politically easy - no disruption;
Potential for increased revenue through reduced costs and increased prices;

Government remains in retail with associated risks and investment requirements.
No improvement.
3 - DivestmentNo improvement in competitive landscape, pricing or convenience.Big chunk of change for the government;
But, payment is one-time only;
Government remains in retail with associated risks and investment requirements.
Uncertain pricing and access for small producers.
4 - Joint
No improvement in pricing or convenience;
Competition landscape even worse that at present.
Rationalization of store locations and product offerings, providing operational efficiency;
Government remains in retail with associated risks and investment requirements.
No improvement.
5 - CompetitionIncreased competition;
Improved pricing, selection, and access.
Increased government revenue;
Complete restructuring not required.

Profitability of LCBO uncertain as competitors would have much lower operating costs and LCBO cannot easily transform its very high cost structure;
Government remains in retail with associated risks and investment requirements.
Improved access to the system for small producers.

The only two options that are advantageous to the consumer are 1-Licensing and 5-Competition (which includes licensing but does not eliminate the LCBO).  I have always been a proponent of the Competition option because it seemed to provide the best of everything.  Perhaps that was at least in part because I was tired of hearing the LCBO constantly telling us how good they are.  If they are so superior, then there should be no problem permitting competition because the LCBO would just grind their competitors into the ground!  Now, however, I have been set straight by the BASRP.  They assert that the LCBO cost structure is so heavy, with gold-plated stores and unionized staff being paid top dollar for stocking shelves, that they would fold under the pressures of real competition.  This drives home the point that the government should not be in the retail business in the first place.

The recommended option is Licensing.  In this scenario, the government sells off the LCBO’s physical assets and then auctions licences to private concerns for the right to retail or to wholesale beverage alcohol.  Because the licences would expire after five years and bidding would again take place, and because there would also be annual fees, the panel estimated that the LCBO would net $200 million more than they currently make.  That was in 2005 so the figure would likely be higher now.  The two most important requirements, consumer value and taxpayer value, are both satisfied.  Now, in order to deal with the other requirements,especially social responsibility, the panel does suggest imposing some restrictions.

First, they propose an upper limit on the number of retailers allowed, both within a region and within the province as a whole.  This idea is intended to allay concerns over social responsibility, as they claim that fewer retail outlets reduce consumption.  However, their own data does not appear to support that claim.  The following graph plots consumption/person/year versus population per retail outlet for many of the external jurisdictions that were studied.  If the claim were true, then the data should show a clear drop moving from left to right.  In fact, the data fall into three groups.

Dependency of alcohol consumption on number of retail outlets. Greater population/outlet means fewer outlets (right end of axis). The data fit into three general groups but there is no overall trend.

The data fall into three main groups.  Group 1 (Iowa and Quebec at the bottom, UK and Australia at the top) shows the opposite trend to what might be expected – this trend likely has more to do with cultural differences than with access to supply.  The bulk of the jurisdictions (several US states plus New Zealand) fall into Group 2 where there is no discernible correlation.  Finally, Group 3 (all of which are Canadian provinces) shows relatively low consumption rates but almost no dependence on accessibility.  In fact, government controlled Ontario, at 760,000 people per access point, had the same consumption rate as the fully private system in New York state, at 95,000 per access point.  Once again, the position of Group 3 on the graph is likely a result of culture (since they are all the same country) rather than any direct correlation.  All in all, there does not appear to be a strong reason for limiting the number of retail outlets.  But, if that helps with making a change in the system politically palatable, then OK.  It’s something that can easily be fine tuned at a later date.

The other important restriction is to set a price floor.  This is trickier.  Like it or not, it is perfectly reasonable for a licensing body to restrict the number of licences.  However, price control of private industry is another matter entirely.  Now, if there is a flat minimum price in order to prevent a lot of “two-buck Chucks” from appearing, then the situation is not too bad because that is the market space where cheap booze could be an issue.  But if it is the markup that is regulated, then it’s a different problem.  Then there is little chance for price competition, case discounts, and sale prices, even for premium products where mass market over-consumption is much less of a concern.  Value to the consumer is significantly impaired.

