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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Travails of ‘travaille du vin’

Oscar Foulkes May 12, 2009 Restaurants, Uncategorized No comments

It takes a special kind of person to set up a wine import business. In the beginning, volumes are generally low, margins are small, all the prospective customers want to taste before buying (not the best way to deplete inventory), and in the interim one still needs to pay overheads. Savings may well have been reduced by the initial cost of purchasing and shipping that inventory from around the world (or credit lines could be maxed out).

A few years down the line margins are still low, but hopefully the importer has been able to get a couple of big retail listings for some of his products, which at least delivers better sales volumes.

Take this situation, and multiply by a considerable degree of difficulty, if your plan is to set up such a business in Quebec, where alcohol sales are tightly controlled by the provincial monopoly (SAQ). Listings for its retail outlets are done via tenders, the outcome of which is largely a lottery. So, to get going, the aspirant importer will make use of the private importation system. This involves going to the SAQ, placing an order for whatever wines are needed from around the world, and lodging a cash deposit of the majority of the landed cost.

The SAQ will then put this order into its logistics system. Several months later (while your cash has casually been reclining in the SAQ bank account) the wines arrive. The SAQ marks them up as if they were sitting on one of their retail shelves (i.e. with all the accompanying overheads), which is the price at which you would then attempt to sell them to restaurants. The problem is, you need to invoice the restaurant separately for your margin. Most businesses look a lot more closely at margins when they are isolated to this extent, so this component can lead to ‘issues’ (read non-payment). When all of the wine has been sold the SAQ will return your deposit. If it isn’t sold within six months the wine will get destroyed at your cost.

The only plus in the system is that the SAQ invoices and delivers all orders.

Two very persistent and generally all-round great guys, Jack Cohen and Jean-Charles Thiry, set up their own Montreal-based wine import company, Selections UVAS in 2001. They’ve been buying Cloof wines since 2006, which thus far have not made it into SAQ (although they managed to get Crucible Shiraz into a ‘best wines of the world’ catalogue). Thus far volumes have been small (but growing), with our wines going mainly to restaurants.

One of these is M sur Masson (, an amazing little bistro where Jack and I went for dinner last night. It started off as one thin sliver of dining area, certainly not as much as four metres wide. Bare wooden floors, no table cloths, and a half-stripped pressed ceiling – it looks as if all they did was scrape off the loose paint, creating a characterful effect with the discoloured metal visible. As the business has grown they’ve successively added two more slivers of dining area.

Based upon the meal I had, it’s easy to see why they’ve needed to add those tables. My calf liver, with confit onions, garlic mashed potatoes and sauce Lyonnaise was exceptional. In theory it was nothing more than liver and onions. However, comparing it with a thin slice of dry and over-cooked liver, as served in countless pubs across Britain (which are rapidly going out of business, probably for this very reason) would be a travesty.

The liver came – beautifully caramelised on the outside – as a generous slab atop the mash, surrounded by lots of the most delicious sauce. Once sliced, it revealed the very most delicate pink colour. The texture was tender and juicy – simply superb. It was everything I’m quite sure my liver isn’t.

The combination of flavours – the jus, onions, garlic and liver – cannot be described as anything less than orchestral. This, my brain was cheering, is what food needs to be – great ingredients, prepared with care. All around the world chefs are going helter-skelter trying to out-do each other with their over-the-top creations, but they’ve forgotten to take care of the first essential priority – the food has to taste good.

The bottle of Inkspot we shared was an excellent partner to the food. It really is drinking extremely well (if I may say so myself!).

The levels of unnecessary complexity introduced by chefs are no different to the myriad legal and bureaucratic obstacles (e.g. the SAQ) that separate wine producers from their end consumers.

(It must be said that the SAQ shops are an outstanding example of retail design. I have often seen pictures of their stores in design books, and their most recently upgraded stores up the ante. They truly do deserve credit for this.)

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