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One man’s incredible journey to opening a pure bottle shop in the heart of Niagara

By Rick VanSickle

In the years leading up to 2002, when the premier at the time in Ontario, Mike Harris, had strongly hinted at the privatization of alcohol in the province, hopes were high that private wine shops would at long last become a reality.

All hope was crushed when Harris resigned, and Ernie Eves won the PC leadership, but lost the election a year later to the Liberals. All that talk of privatization was silenced through subsequent elections over the past 20 years until the unfortunate emergence of one of the world’s deadliest viruses — COVID 19 — during the current reign of Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative party.

Niagara wine
Robbie Raskin noses a wine at his new Archives wine shop.

During that small window of time during the dying days of Harris’s Conservative government, insiders were predicting a major shift was coming to booze retailing in Ontario with the dismantling of LCBO’s monopoly on sales. I was writing columns and editorials for the Toronto Sun at the time and was a vocal proponent for privatization. I believed it was going to happen and I had a friend (an old classmate) inside the Tory regime who hinted to me that privatization would have happened had Harris not resigned. It was the closest Ontario came to privatization.

I had long imagined what would happen when/if privatization became a reality. I pictured a beautiful little VQA wine only shop, where I would curate the best of Ontario wines in a store modelled after the VQA shops at the time in B.C. They were a gathering place for wine enthusiasts fully engaged in Canadian wine with a large retail component, seminars, and tastings with winemakers. It was a dream of mine that sadly never had a chance. Each subsequent government after Harris fortified the fortress around the LCBO and privatization was shelved seemingly forever.

It took one of the deadliest epidemics in the history of time, namely COVID-19, to penetrate the walls of the LCBO and slowly dismantle the ridiculous notion that booze can only be retailed by a bureaucratic hot mess of gatekeepers whose key role is maintaining the status quo in Ontario.

With restaurants and bars hurting badly during the shutdowns, brought about because of COVID, Ford allowed them sell alcohol to consumers through ad-hoc bottle shops. Suddenly, there were cracks in the flood gates, and smart entrepreneurs were leaping into a new retail stream that seemed all but impossible before COVID. It was a chaotic time as people scrambled to understand what they could and could not do. And, how much to invest in this brave new world with an uncertain future. Would bottle shops be permanent after COVID?

Well, the genie was out of the bottle. Bottle shops are thriving and growing exponentially across the province. Meanwhile, the LCBO is scaling back on new wine releases at Vintages stores, shoring up their dominance on popular, inexpensive wines, and ramping up their online presence. The door is wide open for a thoughtful approach to selling wine, spirits, cider, and beer in retail stores.

While it’s too late for me to dive into the unknown waters of privatization, I can live vicariously through the energies of the brave women and men who have dared to build a future that is free of the CONTROL part of the LCBO.

I want you to meet Robbie Raskin and his exciting Archives Wine and Spirit Merchants in downtown St. Catharines. His path to opening his bottle shop is a story of perseverance, sacrifice and determination in the face of confusing regulations, licencing and roadblocks that were needlessly placed in front of him every step of the way. He simply never gave up.

Raskin is 27 years old. That’s important to note as there is an entire cohort of younger people who got stuck in the nightmare of COVID with hopes of a career dashed and their future to be determined. His story is not unique, but what he did to escape the haze of cancelled job interviews, lockdowns and disappointments is.

After graduating from the UofT, where he studied politics and urban studies, Raskin worked odd jobs and then decided to rechart his course. He took the distilling course at Niagara College and “began kicking the tires of a virtual whisky brand.” The rules he confronted and the hard road ahead of selling spirits through LCBO stores made that dream dissipate quickly. His epiphany happened in November of 2020 with the notion of bottle shops opening in the province. He became interested in wine while taking the distilling course at NC and has some WEST (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) training but knew that if he went down the road to opening a bottle shop, he would likely be the first to do so without a serious wine background. And he wanted to build a pure wine store without a restaurant or bar as part of the package.

He was determined to make it happen. He had little money, so Raskin leaned on his parents, Sue and Mel Raskin, and later his grandma Sheila Raskin, to help with leasing the storefront at 39 James Street in the heart of downtown St. Catharines. He also has a friend from Australia, who he met at Niagara College, Jordan Epstein, who came on board as a bit of saviour.

The “fun” was just beginning. He leased a building on James Street in January of 2021, a spacious building with plenty of space for bottle shelves, tastings, inner rooms for winemaker events and an inviting store front (still waiting on the main signage) on one of the coolest streets in St. Catharines. In the early days of bottle shops, the rules were confusing, especially if you were starting from scratch like Raskin was. He had no licences, the building was never licenced as a bar or a restaurant, and the city was at a loss of how to licence him.

