B.C.'s liquor rules still sting
Seated in one of the crammed backrooms of Davie Street's Marquis Wine Cellars, with wooden boxes of Bordeaux wines piled to the ceiling above me, I tell myself that if there's an earthquake, I'll die in style.
No bonk from some plonk for me. Stacked above me: several embossed cases of Chí¢teau Mouton Rothschild (2006), a bit pricey at $1,210 a bottle.
It's not really a seismic event that concerns me, though, but the shop owner's gesticulations and impassioned ranting. John Clerides, 51, is Greek and, therefore, genetically primed to explode. The target of his fulminations, paper flailing, table-thumping, and occasional retraction—for libel's sake—is the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch. Its policies and pricings have, he claims, led to this province having the most expensive liquor in North America and to B.C. wine buyers dying the death of a thousand cuts. His diatribe would be of little consequence except that—during a month of investigation—I hear precisely the same (if less voluble) observations from a half-dozen other high-profile experts on wine. Some request anonymity. Others, like Clerides, fear retribution from the powers that be for speaking out.
In a business where, I'm discovering, some see the bottle as half full and others see it as half empty, Clerides is the pessimist. He has little patience, he tells me, with the regulations that govern the LDB monopoly, and he hears all the time about well-known restaurateurs, specialty-wine-store owners, connoisseurs, and Alberta liquor smugglers who grimly face—or elude—the LDB's sky-high 123-percent markup on every bottle of wine and a 170-percent markup on every bottle of spirits sold in the province.
But it's not just the pricing that drives Clerides and his wine-drinking friends to apoplexy: it's the maze of restrictions, arbitrary rulings, and brutal wholesale margins, Clerides says, that has led Rich Coleman, B.C.'s former minister responsible for the LDB, to call the province's liquor-distribution system “a dog's breakfast.”
“The LDB's like a dictatorship. They're the bully on the playground,” Clerides says, waving a sheaf of proposals he has sent to B.C.'s Liberal government, suggesting ways the system might be modernized. “Hong Kong got rid of taxes on wine recently. They've become a wine-marketing centre. Alberta privatized its liquor-distribution system years ago. Prices are cheaper there. Liquor's cheaper in the States too. Europe doesn't have government-run monopolies. You buy wine anywhere. The LDB's mired in laws that go back to the '20s; it's a hangover from Prohibition. Try being creative! You think outside the box, you get squeezed.”
Clerides pauses in his screed, puts his thumb on a stack of wine-marketing ideas he'd like to see implemented in B.C., and crushes an imaginary bug.
When I ask Clerides who's responsible for this, he says a name. It's the same name I hear from every authority I speak with. And so I begin pursuing Jay Chambers, for 17 years the general manager of the LDB and the person responsible, critics say, for guiding a system that hurts B.C. restaurants, private liquor stores, and specialty wine shops because all must buy from the LDB alcohol monopoly.