By Rick VanSickle
Here we go again, another LCBO Vintages wine release, another journey into the unknown.
Note, also in this report: We have our recommendations for Niagara wines being released Saturday at Vintages stores.
As anyone who followed the monthly only releases of new wines into LCBO stores across the province knows only too well, what you want is not always what yet get, despite your best efforts to find what you are looking for and what has been advertised as arriving in stores. Reports of wines not making it to the release are common, which is frustrating for consumers, yes, but it really puts wineries and agencies in a bind.
They count on the LCBO to get it right. They spend time, money, and effort to make sure the wines get to the LCBO warehouse and depend on the LCBO to do their part. I have heard enough sad stories about wines that don’t make it to the release due to warehousing issues, that it has gone beyond just a few “isolated” situations. And when a wine doesn’t make the release, it’s often sent to select stores, not of the winery’s choosing, but at the whim of the LCBO. And all too often that means to a smaller audience in far-flung places without recourse for the winery/agency.
For example, an Ontario winery plans for months to have their wine included in an August release. They put marketing behind the release, send samples out for review, send newsletters to their customers and *boom* the wines never make it to the shelves. A note comes back to the winery/agency apologizing but relax, they are fixing the mistake, and your wines will be going to stores in Sudbury, Welland and Sarnia. Most Ontario wineries want their wines in key Toronto stores where the vast majority of key consumers reside, so when they go to a few stores scattered throughout the province, it’s of little use to them and it’s a pretty good bet they will languish on LCBO store shelves for months.
And then there’s the more concerning debacle that unfolded this summer with Vintages releases. Last spring, the brain trust of the government-controlled booze retailer decided in their wisdom to cancel half the twice-monthly in Vintages releases and just have one in-store wine release and one “online exclusive” release instead. Needless to point this out, but it was a dismal failure.
For decades, consumers have been groomed to head to their closest Vintages store every other Saturday to shop for new and exciting wines from around the world and right here in their home province. It was a ritual for many, and to be honest here, it worked perfectly (aside from some of the supply issues COVID created).
The switch to the online exclusive went over like a lead balloon, and, of course, chaos ensued. It has been, what one can only describe as a disaster and that is amplified by the most recent “online” release on Saturday, Aug. 27. One of the superstar wines in the release was the Bachelder Wismer Foxcroft Ouest Chardonnay 2019. It was supposed to be an online exclusive, yet many of the bottles began to show up at some Vintages stores unannounced days before the actual release date and the listing never did make it to the online part of the release (you couldn’t even find it listed on the LCBO website). You can’t be an online exclusive if a portion of the bottles secretly appear at some Vintages stores (there were a couple of cases at the Cornwall store in Oakville that I stumbled on and I found out later the entire Bachelder release went directly to 10 flagship Vintages stores).
Another wine in the “online exclusive” release on Aug. 27 was to be the cultish white Rioja called Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva Blanco 2010. But in the week or so preceding the official online release it was made available at key stores in Toronto, not being held for the Saturday release, and zero bottles were available the day before the advertised release date. I got a tip prior to the release from a friend that the Vintages store on Cornwall in Oakville had a large number of the wine on the shelves. It wasn’t listed on the website and my friend just stumbled upon them. I called immediately and had four bottles reserved and picked them up a day before it was to be released online. Again, this was supposed to be an “online exclusive” and the agent handling the listing even touted that in a newsletter to clients, seemingly unaware of the change. Undoubtedly, more than a few people were disappointed when they logged into the LCBO website to find the wines they wanted were gone because they were shipped to stores without even telling anyone. Frustrating for all involved. Or as one LCBO insider told me: “It’s a shit show!”
As I began to dig into what the problem was, another source sent me an internal memo from the LCBO admitting their online exclusive program has not gone as planned and changes were being made on the fly.
This is the memo under the heading Online Exclusive Release Strategy:
Following ongoing feedback to the LCBO Merchandising and Marketing team concerning the lack of sell through with the Online Exclusive Program, Marie Cundari (LCBO Senior Director, NW & Ontario Wines), has provided the following update. Thank you to all members of the committee for their efforts in encouraging this new strategy. As we have embarked on our new Vintages release transformation this year, we wanted to advise you of a change that we are making to our online exclusive release strategy to ensure that we are maximizing sales potential and the in-store customer experience.
Effective with the August 27th release, Online exclusives will move to hybrid Online + Flagship Store exclusive releases In addition to Icbo.com, Flagship stores (10, 38, 149, 164, 217, 355, 452, 486, 511, 528) will be receiving inventory of these products with accompanying shelf talkers on the release date
• Online + Flagship store exclusives will continue to be highlighted prominently in the retail release catalogue and on Icbo.com
• All Online + Flagship releases will now align to the Saturday release date (instead of Thursday) to ensure consistency and clearer customer communication
• Online customers will now be able to use Same Day pick up as an option when shopping these products in Flagship location
So, there you go. The LCBO, by admitting their error to only a limited number of a people, forgot to let the most important people (consumers) in this whole mess know the wines they were looking for were already on the shelves and, in some cases, already sold out.
