When most people fall for a wine, they check the label and start taking notes. Later, at the liquor store, that information – usually vintage, varietal, region and producer – is used as a roadmap for looking for other, similar bottles, the same way a prospector takes a gold nugget as a sign the motherlode might lurk nearby.
Obviously, that's a better strategy than picking up the cutest duck or frog label. But it's still not the most efficient way to uncover dozens of similar wines you'll love. For that, the most important piece of information is almost always the wine agent, as in the importer.
Think of it like an old-school algorithm: If you liked that wine, you might like this one, too. The formula works because many agencies, especially the boutique ones, import a range of wines that share similar characteristics.
But even though it's common for consumers to complain about whatever provincial liquor behemoth they're beholden to, many are too shy or wary of importers to take advantage. And so, this great resources lies largely untapped.
"I think there are a lot of agents that are generalists and have very wide portfolios and then there are some that are known for something specific, like, say, representing high-end champagne houses," says Nicholas Pearce, a Toronto agency owner. "Almost all of the smaller ones have a certain niche that they're very proud of."
His own eponymous agency is in the latter category, of course. Nicholas Pearce Wines specializes in "natural-ish" wines, as well as volcanic and grower wines, categories that evolved fairly organically. He and his team have also expanded their list and sought out interesting, independent producers they think will do well in the Ontario market.
"We only work with winemakers we know, love and trust, and they become a part of our family," he says."Me and my team, that's all we're ever doing, we spend our lives speaking with producers around the world and hanging out with all the most knowledgeable people in the market, whether they're journalists or sommeliers."
Importers everywhere get new customers as people try to track down a wine they had at a bar or restaurant: Pearce has had, over the years, several people get in touch this way who have gone on to become good clients. But buying through them is different in each province.
In Ontario and Quebec, for example, provincial laws require people to order wine by the case, not the bottle, when not at a government-owned retail outlet. So buying through importers is often an easier proposal in British Columbia or Alberta, with their hybrid/privatized systems that allow for independent retail stores that carry more specialized items.
"I had a woman call me recently to ask about a Barbera that she couldn't find at the government store," says Sabrine Dhaliwal, bar manager at Vancouver's Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar, who says postdinner requests for wine info are common.
"So, I went and I gave her the order code, the name of the importer, and told her, 'You can take this to any government liquor store and they'll order it for you.'"
Despite the relative ease in tracking down wine in B.C., Dhaliwal still thinks checking out an importer's entire portfolio is a good way to discover wines you might otherwise not have noticed or run across. If you find a perfectly simpatico agent, it's like having your own personal wine scout.
For those living in a province where agents have to sell by the case, it's still possible to take advantage of these tremendous resources who are, in a sense, the hidden taste makers behind so many restaurants' great lists.
Just ask the sommelier, server or bartender for the agent, and then look up the website, which is usually divided into two sections: wholesale and retail. The latter refers to wines that are found in government stores, such as SAQ, NBLC or Ontario (usually found in Vintages), and can be bought through those stores, like any other wine, in whatever quantity you fancy.
As to the ones you can only get by the case, for many, the reluctance to buy this way is more about the psychological barrier of spending a few hundred on wine at a time than it is about reality. Be honest, if you add up trips to the liquor store, it's the same amount of money – and just think of all the time you'll save.
Jake Skakun buys the wine for Grey Gardens, a new-ish Toronto restaurant renowned for its focus on natural wines, few of which would ever be found on the shelves of the LCBO. As such, he is often asked for advice about how to access the next level of wine buying.
He advises people easing into buying from importers to get together with like-minded friends and split cases. "I've also recommended people get a house wine, so you always have something on hand for emergencies and hostess gifts, and buy it by the case so you'll have it around all year."
Or, for most of us, more like a month. If we're really good, maybe two.