Prohibition was rescinded in Quebec in 1919, about five minutes after it became law, but the hangover lingers. To this day, you can only buy wine in French Canada via the government-run outlets of the SAQ: the Société des alcools du Québec.
I’m no libertarian but some forms of government interference make me bristle. It’s less a question of control than of choice – what incentive does a sole supplier have to make my drinking life interesting, particularly if the logic behind that supplier’s original hegemony is that drink is a demon? And if drink really were a demon, surely the caring government of Quebec would be more reluctant to make vast amounts of filthy lucre out of supplying the population. Wouldn’t it?
British supermarkets have enormous clout: they can demand exclusive product, charge for premium placing on shelves, and ignore tiny wineries that can’t supply the quantities they require. Their indifference allows independent wine shops to flourish by offering smaller producers to me, the discerning customer, while thirsty oafs suck back cheap, mass-produced rotgut. This is the economic condition known as “everybody’s happy”.
If anything, the Quebec system favours the hardened drinking it was originally intended to prevent. Of course, there is no comparison between an addict’s drive and the social imperative to arrive at a dinner party carrying a bottle, but an SAQ can fill both needs, probably more cheaply than a competitive system could. However, the peculiar pleasure of browsing shelves that is the delight of the buff (OK, geek) is drastically lessened when those shelves hold mostly the same things.
As for someone expert to talk to – that’s much more potluck than any of my Montreal dinners. SAQ buyers actually have quite a lot of latitude in what they order from central depot. But none of them can pour their fragile savings into their own little shop out of sheer joy at wine’s possibilities. This is hardly capitalism.
But nor is it capitalism’s bastard cousin, protectionism. Quebec produces some good wine these days: mostly ice wine, the viscous dessert beverage vinified from frozen grapes, although Carone, for one, is making decent dry reds just up the St Lawrence River. But the SAQ is a money-making body; until customers start demanding local rather than European or American, Quebeckers will continue to need a magnifying glass to spot the home-grown product.
There is one spot of warmth in this frosty vista. Two Signature shops, one in Montreal, the other in Quebec City, sell top-end wine – and as the SAQ (along with its Ontario equivalent) is the largest wine buyer on the planet, they have clout to make a British supermarket buyer writhe with envy.
Still, I wonder how a discerning young Quebecker is supposed to fall in love with wine. Independents’ USP is choice: wines you can’t get elsewhere, frequently available for tasting, because the only way to learn about wines is to try lots of them. The difference between a connoisseur and a soak may not be much in terms of quantity but it will be vast when it comes to quality, and I’m not talking about spending more; that just makes you an expensive soak. Soils, climates, winemakers and the stories that cling like dew to the grapes – these are wine’s USP, the difference between a drink and a passion.
The SAQs aren’t all bad. Their clout brings cheap decent wine, their financial imperative requires them to keep most of their customers happy, and their reach gives wine buffs free delivery anywhere in Quebec. But buried deep in their DNA is a profound distrust of alcohol that offends me.
Drink can be a demon but that is not a given. The devil, as always, is in the detail.
Next week: John Burnside on nature