It’s a bizarre way to run a business, but let’s face it, when you have no oversight and run a near-monopoly you can do whatever you damn well please.
We will have to wait and see what the future holds, but I suspect that in short order, it will return to what it was — twice monthly, in-store releases.
In fairness, the printed LCBO flyer did manage to include the fact that the last of the experimental summer online only releases on Aug. 27, where the entire release was supposed to be available exclusively online via lcbo.com, was a hybrid of in-store and online “exclusives.” But not enough communication was extended to consumers and agencies to effectively negate the confusion. And that’s just not right.
By the way, no one in this report complained to me directly and I only used the two examples above because a) I had interest in the Bachedler release because I made a big deal of it on this website in a preview report and b) I wanted to order the Tondonia online and couldn’t understand why it was slowly being put on shelves at key stores and was sold out by the time consumers knew what was happening.
Let’s all hope that the “Online Exclusive” program now dead in the water forever.
For now, I offer Wines In Niagara’s picks of the local wines for the next in-store Vintages release this Saturday. Good luck.
Le Clos Jordanne Jordan Village Chardonnay 2019 ($28, 92 points) — The Chardonnay is sourced from the Le Clos Vineyard, Claystone Terrace Vineyard (both Twenty Mile Bench) and Talon Ridge (Vinemount Ridge) on the Jordan Bench and made with the same attention to detail and deft touch of French oak winemaker Thomas Bachelder employs with the Grand Clos. The wine is aged in selected French oak barrels (only about 20% of which are new) for 16 to 18 months and both the Chard and Pinot are wild fermented. It has a pretty perfumed nose of ripe pear, lemon drop, yellow apple, honeysuckle, creamy/toasted vanilla notes, chalky minerality and lovely integrated spice notes. It’s generous on the palate with a creamy texture, pure chalky minerality, pear/apple/quince fruit, persistence, complexity and subtle savoury spice notes to go with a bright and finessed finish. Can cellar 5+ years if you can hold it that long.
Bachelder Les Villages Gamay Noir 2020 ($25, 90 points) — Even at this level, Thomas Bachelder wants consumers to get a taste of what he commonly refers to as “cru” level Gamay that is carefully curated from his key single vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Bench. The goal is to create an expression of the terroir from all of Niagara that combines “the deep ripe fruit and silky tannins of Niagara-on-the-Lake with the delicate perfume and limestone angularity of the best Bench vineyard fruit,” he says. The 2020 vintage brings a richness and plumpness to the fruit, and it shows on the nose here with a ripe and succulent array of cherry-raspberry berries, plums, subtle spice notes, earth and bramble. Those ripe red fruits are tempered somewhat by vibrant acidity giving lift to red berries and plums with added earthiness and savoury notes. Can cellar 3+ years. It’s sourced from Wismer-Foxcroft. Bai Xu, Bator, and Willms vineyards. The label on all the Villages wines in 2020 have an illustration by Shelley Szczucki that shows the appellations where the grapes are sourced.
Henry of Pelham Painted Wagon Estate Pinot Noir 2019 ($28, 92 points) — The Painted Wagon Pinot is made from estate Short Hills Bench fruit and consists of four different clones. It has a deep and rich nose of brambly raspberries, dense black cherries, baking spices, underlying earthy notes and herbs. It’s highly structured on the palate with firm tannins and an earthy entry that opens up to ripe red berries, anise, fine oak spice notes and a long, finessed finish. Could use some cellaring to bring everything into harmony. Cellar 5-7 years.
Sue-Ann Staff Howard’s Vidal Icewine 2017 ($40 for 375 mL, 92 points) — Note, this icewine was reviewed as a vertical with the 2016 vintage. This lovely, aged icewine from the spectacular 2016 vintage shows a deep golden colour in the glass and, my, oh my, what a nose of alfalfa honey, marmalade, compoted tropical fruits, citrus peel, peach preserve and ginger spice. It’s showing some lovely age on the palate yet maintains freshness in the melange of tropical compoted fruits, peach tart, brown sugar and vanilla bean in a lush and rich style that is exciting right now but can age another five years. The 2017 version is less evolved but shows a profile of ripe apricots, candied citrus and peach concentrate in a rich and honeyed style. Also delicious!
Also released, but not reviewed by Wines In Niagara:
• Nomad Firefly II Sparkling 2019 ($18)
• 13th Street June’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 ($22)
• Organized Crime The Mischief 2020 ($20)
• Redwood Neptune Riesling 2018 ($35)
• Hare Cabernet/Merlot 2017 ($30)
• Locust Lane Pinot Noir 2019 ($30)
• Petrichor Cabernet/Merlot 2020 ($18)
• Thirty Bench Winemaker’s Blend Red 2019 ($25)
• Peller Private Reserve Rosé 2020 ($23)