Whether it be the tiny trailer store in the village of St. Apollinaire or the big booze emporium in the basement of The Bay in midtown Montreal, Quebec’s government liquor outlets reek with the bouquet of international wine scandal. Even the government of France is indignant with its North American protégé, and the cause was easily seen last week on the shelves of liquor stores crowded with holiday wine buyers. Among the Bordeaux, the Mouton-Cadet of proud Baron Philippe de Rothschild must share a vulgar lower shelf with Barton & Guestier’s Prince Noir. Occupying the most prominent position is a jutting three-tiered counter loaded with bottles labelled simply Bordeau and emblazoned with the label of the Société des Alcools du Québec. The same is true for the Beaujolais, where the prestigious Pisse-Dru and Bouchard Aîné & Fils labels are shouldered out by the Société’s Nuit de la St-Jean. Throughout the store, big-name imports are insolently overshadowed by the ubiquitous presence of the Société. And for good reason. This is no reverse snobbery but big business, Quebec-government-style.
’Tis the season to be jolly, and the Société des Alcools, Quebec’s agency for the importation, marketing and distribution of wine and spirits, is taking full advantage of it. As Christmas approaches, the Société is furiously advertising its own brands of wine on television, bus boards and in newspapers. Its wine-bottling plants are pumping around the clock, churning out 43 house brands from bulk imports of French Burgundy, Italian Chianti and Spanish tinto, among others. Plainly this is no ordinary provincial liquor agency. Eschewing the repressive tactics of its liquor board counterparts in the other provinces, the Société promotes its product vigorously in the unashamed pursuit of profit.
The strategy has worked well for the Quebec treasury—which last year reaped $215 million in dividends and $46 million in taxes from total sales of wine and spirits. Less inclined to share in the merriment are importers and producers of private-label wines, who complained in a leaked report to the provincial government last month that the Société was taking unfair advantage of its position in order to undercut them. Wine is the Société’s biggest growth product, as volume sales of hard liquor have actually declined in Quebec in recent years. Critics claim the Société gives the best shelf space to its own house brands in the 365 provincial liquor stores it controls. Most popular is the Société’s Cuvée des Patriotes, a Burgundy that appeals to Quebecker’s nationalism as well as their palates by portraying on its label the Montreal prison where 12 rebels of the failed 1837 insurrection were publicly hanged. Furthermore, wine has been sold in 8,000 Quebec grocery stores since 1978—but the only imported products available are the Société’s own. The result, say importers and private producers, has been a drop to 36 per cent from 61 per cent in their share of the wine market in just two years. The complaint of unfair competition suffered by wines bottled in France is expected to be made directly to Premier René Lévesque by no less than French Prime Minister Raymond Barre when the two meet this week in Paris.
But more than an admonition from a foreign head of government will be needed to dampen the ambitions of the Société. Plans call for a doubling of sales by 1985 from the 20 million litres of wine sold in 1979. Already the biggest single buyer in the European market, the Société envisions, in a controversial five-year plan which came to light this fall, becoming a producer as well, harvesting its own grapes from overseas
vineyards. In Montreal, a 365-metre pipeline will be built to carry wine directly from the ship docks to the bottling plant where, just before the holiday season this year, 122 tanks stopped with 8.5 million litres of wine.
If this seems like a powerful dose of what Euripides called mankind’s “medicine for misery,” clearly Quebeckers are eager for the remedy. Wine sales rose by two per cent last year, although sales of hard liquor actually dropped by 17 per cent. Wine sales will receive a further boost in January when the Société begins trucking draft wine to Quebec bars in 20-litre plastic bags similar to those used in the packaging of cafeteria milk. Some bars have already begun to carry draft wine. Already brewers are annoyed that brasseries, the taverns that once sold only beer, have been licensed since November to sell wine as well. Quebec now ranks second only to British Columbia among the provinces in per-capita wine consumption, thanks in part to the Société’s prodigious efforts. But, at the moment, the one score that really counts for the government wine merchant is how many of its upstart labels will make their way from stores to holiday tables, crowding out their offended rivals of greater family name. —DAVID THOMAS
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