Global health emergencies like COVID-19 change the world. Even if measures quickly contain the pandemic, its legacy will last for years to come. Not only can you bet Canadian households won’t be as cavalier when toilet paper or disinfectant supplies run low, the way we shop for alcohol won’t be the same as they were preoutbreak.
In-person shopping was the most trusted and accepted means for most until the anxiety of crowds and social-distancing measures forced a shift in buying habits. Selecting a desired bottle off the shelf has never been the only option available, but as a society, Canadians have been slow to take advantage of alternative liquor channels, including buying selections by the caseload from import agents and wine clubs. New contact-less behaviour to minimize the threat of coronavirus spread led people, who saw liquor stores as the only source for wine, beer or spirits, to order alcohol online or direct from a Canadian producer for the first time.
In recent weeks, there has been a surge in e-commerce and consignment orders for home delivery – just as people have flocked to online grocery-shopping options. A much broader segment of the public has now taken up digital shopping beyond Amazon. While it’s too soon to say to what degree these sales have increased, individual beverage-alcohol companies across the country report business is booming.
“We are selling a massive volume of wine,” says Sam Fritz-Tate, sommelier for WineOnline.ca, which sells wine directly to Ontario consumers. He says the volume of current sales is double the business done at Christmas.
Much of the premium wine sold in the country never reaches liquor-store shelves; it is sold directly to restaurants, banquet halls and collectors by import agents. So-called consignment sales require you buy by the case, which is typically 12 bottles, but could come in three- or six-packs. That volume was a deterrent to many consumers, who never saw the need to stock up to that extent until social-distancing measures came into force.
The recent moves by provincial governments in British Columbia and Ontario to allow restaurants to sell all types of liquor with takeout or delivery food orders was a progressive move to help businesses stay afloat. Restaurant groups have been lobbying for this permission for years. How easily will these temporary changes to existing liquor laws be clawed back if they become popular and are effectively managed?
Since social-distancing measures were put in place, Canadian wineries have seen a dramatic increase in online and phone orders for curbside pick-up or home delivery. Only a fraction of producers enjoy distribution to liquor stores; most rely on tasting-room sales or direct sales to bars or restaurants that serve alcohol.
“We’re like Amazon, now,” said Leaning Post owner and winemaker Ilya Senchuk, while spending a recent Sunday delivering wine to customers of his family’s farm winery in Stoney Creek, Ont. “Without being able to offer our usual tasting-room experience, we’re left to fulfill orders and deliver direct to our customers. It’s amazing how quickly our business has shifted.”
How to order direct
Many wineries and wine agencies are currently offering free home delivery to consumers as their operational focus shifts. Rules and regulations differ from province to province – for instance, British Columbia’s system requires consumers to place orders through a store that contacts the agent – but here are some basics for ordering direct.
Get in touch by phone, e-mail or order online. Liquor agents are always willing to share advice and guidance to help you select what’s right for you. They’ll require your name, mailing address, telephone number and e-mail address and advance payment for your order.
Consignment wines are sold by the case, usually 12 bottles. They’re not available by the individual bottle or even in mixed cases. Orders are shipped directly from the warehouse and are delivered to your door in typically two to three working days.
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