Wine Mythtakes, Part 2: Enjoying Wine

In the first half of this essay on wine myths, I focussed on eight misconceptions associated with buying wine.  In this second half I shall be taking a look at ten myths about consuming and enjoying wine, including two that turn out to be generally correct and not myths at all.  Again there will be two major subsections:  Serving Wine, followed by Wine and Health.

Serving Wine

9. Red Wine with Red Meat, White Wine with White Meat

I know this myth has been fairly well demolished in recent years, especially since the landmark publication of the Rosegarten and Wesson book Red Wine with Fish.  Still, I’d like to summarize my own thoughts, many of them distilled from the work of others before me, of course.

This maxim is mainly valid at the extremes.  The traditional thick rare steak grilled on the barby calls for a young full-bodied red wine.  The big fruit from the wine can stand up to the strong flavours of the grill while at the same time the (likely) pronounced tannins in the wine are muted by the meat’s protein.  At the other extreme, a delicate poached white fish would be overwhelmed by anything but a fresh and crisp white.  In between, however, the method of food preparation is more important than the base ingredient.

Take chicken as an example.  With a delicate cream sauce, a crisp medium-bodied Chablis would go well, but pasta with a chicken (or any) tomato sauce cries out for a good Italian red.  In fact, those wines are good with fowl in almost any form.  Don’t be swayed by those half-hearted attempts to match light red wines with chicken or turkey – go with the gusto!  Another example can be found with most Asian foods, where, no matter what the base ingredient, a white or rosé is your best bet.  And, as always, experiment!

10. Serve Red Wine at Room Temperature

OK, so what’s room temperature?  Well, the kernel of truth in this old saw is that when it originated, rooms, especially in winter, were pretty cold and draughty.  So something like 16°C (60°F) was the norm in the house, and it was also a good serving temperature.  But in our centrally heated homes wine is usually too warm at room temperature so it needs half an hour to an hour in the fridge before pouring.  And err on the side of too cool rather than too warm because the wine will warm up fairly quickly in the glass in any case.

But what’s wrong with 21°C (70°F)?  It’s really a matter of balance.  At room temperature the harsher background flavours (alcohol and various bitter components) tend to be emphasized to the detriment of the overall experience.  On the other hand, too cold and you lose a lot of the more delicate fruit and perfume notes while the wine will seem overly tannic.  Since tannins are not an issue with whites and rosés. they can be served a little cooler (but not at refrigerator temperature) to bring out that lip-smacking freshness.

11. Open the Wine Early So it Can “Breathe”

There are two principal reasons why one might want wine to “breathe” a bit before you drink it.  There may be some volatile (easily evaporated) components that are trapped within the wine or under the cork and that you would like to see disappear because they present some off flavours (“bottle stink”)  The most common culprits are sulphur compounds (found more often under screw cap) or volatile acidity (otherwise known as vinegar).  However, there is a much greater surface area and adjacent volume of air available to wine in a glass than in a bottle, so if those volatile components were able to escape during half an hour of sitting or “breathing” (and that’s unlikely), then they certainly should be able to do so within a minute or two after being poured.

Decanter for young wines

Decanter for young wines

The other reason is to expose a young wine to oxygen in the air.  A little oxidation can soften the tannins and improve balance.  However, the same argument applies here as in my previous point.  If you really want to expose the wine to lots of air, then decant it into one of those wide base decanters (shown at right) and really splash it in, don’t pour carefully.  Slow and gentle decanting is for old wines where you want to separate the wine from the accumulated sediment without exposing that liquid gold to much oxygen.  And that thought provides a segué to the next myth.

12. Old Wine is Better

Like all of these myths, there is always a kernel of truth at the centre, but in this case it might be expressed as:  Old Wine Can Occasionally Be Better.  Most wines are not made for long aging, rather for “trunk aging” (or “boot aging” for some) on the way home from the wine shop.  On the other hand, most wines will not be damaged by lying around for a year or two – some may even improve slightly.  There is a small subset of wines that should generally be consumed within the first year after bottling, such as crisp light Vinho Verde or light rosés.  At the other end of the spectrum is the small subset of wines that benefit from significant aging:  Bordeaux, Burgundy (red and white), Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, many Rieslings, and most of the better sweet wines, among others.  But all of these wines do eventually subside into senility and finally, death.  It may take 10 years, it may take 20 or more, but it happens to them all.  Don’t wait for it.