Still, even with these flaws, the recommendations of the BASRP would be a huge improvement over the current situation.  Let’s put these proposals back on the table.  Let your MPP know what you think, for example through  Turn this private affair into a public discussion.

The Select Few

In an earlier post, I promised that I would make the effort to say some good things about the LCBO.  So here is my list (although some items still have qualifiers…oh, well):

  1. There is a reasonably wide selection from all parts of the world with no one region or country especially favoured, in contrast, for example, to the preponderance of French wines in the SAQ (Quebec).  Of course, this even-handedness even extends to Ontario and other Canadian wine, which is a bit odd.  Imagine a wine shop in Bordeaux not having a comprehensive Bordeaux section!
  2. Continuing with the Bordeaux theme, the LCBO provides good access to Bordeaux futures, with only a 25% deposit, compared to the 100% demanded elsewhere (e.g. in the U.S.)
  3. Thorough technical testing and a generous take-back policy ensure that very little contaminated or adulterated wine appears on the shelves.  On the other hand, the take-back policy is only generous to the customer.  The little-known requirement making the supplier pay back the full retail cost on returns is unconscionable (look here to see how the LCBO instructs agents to pay for all costs associated with “defective” product).
  4. Food and Drink magazine, at least from a consumer viewpoint, is a well put-together publication, although it is bad news for the rest of the magazine publishing industry, who must put up with a subsidized competitor.

All right, with that out of the way, let’s get on with this post, in which I want to take a closer look at point number 1 – selection.  In order to get a better feel for the breadth of the selection at your neighbourhood LCBO, try these experiments the next time you cross its threshold:

  • Ask to see the Vintages German wine section.  You’ll likely only find a couple of bins.  After years of suffering through post-Liebfraumilch trauma, German wines, and Riesling in particular, are finally experiencing a renaissance in most of the wine-drinking world.  Try telling that to the LCBO.  German wines don’t fall into their wine world view of massive overextracted “blockbusters” that earn 90+ points from all the “right” critics.
  • Now try to get a decent half bottle of wine.  For a real laugh, look for a half bottle of good German wine!
  • Next, let’s say there is a claret or a Chianti Classico that you find you really enjoy.  Try to find a vintage other than the current one in the store.  In fact, in the regular listings section, wines are not catalogued by vintage.  As the vintage changes, the CSPC does not – they don’t care.  For the LCBO, wine is a commodity – after all, the SKU on a light bulb doesn’t change from year to year.
  • For an additional whimper, visit your neighbourhood delicatessen or other specialty food shop.  In Europe, in many parts of the USA, and in most of the rest of the civilized world, that shop would include an inviting wall of fine wines to accompany the excellent breads, cheeses, sauces, and charcuterie…sigh.  Unfortunately, we’re stuck with a monopoly. Yes, private specialty stores would add immeasurably to the selection of wines available to the Ontario consumer, but privatization is a whole other topic that I will address in a later post.  In the meantime, it is still relevant to this discussion.

So why is the selection at the LCBO so inadequate?  Or is it?  After all, the management will try to tell you how many thousands of separate listings they have in order to prove they have a wide selection.  But that’s equivalent to a ladies’ wear shop telling you that they have a large number of distinct items of apparel, so you’ll find everything you ever want in their shop and you should never need to enter another store.  In other words, the biggest and most obvious reason is:  it’s a monopoly.  Their selection would be laudable if they were simply one chain competing against many other shops and chains with their own selections and specializations.  But, outside of Ontario winery stores, those don’t exist.

However, the study of economics tells us that it is possible for monopolies to provide us with a very wide selection.  Competitors generally focus on the high volume, high profit lines to stay in business and may ignore small volume specialty products and their niche markets.  A monopoly, on the other hand, can afford to stock a wide range of products satisfying all markets.  Satisfying niche markets will actually increase their revenues and profits beyond the high runners.  In an attempt to be somewhat even-handed, I should say that you can, in fact, see evidence of these trends in the Canadian wine retailing business.  In Alberta there are periodic complaints about the lack of selection in many shops, although there are also high quality retailers in the major markets.  On the other hand, the LCBO monopoly does broaden its market appeal through its Vintages section.  Now they could do a lot better if their own policies and practices didn’t hold them back.

