When Ontario liquor laws temporarily changed to allow restaurants to sell wine with take-away and delivery orders, executive chef Ryan Crawford quickly removed some banquettes at his Niagara-on-the-Lake restaurant to make the wine cellar more accessible to customers. The bottles – adorned with new price tags – range from a popular selection of under $30 reds and whites to expensive vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy and California that ring up at $150 or more.
Now that those regulations, which are set to expire Dec. 31, are under review by the Doug Ford government to become permanent, Crawford is planning to add to the selection and include what he’s calling “Niagara’s Top 100” wines. “I want to expand the representation of the quality wines made right here,” he says.
Crawford has also changed the way he runs his business to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has re-invented his farm-to-table restaurant, Backhouse, as Ruffino’s Pasta & Grille, expanding a pop-up concept he operated during winter months. In addition, he stocks a selection of groceries as part of its “supermercato.”
“It helps,” Crawford says. “We’re able to sell an extra bottle of wine to a customer who dined with us to take home with them or add to a takeout order. But it’s only going to be a major benefit if we can get these wines at wholesale prices. We cannot compete with local wineries or the LCBO on price.”
Currently before the Ontario Legislature, the Main Street Recovery Plan and Main Street Recovery Act, 2020, are designed to assist businesses hardest hit by the shutdowns. They commit “to exploring options to permanently allow licensed restaurants and bars to include alcohol with food as part of a takeout or delivery order before the existing regulation expires.”
If the plans are approved, securing wholesale prices will be key for the long-term viability of restaurants operating bodega-style bottle shops, agrees Krysta Oben, general manager of Paris Paris wine bar in Toronto. “It’s crucial to the sustainability of robust and profitable shops going forward.”
She’s grateful for the relaxed regulations thus far, calling them “a real lifesaver.” Without a big patio or strong Uber Eats presence, operating as a bottle shop has been critical for business. “It’s been good for us and for many others, I know, like Midfield and Piquette,” she says, naming two other west end wine bars. “I really hope it stays. It’s not like restaurants are suddenly going to be fine on Jan. 1.”
Oben is also a partner of Grape Witches, an events and tasting business she founded with Nicole Campbell. It expanded to become a wine club and import agency, and has been operating Grape Glass, a shop that specializes in organic and biodynamic bottles for the past two months. The duo originally leased the storefront on Dundas West on March 7 to be an event and office space, but when restaurants were given the go ahead to sell wine, they changed plans to accommodate retail.
The shop has already attracted considerable foot traffic from the neighbourhood, Oben says, as well as online orders from beyond the downtown core. It features a rotating range of wines that normally would only be available at a restaurant or when purchased direct from an agent. A small menu changes weekly, as Grape Witches collaborates with different chefs to offer a takeaway sandwiches and other dishes.
“It’s been busy. People are very thirsty these days,” Oben says light heartedly.
Another sommelier excited about retail opportunities is Heather McDougall. The former general manager of Montecito joined forces with Master Sommelier Bruce Wallner’s Grand Cru Deli to create Sips Toronto. She set herself a task to add in-store and online wine sales to the existing wine bar and its associated school, SommFactory.
“No one is getting rich off of bottle shops,” McDougall says. “It’s about cashflow. You buy product, sell it quickly and reinvest.”
But, she adds, selling wine this way allows restaurants to foster a relationship with customers so they keep returning. “That’s where sommeliers can put their skills, training and abilities to good use. The retail environment affords the opportunity to do what I was doing table by table in a 60-seat restaurant to a larger audience. I can share what’s happening in the world of wine more loudly and more broadly this way. I see nothing but upside.”
She’s busily improving the SipsToronto website to promote online sales to vinophiles across Ontario. “We need to talk to everyone who buys wine, not just in a 20-block radius of our shop downtown. We’re marketing to the entire province.”
This week’s recommendations include a collectable red from one of Chile’s leading wineries, a crowd-pleasing pinot noir from New Zealand and an affordable chardonnay made from organic grapes grown in Argentina.
Argento Seleccion Chardonnay 2019 (Argentina)
Consultant Alberto Antonini has helped Argento become a leading organic grape grower, with an increasing interest in organic wine making as well. This ripe and rich style of chardonnay makes the most of its mix of citrus, peach and tropical fruit with oak spice and honeyed notes. Drink now to 2022. Available in Ontario.
Invivo Central Otago Pinot Noir 2018 (New Zealand)
This juicy pinot noir offers nice spicy oak and earthy complexity alongside a core of cherry and blackberry fruit. This is ripe and powerful stuff for pinot, which makes it an appealing style for the masses. Drink now to 2024. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta, $25.40 in Quebec.
Vina Montes Purple Angel 2017 (Chile)
The new vintage of Montes' Purple Angel offers impressive concentration with bright fruit, plush texture and a long finish. It is mostly carménère with some petit verdot from vineyards in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. A full-bodied and age-worthy wine that will appeal to fans of blockbuster styles, this is just hitting its stride. Decant for best enjoyment if you’re planning to consume soon. Drink 2022 to 2030. Available in Ontario at the above price, $88.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $80.16 in Manitoba, $69.75 in Quebec, $69.99 in New Brunswick, various prices in Nova Scotia, $66.29 in Prince Edward Island.
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