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Why so few care if the LCBO strikes or not on Friday, plus our Vintages picks

By Rick VanSickle

If history is any indication, a threatened LCBO strike in Ontario starting at midnight this Friday will never happen.

Also in this Ontario wine report: A release of wines is scheduled for Saturday at Vintages stores, but it will depend on if there is an LCBO strike or not. Regardless, we have our picks from the Niagara wines, including a sparkling rosé from Westcott (new review), a Chardo from Malivoire, Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir, and a rosé from the Tragically Hip.

Niagara wine

In all likelihood, the two battling sides will come together as one, as they have done so many times before, because in troubled times they share a common interest — to keep milking a monopoly retail system that was established on June 1, 1927, before the vast majority of us were even born.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a name as archaic and blatantly despotic as it sounds, has held consumers hostage over all things booze since the end of Prohibition nearly a century ago. Think about that for a minute. The government of the day wanted to ease its booze deprived citizens back into the world of alcohol after 11 dry years and designed the cookie-cutter stores to make the experience of purchasing alcohol feel as shameful as possible and allowed the province to pry into the private habits of Ontarians.

Ninety-seven years later, with those very first customers long gone at this point, we are still beholden to a government monopoly that controls what we can drink, some of the highest prices in Canada, a retail experience with the same cookie-cutter stores and the same wines whether you live in Moosonee or downtown Toronto (if that tiny northern LCBO store doesn’t have it, you just ask them to bring it to them), and the same over-bloated bureaucratic system running the show as if it’s their own private fiefdom.

However, there are now some cracks in the system. Ontario premier Doug Ford has been chopping away at the both the LCBO and Beer Store monopolies since he came to office, bringing his dream of “buck a beer” to the people (how did that go?) and spreading the love to 2,300 private retail points of sale across the province. If there is a strike, and that’s a big IF, consumers will be able to also tap into LCBO convenience outlets, licensed grocery stores, the Beer Store, and Ontario winery, brewery, cidery, distillery outlets, including, of course, the hundreds of private wine shops that have always operated under grandfathered licences, and run by the large Canadian wineries such as Arterra Canada, Andrew Peller Ltd., and Magnotta, which all sell both VQA Ontario wines and IDB (International Domestic Blend) wines.

Slowing down the pace of Ontario’s rapidly increasing road to privatization seems an impossible task. It’s a ship that has already set sail and there’s little that can be done now to stop it. And this is why the threat of a strike just might come to fruition this time around. I can’t see the public really giving a damn with all that alcohol readily available like never before.

I feel for unionized LCBO workers; this isn’t their fault, it’s their right to negotiate fair and better wages and working conditions. But they must know that a monopoly such as the LCBO cannot hold on forever despite a nearly 100-year, uninterrupted run. Say what you want about Ford, but in this campaign, he is showing no signs of giving up on his quest to dismantle both the LCBO and the Beer Store.

OPSEU and the LCBO have until midnight on Friday to work out a deal, but it’s highly unlikely the government will strike a bargain on the most contentious point of increasing alcohol availability beyond the LCBO. He might throw a bone the union’s way as he did with the Beer Store when he coughed up $225 million to speed up its diminished role in the beer retail sector, but he’s not going to give up any ground on the progress already made for consumers’ convenience.

If LCBO workers walk off the job by midnight Friday, the LCBO will close all its retail stores for 14 days. “It would not be business as usual,” the LCBO said in a news release last week, providing an update on what shoppers can expect during the strike.

After 14 days, only 30 of the 669 stores it operates will open for in-store shopping, the LCBO said. The stores will operate Friday, Saturday and Sunday with limited hours in effect.

While stores will be closed for two weeks, the LCBO said it would continue to fulfil wholesale orders and accept orders for free home delivery on its website and mobile app. It added that specialty services and duty-free will remain operational during the strike.

Earlier last week, the LCBO extended store hours at its stores, opening early at 9:30 a.m. and many staying open until as late as 10 p.m. to give customers more time.

For Ontario wineries, a potential LCBO strike barely caused a ripple of concern when Wines in Niagara reached out for a story on the topic two weeks ago. That’s partially because the LCBO does so little for domestic wine at its stores, with a market share stuck at a dismal 7% for VQA wines, a disheartening showing that hasn’t fluctuated much in the last decade. Since COVID, Ontario wineries have upped their game on online sales and are ready to meet the next challenge should a strike occur.