One example is the requirement that any one wine must be acquired in sufficient quantities to be made available throughout the province, at least at the level of Vintages locations.  That practice sets a lower limit on quantity and effectively shuts many of the small quality producers out of the Ontario market.  There is a solution to this problem – allow Product Consultants to list wines (and other products) in their own store up to some maximum value (e.g. 5-10% of their Vintages Corner budget).  These wines could come from agents’ stocks, or there could be a modest budget to allow PC’s to travel once or twice a year to wine regions and to make their own selections.  These wines would then go through a process similar to that undergone by any private importer to ensure that they meet LCBO standards.  This procedure would also see more limited production Ontario wines make it to the store shelves.

Let me toss out another issue that affects selection.  The LCBO seems to be fixated on highly manipulated fruit-forward wines and tends to play down the more terroir-driven food-friendly wines that are making a comeback elsewhere.  I have some evidence to support that statement as I recently put together an extensive list of producers of so-called natural or authentic wines (at least those that have some visibility internationally).  I came up with 1667 distinct wines from 361 producers.  Then I checked for availability – only 46 wines were listed with the LCBO while 117 could be found at the SAQ.  Oh well, at least we can now transport wine legally across provincial borders!  Check out Free My Grapes.

In the end, the only real solution will be private competition.  Don’t hold your breath.

The Legacy of Prohibition

Ontario suffered under the Ontario Temperance Act (“prohibition”) from 1916 to 1927.  Although it was repealed over 80 years ago, its legacy is still with us.  Repeal was not a reaction against temperance, since that concept still informs much government thinking.  Instead it was a realization that the province could reduce expenditure (by eliminating all that crime arising from selling and drinking alcohol) and increase income because of the vast profits to be made by assigning the retail role to itself.  What has been the legacy of that period and that transition?

A mass of information can be found at  One interesting point that you may not know is that, until 1975, the Ontario government tracked every person’s every alcohol purchase through the purchase order forms that each customer needed to fill out to buy alcohol at the LCBO.  If Big Brother felt that you were buying too much, you were cut off from all purchasing, province wide.  These surveillance forms were only phased out with the advent of self-serve stores in the late 1970’s.

Moving on to the present, my view on the current situation is as follows:

  • The government’s schizophrenic approach to temperance encourages a public attitude that alcohol is just a little bit naughty.  As a result, over-consumption becomes a goal for younger consumers.  The more mature approach would be to treat consumption as a component of everyday life where, for example, wine is an integral part of a good meal and a picnic in a public park can be accompanied by a picnic wine.  Prohibitions should not be placed on alcoholic beverages themselves, but on the misuse (drinking and driving, drunkenness leading to violence, etc.);
  • All alcohol is equally demonized.  Although the main impetus behind Prohibition was to curb the drunkenness arising from the consumption of whisky in saloons, the result was that beer, cheap wine, fine wine, cheap whisky, fine single malts, and fine cognac were all tarred with the same brush.  Other jurisdictions (e.g. Quebec) have recognized the differences by, for example, allowing private beer and wine sales;
  • Prices are artificially high.  It was recently disclosed in the Ontario Auditor General’s Annual Report that the LCBO sometimes encourages its suppliers to charge higher prices to the LCBO than to other customers so that it can maintain artificially high retail prices and thereby maintain the guise of “social responsibility.”  This revelation has slid off the Teflon LCBO like water off a duck’s back because the government figures that it is in their interest not to interfere with or reprimand the LCBO in any way at all in case profits should be affected;
  • Prohibition is clearly alive and well in the guise of several legislative attempts to place warning labels on all alcoholic beverage containers.  In this case, however, kudos to the government for resisting the pressure.  Such an effort is superfluous nowadays as anti-drinking-and-driving campaigns and informational campaigns about the effects of alcohol on pregnant women have achieved universal and very public awareness.  For the consumer, the downside isn’t really the additional expense per se, as trumpeted by the beverage industry.  Instead, such legislation further solidifies the hold on the industry of large (often multinational) companies that can easily handle the label modifications and that have the ear of the government.  Conversely, it marginalizes the small quality producer, whose product is generally used in exactly the kind of way that should be encouraged, i.e. as an integral part of a good meal.