Meanwhile, he was leasing a building that wasn’t bringing in much cash and Raskin’s bank account was being drained quickly. He ran the business as a pantry shop, which brought in limited cash, used a line of credit, and raised a bit of money through a Fundrazr campaign. Mom, dad, and grandma Raskin were generous in helping him, but frustrations were mounting. He would talk to one person at the city who told him he needed to get a restaurant licence, but to do that he needed four bathrooms built. Then he was told he needed a bar licence to operate a bottle shop and different inspectors came in and had other changes in mind. “One thing led to another, then five things, then 10 things,” he said. It would be 1.5 years before he was finally told, with the help of a city councillor, he only needed a liquor sales licence to operate “like a bar” for the bottle shop to work. Eureka! Robbie Raskin was in business.

He believes now that his bottle shop is the first to open that wasn’t a bar or restaurant already — “at least on this scale,” he says.

On May 29, Archives Wine and Spirit Merchants opened for the first time to the public. There is no food to speak of, just some well curated cheeses and maybe local charcuterie down the road. The shop is licenced for 30 people who can come and taste wines and spirits by the glass and buy from a selection of 70 different skews of predominantly hard-to-find Canadian wines, spirits, and ciders.

Raskin wants consumers to think of his shop “as a genuine alternative to the LCBO — your neighbourhood place to buy wine.” Ideally, he wants 100+ skews on his shelves at any given time, or room for 1,000 bottles of wines that you can’t get at the LCBO, some exclusive gems and all curated with an eye toward eclectic wines and spirits.

There is also an online component (go here to buy) to the shop and delivery is free to St. Catharines customers if you spend $30 or more.

Most of the wines in the store are in the $30-$45 range but there are wines that cost more and some less. Perusing the shelves with Raskin I was like a kid in a candy store mulling over the interesting collection of wines, ciders, and spirits (with beers to come). The selection is weighted toward Niagara wines, both virtual and established, but nearly every region of the province is represented, from Ottawa to Hockley Hills to LENS, Prince Edward County and beyond. There are also wines from Quebec, Nova Scotia, and B.C.

And Raskin hasn’t abandoned the rest of the world. There are three wines from small producers from France, Spain, and Italy presently on the shelves with more to come. There’s an eclectic range of orange wines, pét nats, natural wines, piquettes, and a tiny collection of small lot spirits. Think Bearface from B.C. and Ogham Crafts Spirits from Ottawa.

I walked away with one of the first bottles of the Last House Pinot Noir, a new project from Prince Edward County, to ever to be sold at a retail store and enjoyed a white blend from Locust Lane while gazing at the shelves loaded with such gems as the Black Bank Hill, The Fourth Wall, Maenad Wine Company, Divergence (first wines just released and reviews coming here soon), Mason Vineyard, The Farm and Eve’s Eclectics all from Niagara. Then there was Therianthropy Wines, KIN Vineyards, Benjamin Bridge, Muscedere Vineyards, Osoyoos Larose, Windrush, 3XP Chardonnay, Keint-he, Lighthall, Meldville (more on this producer below), Huff Estates, Muskoka Lakes Blueberry wine, Southbrook Organic Cider, a rare one-off from the Collab group called Finite, a sparkling icewine and a fascinating collection that goes on and on.

It is an incredible feat Raskin has achieved so far against adversity. I smell great success in his future and will live vicariously through his venture with just a tiny bit of jealousy.

Meldville in the house

A few days after interviewing Raskin for this post, I was walking downtown with my wife Maureen and our pooch Maisy-May. We only live about 10 minutes away. It was a Sunday and the door at Archives was tossed wide open. Inside, Meldville winemaker Derek Barnett was pouring his wines in an impromptu pop up. I was drawn into the shop and tasted three wines with Barnett on a warm sunny day and it was glorious. We should have thought of these cool bottle shops a long, long time ago. Here’s what I tasted.

Meldville Cabernet Franc Rosé 2020 (price at Archives, $25) — A tasty, dry and refreshing rosé made from a variety that puts a bit of backbone into this summer staple. It’s loaded with red berries and a touch of herbs on both the nose and palate and finishes with lively blast of acidity.

Meldville Barrel Select Fumé Blanc 2019 (price at Archives $30) — This Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in older French oak barrels and has a rich, spicy profile on the nose with grapefruit, apple, and fresh herbs. It has lovely texture and elegance on the palate with a racy, juicy finish.

Meldville Barrel Select Chardonnay 2018 ($30 at Archives) — This Chardonnay was aged in third and fourth fill French oak barrels and was left to rest on its lees with minimal stirring for 17 months before racking to stainless steel tank. It was lightly filtered before bottling. Just a gorgeous expression of Chardonnay with ripe pear and apple with tropical notes and spice on both the nose and palate. It has lovely texture and perfect balance through the vibrant, citrus tinged finish.