Privatization expanded wine options far beyond Baby Duck

In Alberta the people decide what they drink with dinner

Going to buy beer with my dad is one of my earliest childhood memories. I’m not really sure why but watching my dad fill out the slip of paper and hand it to the grumpy and mysterious man behind the window enthralled me somehow. I remember liking the sound as the box of Molson Canadian my dad just purchased rolled down the loud metal rack and came to an abrupt crash at the bottom. It was always exciting and we were always in a rush. We knew there would be lineups and the place closed at 5 p.m. sharp no matter how long you were waiting. There was a sense of relief when my dad got his 24 stubbies — the weekend was saved. All he had to do now was get home put them in the fridge and wait another half-hour.

While this archaic system provided me with some curious childhood memories I really don’t think my dad had the same quality experience. It’s strange that now 20 years on only Alberta has figured out that the government doesn’t really do a very good job of selling alcohol. But with the 20-year anniversary of privatization in Alberta upon us all the punters have come out to defend their various monopoly systems across our great nation. Besides this is another chance to call Albertans a bunch of alcoholics who pay too much for vodka and who could pass on that? So as someone who has made a living in this industry since we created it back in 1994 it’s a good time for me to weigh in.

If you like wine and you live in Alberta you are a lucky person indeed. In 1993 the year before privatization you had one of the saddest selections of wine in the free world. Today you have one of the best. I see wine industry people from Paris London New York and San Francisco who openly gawk at the incredible selection of wines available in Calgary. In fact when Matt Kramer (arguably the Wine Spectator’s most famous writer) spent a weekend in Calgary he wrote about it in his very next column describing our city as a mecca for wine lovers.

We can go back and forth on who is paying a dollar more or less for vodka but who really cares? Isn’t the point that we have a market-driven system? We have an honest and open place where people charge what the market will bear based on the level of competition. Rarely does this sort of system inflate prices especially when you consider the vast number of stores competing for your dollar.

At my job I occasionally encounter visitors from Ontario and they always do the same thing. They find the one product that is slightly more expensive here and they lament that they have the best prices and greatest system in the world. And every time I want to grab them shake them and scream “Your government gets to decide what wine you have with dinner! Doesn’t that bother you?” Please explain to me what special skills the government brings to the sale of wine? Expertise? No. Passion? Nope. A love of customer service? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Yes Ontario is the biggest buyer of alcohol in the world and yes they get the odd good deal on some $9 industrial swill. But Ontario with a population roughly three times ours has a wine selection of less than one-third what we have. They regularly miss out on the best producers of small lot wines because those producers don’t fit with their ridiculous buying scheme. Do you really want a piece of that action? I don’t.

In Alberta in 1993 there were 2200 products available in less than 230 stores; now we have almost 10 times the selection and 10 times the number of stores. Price is only one consideration and if you want to get down to it we have lower prices on wines over $15 than anywhere in Canada — I personally field the phone calls from frustrated wine lovers in Toronto and Vancouver as they try to access our products.

In the end we have two opinions on privatization: people who love it and people who are trying to protect union jobs. If you like the odd glass of wine beer or spirit I’m willing to bet you love it. While privatization has brought many wonderful changes to our lives my favourite has to be this: Over the past 20 years Alberta has become the No. 1 consumer of fine wine in Canada. That’s incredible when you think back to when we were chock full of Baby Duck and still chugging rye.

Yes we’ve come a long way and we have our government to thank for it — for getting out of the way that is.

Kevin McLean is the head grape wrangler for J. Webb Wine Merchant and holds a masters in imbibing.