Even in the United States, the former poster child for Prohibition, most states have decided that consumers of alcoholic beverages may actually be adults.  Wine is sold privately, sometimes even on sale or with case discounts, and you can enjoy a rosé with that picnic in the park.  The LCBO’s paternalistic attitude should be treated as the anachronism it is, with no place in our modern cosmopolitan society.  There is plenty of legislation in place to deal with misuse of alcohol:  by all means keep alcohol from young children, but don’t treat all adults as children too!

For more on this subject, you might want to take a look at this article by Connie Woodstock.

Mission LCBO

I’ll have a lot to say about the LCBO in future – some of it is even good!  But first it’s worthwhile to try and understand why it is here at all and what it is trying to do.  The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (the quasi-monopoly responsible for retail alcohol sales in Ontario) was formed after the repeal of the Ontario Temperance Act (“Prohibition”) in 1927 – more about that in future.  That’s why “Control” is so prominent in the name.  Surely that’s all changed after more than 80 years!  What is their mission now?  I’ll bet very few of you have any idea what it might be, in part because it’s so contradictory.  While they still have the mandate to control and restrict the sale of alcohol, they are also a major retail organization with the need to maximize sales and profits.  According to the LCBO website, its mission statement is:

“We are a socially responsible, performance-driven, innovative and profitable retailer, engaging our customers in a discovery experience of the world of beverage alcohol.”

Clearly the fourth point (“profitable”) is the most important because the very next paragraph boasts that:

“Sales in fiscal 2010-11 were $4.55 billion and the LCBO delivered a $1.55 billion dividend to the Ontario government.”

OK, no wonder a mind-numbingly long succession of Ontario governments have chosen to do next to nothing to reform or replace the LCBO – they love the money too much.  So what about their number one mission objective – “social responsibility?”  That phrase primarily means preventing alcohol sales to minors while incidentally campaigning against drinking and driving and so forth.  So how are they doing?  Well, a recently published study sent out secret shoppers, both underage (15-18) and legal age (19-24), to the government run LCBO, the privately operated Beer Store chain, and privately owned convenience stores (purchasing cigarettes in this case), in order to test their dedication to the prevention of underage drinking.  The results were:  convenience stores only sold to minors 1 time in 8; the Beer Store record was 1 in 5; and the LCBO came dead last at 1 in 4.  There was a similar trend, in terms of carding, for the legal age customers.  Oops.

The other mission objectives are to be performance-driven and innovative.  For performance-driven, read “profit maximization” (see above.)  As for innovation, not much has happened since the requirement was dropped that every drinker in the province had to be licensed and under surveillance (for more information, check out the Punched Drunk website), and since the service model evolved from purchase order forms and a furtive booze-in-a-paper bag philosophy to normal retail self-serve.  Sure, they’ve added some new purchasing vehicles over the years (Classics catalogue, Shop Online, etc.), but what about evolving the stores to resemble normal retail wine stores elsewhere in the world, with case discounts, sale prices on more than bin-ends, quality in-store tasting events, and delegation of some power to product consultants so they can stock independently?

But reform will be hard.  Successive political parties have always made noise about how the LCBO should be privatized and liquor laws modernized, while they were in opposition.   But as soon as they get into government, they can’t resist the profits.  As usual, when trying to understand human behaviour, remember Jerry Maguire’s immortal words:  “Follow the money.”

P.S. – For  more on the subject, check out the latest newsletter from Michael Pinkus, the Grape Guy, at