In fact, for most of us, consuming wine when it is a little younger than peak perfection is usually preferable to a bit beyond its best by date.  And it should be said that many people do not, in fact, enjoy the changes wrought by years in the cellar, when the fruit fades and the tertiary aromas are brought forth.  The best way to find out for yourself is to buy a case of decent Bordeaux, for example, and then have a bottle every year or two in order to understand how it ages.  Sure, that takes time, but you can drink younger wines in the meantime as well as having more than one case slumbering in the cellar.

13. Good “Legs” Mean Good Wine

How often have you heard someone with a small but dangerous amount of wine knowledge raise a glass to the light and comment on the fine “legs” or “tears” running down the side of the glass and how this must be a good wine.  Contrary to this myth, however, the presence of legs is not a function of wine body or glycerol content or quality in general.  It mostly means that the wine contains around 12% alcohol or more (but we already knew that, right?) and that the glass is clean, nothing more.  Although the phenomenon is fun to watch.

Legs are a result of the Gibbs-Marangoni Effect.  The wine will wet the sides of the glass, slowly on its own, or rapidly if assisted by swirling the wine in the glass.  Then as the alcohol evaporates preferentially with respect to the water, the liquid beads up on the side of the glass and eventually runs back down under its own weight.  The magnitude of the effect depends in part on the interfacial tension between the liquid and the glass, which explains why dish washing also makes a contribution.

Wine and Health

There is a lot of information on this subject in my earlier post; here I’ll focus on the myths and misinformation associated with wine and health, and I’ll end with two beliefs that are still controversial and may not be myths at all.

14. Wine is Bad for Your Health

Let’s tackle that main overriding myth right off the bat.  Again, there is some truth at the centre of it.  First, very high levels of alcohol, consumed frequently, are extremely bad for your health – I think everyone can agree on that.  Second, moderate levels can be unhealthy for you or someone else when combined with the operation of a motor vehicle or heavy machinery – again, not much dispute there.  Third, it has been well established in recent years that alcohol consumption contributes to the risk of developing cancer.  The effect is negligible at low levels of consumption but does rise monotonically as consumption increases.  There can be other negative effects at low to moderate levels, but cancer is the biggie.

What’s missing here is the significant health benefits derived from consuming alcohol, particularly for the cardiovascular system, but in other areas as well.  These benefits kick in quite quickly and are near maximum with only a very small dose (around half a glass of wine, for example).  Meanwhile, the detrimental effects accumulate slowly with dose, so that for moderate consumption they are greatly outweighed by the benefits.  The result is what’s called a “J curve” (a somewhat fanciful illusion to the shape of the curve), as shown in the graph below.

Fitted relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality.  Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality (mathematically fitted to data). Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The recommended consumption level of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men results in a significant net health benefit (i.e. lower mortality risk).  It takes at least 2 drinks per day for women and 3 for men before the risk returns to the same level as a teetotaller.  This graph provides a simplified summary of the results of the meta-study by Castelnuovo et al.  There is also some evidence that food consumption reduces the effects of alcohol.  At least one study has shown that a meal eaten with alcohol not only resulted in a 35% reduction in peak blood alcohol content, but it also took 36-50% less time to metabolize the alcohol.

I think the extreme prohibitionist view, at least from the medical profession, comes from the Hippocratic requirement to “do no harm.”  If a medical practitioner only looks at the deleterious effects of alcohol and not at the entire health of the individual, then that approach is understandable if not sensible.  However, it is a disservice to the 90% of the population who are not alcoholics and who do not drive after having had too much to drink.

15. Sulphites Cause Headaches

Some people suffer from headaches after drinking wine, especially red wine, and often within minutes of consumption.  These headaches are frequently blamed on the sulphites in wine, or on the tannins.  However, it is now known that sulphites do not cause headaches and are not allergens (they are not proteins, for one thing), although they may cause a reaction for asthma sufferers (and this is the reason that sulphite content may be quoted on the label, not because of headaches).  After all, there is a lot more sulphite in dried fruit (two ounces contain over 10 times as much as a glass of wine) and in prepared meats.  In fact, the human body naturally produces around 1000 mg of sulphite per day, some 20 times greater than the contents of an entire bottle of wine.

Tannins too cannot be blamed for a wine headache, except perhaps in the case of the unfortunate few who suffer from migraines.  So what is the source?  Well, there is a lot of discussion about the cause, complicated by the fact that there are hundreds or even thousands of naturally occurring substances in a glass of wine.  Some of the more likely culprits are naturally occurring histamines, prostaglandins, tyramine, or residues from the yeast or bacteria involved in fermentation.  The bottom line, however, is that no one really knows what causes a wine headache (other than the one you experience in the morning after having imbibed far too much the night before!)

