Explanations and Excuses

Finding the Wines

Most of the wines I recommend are widely available in North America, the U.K., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. I wish I had the time (and staff) to track inventories by province and state, but alas I can just manage to taste and write the notes on as many good wines as I can as my service to drinking humanity.

If you don't live in Ontario but would like to find these wines, here are a few suggestions. First, get to know your local wine store staff. You can copy and paste the wine picks you like and then e-mail, fax or take in a list to your merchant to see if the wines are sold locally or if they can be ordered for you.

If not, call the LCBO at either 800-ONT-LCBO or 416-365-5900 and ask for the name and phone number of the sales person in Ontario who represents the wine. This person should be able to tell you if there's an agent close to you who can help or if the winery can ship the wines to you. You can also try calling or e-mailing the winery directly.

Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) Wines

• Most Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) wines fall into one of three categories: Regular List, Vintages and Classics Catalogue. The first category stocks hundreds of popular, value-priced wines in the $7-$15 range year-round on the shelves.

• The second category, Vintages, carries high-end wines that range from $15 to more than $100 per bottle. Many Ontario stores, depending on the size of the store and the clientele's wallets, have a Vintages section. Product consultants order about 100 new wines monthly, which are released on a designated Saturday morning. Some sell out within minutes of being released, such is their popularity and limited supply.

• The third category, Classics, sells fine wine from a catalogue three times a year (spring, fall and winter collections). Classics are often the heavy hitters, such as first-growth bordeaux, small-lot burgundies, California cult cabs and super tuscans. Orders are shipped from a Toronto warehouse to the customer's closest LCBO.

• If you live in Ontario, but not Toronto or Ottawa, you can still get some of the better wines even if your local LCBO doesn't have a large Vintages section. You can request these wines before the release -- but you need to do it by Tuesday before the release Saturday. A percentage of stock is set aside for customers outside these metropolitan areas. There's no guarantee you'll get the wine as quantities are limited, but hey, like most things in life, it doesn't hurt to ask. (Due to the timing of the pre-tastings and my workload, I'm not able to send out my wine picks in time for this deadline.)

• All prices are in Canadian dollars.

• You can also probably find many of these wines in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

• If a wine isn't listed here, it doesn't mean that it's a poorly-made wine. It just may not have stood out enough among the 120-220 I taste or more likely, I didn't get to try it because it wasn't available at the tasting.

• I've included the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's (LCBO) product numbers that apply broadly across Canada, but perhaps not to the US and UK. Keep in mind that as the vintage or year changes on the wine stocked on the shelf, the LCBO product code stays the same. So I could recommend a particular wine from a great year and you may find that wine in the store, but from the next vintage. It could, as a result, be very different from the one I recommended, based on the weather the following year.

• Suggestions within each section aren't in priority order, but rather in the order that they appear in the Vintages catalogue, which is free in LCBO stores.

• For popular wines that sell out quickly, it's best to get to your store by 9 am when they're allocating one or two bottles per person.

• If you miss a release and want to find out if there's still some bottles of a particular wine in any store across the province, call 1-800-ONT-LCBO. You can use this hotline to locate any wine, in fact, not just those in the Vintages releases. They'll tell you if there's any wine left, and which stores have it along with their phone numbers so that you can either drop by to pick it up, or if it's out of your area, call to request a store transfer to an outlet close to you.

• For Canadian wines: Cross-border shipping between provinces and to the U.S. remains a major headache, and sadly, the wines often are just not available, but it's worth trying. I've posted several links on my web site that will give you the contact information for most Canadian wineries. (Click on the Wine Links button.) For other wineries, your best bet is a web search.

• You can also search the LCBO’s excellent product database that you can search for its web site to find out which stores carry the one for which you’re looking.

What the Scores Mean

I've had lots (I mean, barrelfuls) of feedback about my scoring of wines and about scores in general. A number of readers asked me why I score so low, mostly in the 80s, and are these wines really worth buying. An excellent point was that some folks found it difficult to compare my scores with those say of the Wine Spectator or of Robert Parker whose favourite wines tend to score in the 90s. It's as though I'm dealing in a different currency.

My counter was that grade inflation, whether for movies or Ivy League schools, cheapens the truly great. When everything is two thumbs up, how can you tell what is really good? And if we say that a fine vintage from the world's best wines, say Château Pétrus, is 100, then what are much simpler wines by comparison? Shouldn't the scores reflect a fair relative ranking?

