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In this photo taken on March 19, 2020, a closed sign is posted outside the driveway to the Piazza Del Dotto Winery & Caves in Napa, Calif.Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

Next to toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the best-selling product across Canada in recent weeks has been booze. Soaring sales of late rival the festive spike seen around Christmas Eve, according to wine agents. “There’s been unprecedented demand,” says Patrick O’Driscoll, president and chief executive officer at Corby Spirit and Wine Limited. “We’re not normally forecasting this kind of uplift at this time of year.”

Maintaining supply while keeping employees safe is just one of the unforeseen challenges facing the beverage-alcohol industry in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The widescale embrace of social distancing signalled a shift in consumption patterns from restaurants and bars to home. Consumers are stocking up as they brace for an uncertain future.

Extra cleaning and sanitization steps and reduced hours are commonplace at liquor stores, while some provincial outlets, including those in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, closed up shop entirely in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

For domestic wineries, curbside pick-up protocols and even the odd drive-up window are becoming the new normal as conventional tasting-room operations are closed to the public. Widescale promotion of free home delivery is continuing by many wineries and distilleries as well as wine agents selling their consignment products as promotion of online retail channels ramps up.

The convenience of home delivery for orders from the LCBO and other agents took a hit, however, when Canada Post implemented safety measures that prevent carriers asking for signatures for parcels. As part of the Proof of Age requirement for alcohol deliveries, customers must collect their wine and spirits shipments at a public depot. Smaller agencies are embracing alternate methods of transport for safe and managed distribution that reach consumers’ doorsteps.

Wine and liquor agents and producers face the same challenges as other industries with significant sales and marketing operations in the wake of measures taken to handle the outbreak, including the widescale transition to work from home realities. Beyond the flurry of panic buying, there’s no telling what the future holds.

“We cannot execute orders or work in the way that we normally do,” says Andrew Von Teichman, president of Drinks Ontario, an organization that represents 115 members who import beverage-alcohol products into the province. “We are all working from home, figuring out ways to navigate through this and looking at how we can get our businesses back up to speed when we can turn the engine back on.”

One of the most significant ramifications when socializing returns will be the dramatic hit to the hospitality industry, as countless restaurants and bars across the country are unsure of when and if they will reopen. With one of their most significant distribution channels in limbo and the continuing disruption of business, the wine and spirits trade faces serious challenges until order is restored.

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