16. Wine, Especially Sweet Wine, is Full of Calories

Calories in wine arise from the alcohol and from any residual sugar.  Therefore the caloric content of a glass of wine can vary.  Each per cent of alcohol represents 10mL per litre, or 7.89g of alcohol, and alcohol contains 6.9 calories/g.  Sugars (and carbohydrates in general) contain about 4.1 calories/g.  Sugar in wine is usually measured in g/L.  Therefore the caloric content of a 5oz (150mL) glass of wine is:

C = 0.15 x (A x 7.89 x 6.9 + S x 4.1)

Here A is the percentage alcohol by volume, S is the sugar content in g/L and C is the number of calories in a normal glass.  For example, a completely dry wine of 14% alcohol contains 114 calories, whereas a sweet German wine with 8% alcohol and 4g/L of residual sugar contains 75 calories!  So sweet doesn’t necessarily equate to high in calories.  Fermentation simply converts one form of energy delivery into another.  Note, however, that a glass of fortified wine like port, with 20% alcohol and 100g/L of sugar weighs in at over 400 calories.  Fortunately, we tend to drink smaller glasses of fortified wines, so a 2oz glass is “only” 160 calories.

Now that we know what’s in a glass of wine, how does that compare with other drinks?  Well, a 12oz glass of 5% beer contains around 150 calories, the same size of soda pop contains 132 calories, 6oz of orange juice contains 84, and milk has 102 calories in a cup (8oz).  So what’s the verdict?  Unless you’re drinking only water and diet drinks, everything has calories to a greater or lesser extent.  As always, especially with alcohol, the message is quantity.  Just don’t drink too much!  Even that bastion of dieting, Weight Watchers®, has nothing against a glass of wine – it just goes into the calculation of total daily consumption.  Be moderate and you’re fine.  We do need calories (energy) to live – just don’t overdo it.

17. Pregnant Women Should Drink No Alcohol

Here’s one that may not be a myth at all.  First, however, it needs to be made clear that the statement is trying to differentiate between light alcohol consumption and none at all.  It is beyond dispute that heavy drinking is a serious issue and often results in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Moderate alcohol consumption can result in less serious but still significant Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  Therefore, the current recommendation of the health authorities of most western countries (e.g. U.S., U.K., Canada) is complete abstinence during pregnancy.  But what about very light drinking (e.g. a half glass of wine once in a week)?  Here is where the only controversy lies.

Two recent studies, one from Denmark and one from the U.K., both show a slight benefit to the child from light alcohol consumption by the pregnant mother.  However, other studies show the opposite outcome, although the effects are always small.  Most of the variations are likely due to other factors that may differ systematically between those who consume none and those who consume a little alcohol during pregnancy.  These effects may work both ways, as described here and here.

Alcohol is a known teratogen that passes easily across the placental barrier.  At the end of the day, it is that clinical knowledge that is the basis for a total ban on alcohol consumption during pregnancy.  Now all potentially dangerous substances do have a safe level below which they are not harmful.  But if that level is a trace amount only, then a total ban is sensible.  The problem is that with the contradictory studies that are out there, we don’t really know what the safe level.  Therefore the injunction against any drinking at all is reasonable.  At the end of day, however, if you are pregnant and have a sip once in a while, especially with food (which slows metabolism of the alcohol), the likelihood of doing any real harm is remote – don’t fret about it.

18. Red Wine is the Healthiest Form of Alcohol

Here’s the other myth that contains more fact than fiction, but to a certain extent the jury is still out.  The benefits of consuming wine in moderation are real, as I detailed in the first part of this double post, and in a previous post, Is Wine Good for You?.  The question is:  are the benefits greater from red wine than from other alcoholic beverages?

Those benefits arise from the alcohol itself (little controversy there), possibly from antioxidants (flavonoids and polyphenols such as resveratrol, for example), and maybe from other trace components.  Ethanol (ethyl alcohol, i.e. beverage alcohol) is well known to increase (good) HDL cholesterol and reduce (bad) LDL cholesterol, thereby providing cardiovascular protection.