Well, most of us don't drink Château Pétrus, at least not regularly. The relevant set of wines are those in our local stores, often between $10 and $25. So with that in mind, and the need to be able to compare my scores to other reviews (though why you need to check elsewhere is beyond me :) I've decided to bell-curve up all my wine scores by five points.

So here's what that means now:

- I'm still using a scale of 100 points, although the wines that I'll recommend will all be scores of 80 to 100

- why not include wines under 80? because they're not worth your time... who wants to keep track of all the bad wines when there are thousands of good ones?

- wines scored 80 and above are all worth drinking: it's up to you to decide your own cut-off point and whether a wine at 86 is worth $12, $17 or $25

- I'll still score expensive wines occasionally, generally those in the $35 to $100 range, but since the average purchase is $10, expensive wines are rare birds, plus I find that there are so many fabulous wines at $25 to $35 that you just don't need to spend that much money, it's almost wasteful

- so how much better is a wine scored 86 than one scored 85? that's a tough one to answer since the whole exercise in rating wines isn't scientific... I'm just trying to put a number on a subjective experience mainly because that's what people want: grades are easy-to-understand shorthand that recognize how busy we are these days

- generally, 80-84 means that I think the wine is good, pleasant, something you'd be happy to bring to a casual get together with friends or to drink on a weeknight

- 85-89 means that the wine is delicious with some interesting flavours and texture, something you might break open on the weekends, though of course you can treat yourself any time

- 90-94 means that the wine gives me pause: it's lovely, rich in character, unique, complex

- 95-100 means that the wine is extraordinary, spectacular, words fail to capture it, your eyes will get that distant look when you remember it...

- speaking of words, tasting notes are still more important than the scores: I may rate a pinot noir at 95 because it's a fantastic example of its type, but if you don't like silky, medium-bodied wines, then who cares about a high score... you need to check that the style seems to be what you want rather than just drink the numbers

- you'll also notice that I'm not into exotic fruit: I haven't smelled jingleberries, have you? OK perhaps you have, but I try to keep within the everyday realm of fruit and other aromas so that they're easily understood. The flip side is that you'll notice that some fruit are repeated. But I promise never to compare a wine to a gerbil cage.

- Check my web site under the articles section for the articles entitled Delirious Decription and Wine Scores for more thoughts on this

- my scores can be influenced by an off day, a blind spot (how would I know what mine are?), style preferences (yes, I know that they're not supposed to influence the score, but they do) and general inconsistency

- I don't list all of the wines I taste simply because there isn't enough time

- I try when possible to note food matches or the aging potential of wines but this isn't always possible since I won't guess if I'm not certain... when I do say that a wine will age for X years, I mean from today's date not the year in which it was bottled

- The first time I refer to the Vintages Catalogue in my wine reviews, I state that, and then put VC in brackets. Subsequent references to the catalogue are always preceded by VC and a colon. These are then separated with the words "My Note" to distinguish my comments. I usually include some description under My Note in addition to my score. The Vintages Catalogue often provides interesting historic information or other facts (such as, what grapes are in the blend). David Churchill and his Vintages team do an excellent job of research and analysis, and when I agree with them, I say so by including the note. This is particularly helpful to the readers of my newsletter who don't live in Ontario, and therefore don't have access to the catalogue.

By choosing the parts I think are pertinent, I am also filtering the wine choices and information for readers. And when I believe I couldn’t have said it better in terms of the tasting note, I refer to it since I don’t believe in trying to reinvent the wheel. The newsletter is a labor of love for me (read: the only dividends are the emotional ones). The wine reviews, in particular are something I do as a service. I enjoy feature writing much more. However, I realize that readers want a practical shopping guide too. This is my attempt to do so.

- finally, there are two types of wine scribes in the world: writers and critics... both provide a valuable service, but most of us lean one way or the other in terms of our first love. I'm definitely in the writer camp: I publish these reviews as a service to those who subscribe to my newsletter. (I realize that you'd like to drink the stuff, not just read about it.)

However, due to my workload (the stuff that actually pays the bills), I'm often scrambling at midnight the night before these reviews go out, thus the reason for the typos, strange phrases and other weirdo musings that may make you wonder if the same person publishes both the articles and the reviews.

I appreciate your patience and hope that these reviews lead you to wonderful bottles that are shared with friends who don't keep score. Wine is a mighty subjective thing... taste and see if you agree.