We like to shop local. We like a good thrift. We might even dabble in the feeling of being *exclusive*.
Say no more.
Almost every day at the restaurant I get asked where I buy the wine I’m serving. It’s a fairly broad question, and if you read my last article it will spare you my droning about how that gets done. Today, let’s explore the world of buying wine for you and yours.
While wine buying may seem expensive or daunting, there are several ways you can get that good juice through the right channels, and I’m not in the business of gatekeeping. We will explore the many ways to support small wineries, families, and environmentally conscious winemakers in three tiers: from the shop, delivered to your home, and from your local haunt (resto/bar).
In each section, I will arm you with a list of great sources and the knowledge to go forth into the world of wine buying like a total pro. Everyone will give you a high five and you will always bring the coolest wine to the party.
Boy, even I’m excited for you!
The great panorama (read: pandemic) brought many sorrows and one great, gargantuan bonus that all of us Ontarians thought would never happen in our lifetime: independent wine shops.
Ontario has a notably archaic approach to alcohol sales in the form of a monopoly known as the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). I could go on about what they do, but that’s another article, and I’m here to focus on the positive. The pandemic forced all dine-in restaurants to close for a very prolonged period of time. Many of these restaurants weren’t very take-out or delivery-friendly (fair enough) and many of them could not survive on food sales alone (read: pretty much every restaurant relies on their alcohol sales to keep themselves in check financially). Pre-panny, you could not legally purchase a sealed alcoholic beverage and exit a restaurant or bar. Restaurants in Ontario fought extremely hard and won the right to sell bottles of wine, sealed/batched cocktails, beer, etcetera, to the general public directly from their restaurant in order to be able to stay in business during the pandemic. The survival rate for many of these places would have been very futile had this case not been won (also, it was extremely overdue).
Now, all those cool private importers (again, they still have to go through the LCBO, but there are independent agents that act as a facilitator for the purchase and delivery of their own portfolios) have another way to reach the general public. Guests would no longer have to commit to a case just to enjoy something from various importers. This carried on for a bit and then some restaurants extended. They got wise and found another ‘loophole’ if you will: the shop. If a place with a restaurant or liquor license was able to sell wine, they could also, figuratively, open a shop so that guests didn’t have to stay a while, and they could also pay shop prices for wine if they were just picking up.
As restrictions lifted, a lot of restaurants kept the bottle shop concept alongside their ability to host dine-in services again. Some places even managed to just open a darn shop. We are THRIVING. This is, as a wine professional, the best thing that has ever happened during my career. It gives alternatives to hospitality in the wine world for Ontario, even if you do have to purchase a small snack alongside your boozy drinks (they make you do it, but one time I bought gum so… there’s that).
It’s a beaming glimmer of hope that we will continue to have boutique wine shops for each and every occasion. Behold! I’ve listed a few of my favourites in both Ottawa and Toronto. This is not a definitive list as there are plenty more, but that’s for you to explore! The most fun you can have is finding *your* shop. Find a place that has your faves, ask the somm, take some risks.
Corner Peach Store (Chinatown)
806 Somerset St W.
(located next door to the restaurant; baked goods, frozen housemade goods, tinned fish, alcoholic, non-alcoholic…I can and will go on…quirky, hard-to-find wines!)
Cantina Gia Wine Shop (The Glebe)
749 Bank St.
(located within their restaurant; from cheap-n-cheerful value wines to bigger-than-life baddies of the wine scene. Sister restaurant to North and Navy; delicious housemade pasta and Italian nosh, also many gluten-free options.)
La Bottega Nicastro (Byward Market)
64 George St.
(located in the back within the restaurant; italian-focused wines, aperitifs, and digestifs. Also Ottawa’s top Italian grocery store with an incredible little dine-in restaurant in the back.)
Byward Wine Market ( …the Byward Market)
60 George St.
(located within Lollo; curated by Ottawa wine legend Andrew Rastapkevicius; get anything from local Ontario, some more classic regions, and then all the way to Croatian and Texas wines. Affordable and a blast.)