The effects of antioxidants are less clear and conflicting studies continue to be published.  In general, however, the quantity of antioxidants required for clinical benefit is so great that the amount of alcohol consumed to obtain it would kill you!  Resveratrol in particular is often cited for its benefits with respect to blood sugar control, cognition, cancer fighting, and weight maintenance.  However, a recent study has determined that dietary resveratrol, including that in wine, does not provide any health benefits, probably because the dietary quantities are so low, as mentioned above.  Now, popular press reports of this study have tended to sensationalize it by equating resveratrol with all of the benefits of drinking wine, which we know is not the case.

All right, alcohol in moderation is good in general.  So what about the purported advantages of wine, and red wine in particular?  One interesting study from Spain showed that red wine consumption decreases the incidence of the common cold by 40%, while there was a smaller reduction with beer or white wine and no effect for other forms of alcohol.  There is other marginal evidence out there, but the bottom line is that red wine is at least as good as other wine and perhaps better for you, but the differences are small.  This myth cannot be considered to be true or false, for now.

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.

Way to Go, Véronique!

This past week our very own Véronique Rivest, long time sommelier at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, reached a pinnacle in the world of wine by taking the runner-up position in the Best Sommelier in the World competition, held every three years by l’Association de la Sommellerie Internationale.  She is the first woman ever to reach the finals in this competition.  Many congratulations and bonnes félicitations, Véronique.  We have even greater hopes for you in the future – remember, this year’s winner (Paolo Basso of Switzerland) was runner-up in 2010!

Sure, you say, that sounds wonderful, but then, what exactly is a sommelier?  Well, we usually think of a sommelier as the person responsible for the wine selection and wine service at a decent restaurant, but in days gone by the sommelier had a broader mandate than just wine, being responsible for all aspects of customer service.  Even today, a sommelier must have a deep understanding of dining and particularly of the menu being served, since food and wine pairing is the most important and visible component of the job.  Therefore even the most expert wine lover, when dining out, will consult with a sommelier in order to choose wine, since the sommelier will have a much more intimate knowledge of the food and its preparation in that establishment.  Never be hesitant about calling on the sommelier for assistance – he or she will love to provide you with the best wining and dining experience possible, while respecting your tastes and your budget.

Sommeliers are professionals whose on-the-job experiences are the greatest teachers.  These days, however, most have had professional training to some degree, at the very least completing a sommelier program at a nearby college.  But, please remember that such training does not make one a sommelier.  For example, I am a graduate of the Sommelier Certification Program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, but I am not a sommelier.  Only those working in a professional food and wine service environment should have that distinction.  Even so, there is a wide range of wine education available to the interested wine lover, amateur or professional.

Along with the professional sommelier accreditation programs offered at community and technical colleges, a range of similar courses is also available in Canada, the US, and China through the International Sommelier Guild.  Their most advanced course also provides accreditation.

Somewhat in parallel with, and ultimately moving beyond the standard sommelier programs, we have the series of courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.  This institution is headquartered in the United Kingdom, but its program is now offered worldwide by various contract organizations.  In Canada the courses may be taken through Fine Vintage Ltd. in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and some smaller centres, through the International Wine Education Guild in Toronto and on-line, through the Vendange Institute in Ottawa, and through The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, in Vancouver.

Beyond the WSET, there are two paths that one can take when shooting for the highest levels of wine certification.  The best known is “Master of Wine” (MW) from the Institute of Masters of Wine.  Also headquartered in the UK, its accreditation was originally only available to wine professionals but, although most MW’s continue to be in the wine trade, the institute now also welcomes amateurs who are willing to invest the time and money required to follow through with the program.  Working towards the MW can be a full time occupation and requires upwards of three years to complete.  There are three parts to the examination – theory, practical, and dissertation.  Currently there are some 300 MW’s worldwide, of which approximately one third are from outside of the UK.  There are four in Canada – James Cluer, Rhys Pender, Barbara Philip, and Igor Rijenkov.

The alternative to MW is through the Master Sommelier (MS) route.  This distinction is strictly reserved for professional sommeliers and is even more difficult to achieve than the MW.  Only 186 individuals have ever succeeded in attaining the MS designation and just two of these are Canadian – John Szabo and Jennifer Huether.  Even our own silver medallist at the Best Sommelier in the World competition is still putting in the thousands of hours required to attain the MS designation.  The organization that certifies an MS, the Court of Master Sommeliers, is once again headquartered in London.  It also offers courses and certifications at several levels below and leading up to the MS.

So if you want to follow in Véronique’s footsteps, you will need years of experience and years of study.  If you only want to add to your enjoyment of wine, take a couple of courses and then pour your own experience!  Either way, you can be proud of your accomplishments and we can all be proud of our new wine superstar.  Way to go, Véronique!