The union representing its LCBO workers may have miscalculated their position of strength for this pending strike. LCBO brass and certainly the government (essentially the same people) seem unfazed by a strike. There’s no panic booze buying going on because Ontario has never had so many options to get wine, beer, cider and liquor in Ontario.

A strike just might be the thin edge of the wedge to put privatization on an even faster track to reality. Now, wouldn’t that be something.

Meanwhile, if a strike is averted, here are Wines in Niagara’s picks of the local wines scheduled to be released in Vintages stores on Saturday (but check Thursday and Friday, these wines often arrive early). If you are reading this, I know you need little prodding, but if there is a strike, think about supporting local wineries either online, in bottle shops or in person at the winery. They will need your help if there’s an extended closure at LCBO stores.

Our picks of the Niagara wines
released (maybe) at Vintages stores Saturday

Westcott Brilliant Sparkling Rosé 2021 ($40, 93 points) — This is a traditionally made sparkling wine made from 100% Pinot Noir from the Home Farm. It was hand riddled and disgorged and had 12 months of lees aging. Like many in Niagara, I’ve been stopping regularly at my favourite roadside fruit stand on Lakeshore Road to pick up cherries, raspberries and strawberries picked fresh every morning. This lovely, fresh and expressive sparkler smells and tastes just like those fresh-picked berries. It shows a lovely light salmon colour in the glass and is loaded with all those aforementioned red berries, a pinch of rhubarb, a touch of toastiness from light lees aging and subtle citrus notes with a lively bubble. It’s perfectly dry (dosage was from its own base wine, RS is hovering around 2 g/L) and refreshing on the palate with summer strawberries, raspberries and red cherries, a lively bubble and a bright, lifted finish. It’s a well-crafted, fresher style of bubbles for optimum summer sipping. Go get it!

Malivoire Estate Grown Chardonnay 2022 ($22, 92 points) — The estate Chardonnay is a blend of both the Mottiar Vineyard (owned by Malivoire GM Shiraz Mottiar on the Beamsville Bench) and estate fruit that’s aged in a combination of new and older French oak barrels. Such gorgeous elegance and poise on the nose with salinity and wet stones to go with pear, apple, toasted almonds, lemon/citrus and just a pinch of spice. It’s harmonious on the palate with the ripe, layered orchard fruits and citrus folding seamlessly into the flinty/stony/nutty accents, elegant spices, and fresh, lively finish. A beauty of a wine at this price.

Henry of Pelham Painted Wagon Estate Pinot Noir 2020 ($28, 91 points) — This estate Pinot Noir is a blend of four different clones grown in the estate’s Short Hills Bench vineyard. It has a robust nose of earthy red berries, anise, savoury notes, dried tobacco, and baking spices. It’s velvety on the palate with some structure in support of ripe dark cherries, black raspberries, anise, smoky cedar, rich spices and a long, lifted finish. Can cellar until 2028.

The Tragically Hip Flamenco Rosé 2023 ($20, 91 points) — This is the 5th vintage in the successful collaboration between Stoney Ridge and The Tragically Hip. It’s a blend of 95% Gamay Noir from the Bucknall Vineyard in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation and 5% Pinot Gris from Four Mile Creek. It shows a bright pink colour in the glass with a nose of dark cherries, strawberries, cranberries, citrus and subtle herbaceous notes. It’s generous on the palate with mouth-filling red berries, a touch of earth and herbs, rhubarb and a bright finish. Fans of the more robust style of rosés will absolutely love this.

Other Niagara wines released, but not reviewed by Wines in Niagara:

• Bachelder L’Ardoise Niagara Chardonnay 2021 ($26)
• Featherstone Pinot Grigio 2023 ($18)
• Leaning Post The Fifty Chardonnay 2021 ($25)
• The Tragically Hip Ahead By A Century Chardonnay 2021 ($22)
• Trius Showcase Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2020 ($38)
• Fielding Rosé 2023 ($18)
• Leaning Post Rosé ($23)
• Wildass Rosé 2023 ($20)