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Restaurant Wine Lists: Mission Impossible in BC

There is an interesting article in a recent edition of the trade newsletter, Shanken News Daily, which describes the approach to creating restaurant wine lists in the Michael Mina group of U.S. restaurants: Mina Group Wine Director Parr Thinks Nationally, Acts Locally. The article describes the philosophy of Rajat Parr, who is Mina\’s wine director, in creating unique wine lists for each restaurant ranging from 300 to 2500 selections including vintages of some famous wines going back decades or even hundreds of years as well as extensive by-the-glass programs offering 15 to 50 wines. The striking thing from reading this article is how difficult it is to replicate such a philosophy in BC. Why? Because BC has such outdated law and regulations that restaurant wine directors are faced with ridiculous hurdles in any quest to offer selection and value. Consider the following …

Restaurants Must Buy ONLY from the LDB. With the sole exception of purchasing from BC wineries, restaurants in BC are legally required to buy all their wine from the LDB, usually from a single designated government liquor store. They can\’t buy from private stores or direct from importers and they can\’t buy from individuals, all of which would be able to offer better selection, particularly for older vintages or rarer wines. If a restaurant buys any wine from a non-LDB source, it is considered to be \”illicit liquor\”.

Restaurants Have to Buy in Full Cases for Special Orders. If a restaurant selects only from the extremely limited selection at its designated government liquor store, its wine list will be sad indeed. Restaurants do have the option of special ordering products that are listed in the system (usually referred to as \”SPEC\” items). However, they can only order those products in FULL cases which for the most part is unworkable as it would tie up too much cash, particularly for rarer wines. They also have to get those products delivered by the LDB\’s slow distribution system which usually means waits of weeks, or often months, when re-ordering.

No Off-Site Storage. Restaurants are required to keep ALL of their wine stock within the licensed area of the restaurant. In most restaurants, space is at a premium, particularly in the Lower Mainland. This rule means that restaurants can\’t create better selection and manage their cellars and stock by keeping some wine nearby at a different site.

Can\’t Transfer Product Between Locations. Restaurants also can\’t transfer wine between locations so if they are out of stock of a particular wine in one restaurant, they can\’t move stock from another location. It doesn\’t matter that the taxes have been paid – it\’s illegal.

Zero Wholesale Discount. The worst problem is, of course, that unlike everywhere else in the civilized world, restaurants in BC get ZERO wholesale discount from the LDB (despite being some of their best customers). The LDB also forces BC wineries to give zero discounts. As a result, restaurants have to pay full RETAIL price just like you and me. This means that restaurant wine prices are much higher in BC than nearly everywhere else. A recent advisory from one government liquor store even told restaurants that they should not expect that their orders would be filled during peak hours … imagine if any other business treated its best customers this way!

In light of the above, kudos go out to all of the restaurant wine directors in BC who operate gallantly within a system which tries to make things as difficult as possible for them. It wouldn\’t be hard to fix these problems. Indeed, if the government did so, the entire hospitality community would be better off … and the government would make more tax revenue!

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