Grape Witches (Little Portugal)
1247 Dundas St. W
(stand alone! You know em, you love em, they got it all for your natty wine needs. You can also order online and join their wine club.)
Happy Coffee and Wine (South Parkdale)
1304 King St. W
(located within their resto; coffee, treats, natty wine [and lots of great deals], shrimp burgers, good times, probably a good martini too.)
Paradise Grapevine (Christie Pits)
841 Bloor St W
(stand alone/wine bar/a WINERY!; absolutely killing it in the scene these folks not only have a very full bottle shop but also make their own wine that is spectacular. You can also order online)
Excellent news that fewer people know than I thought: wine can be delivered to your house. Yes, we knew we could order cases, and you still can! But! You can also order (almost) whatever wine you want these days. Between wine clubs, local wineries, and even importers you can get that good-good directly to your doorstep. In a lot of cases, you don’t even have to talk to anyone, just order online. Technology is amazing.
In Ontario, every single Ontario winery is capable of delivering wine to your home. You can mix up your cases, you can order however many wines you’d like (I always recommend ordering 6 or 12 bottles because it’s better for shipping, costs, and the environment) and it means you get to pay direct-to-consumer prices (ahem, as close as you can get in Ontario). We have some spectacular wine here and it’s worth supporting.
If you’d like to branch out, there are tons of wine clubs to join. Wine clubs let you enjoy exciting deliveries every month where professionals will set you up with a lovely little curation of great wines. I love surprises, so this is one of my favourite options. It can be a little more expensive, but if you can swing it, finding the right one is worth every penny.
The best part about this list is that it isn’t separated by city.
My favourite Ontario wineries to order from:
Maenad Wine Co.
Rosewood Winery (you can also order honey)
Rosehall Run Winery
Lighthall Vineyards (you can also order cheese)
Trail Estate Winery
These are a few Ontario-based wine clubs, but a lot of wineries offer their own wine clubs as well.
I’d love to do all the research for you, but you should explore (these are just a few I use often).
(Of course they have a wine club! Subscribe to get updates and let them guide you!)
Buyers + Cellars
(An Ottawa-based tasting room AND wine club! This company educates young sommeliers and the general public alike. They offer a wine club, tasting room, and you can drop in to pick up wine just like a shop.)
In Wines We Trust
(All-around-Ontario-based wine club! They offer a ton of buying options and a lot of details in each bottle.)
(One of the first Ontario wine purveyors I ever worked with as a young somm. You can subscribe and follow and they offer online buying options for all.)
Out on the town.
When enjoying a night out with friends, colleagues, or maybe lovers, you might be tempted by a gorgeous list. There’s no shop in sight, and even if, it’s 10pm and you want a final nightcap for home (or a treat for another day). Restaurants are able to sell their wines to you, fully sealed. No more fussing with the cork of a wine you’ve already defiled and hiding it under your coat down the street. You may walk away proud with your head held high and an unopened bottle of whatever you like. We’ve evolved, I’m here for it.
The list below is some more of my personal faves for both the stellar wine list and food menu. Not to negate some of the aforementioned spots, some of them are also incredible restaurants, not just bottle shops. You’ll just have to explore.
Le Poisson Bleu (Chinatown)
One of the top seafood restaurants in central Canada, LPB focuses on sustainable fish treated like the finest of red meats. Dry-aged, cured, crudo, smoked, it all gets done here in a tiny little neighbourhood restaurant run by chef Alex Bimm. Cheeky, I know, but I run the wine list here and we focus on rare regions, small winemakers, and sustainability that matches the ethos of the restaurant. Croatian, Texan, Serbia, Slovenian, and Hungarian wines have all been on this list, and while many wines are natural they are often driven with minerality and bright acidity (it’s still a seafood restaurant after all).
Dreamland Café (Little Italy)
Best pasta in Ottawa? Honestly, it’s up there. Sisters chef Coco De Leo and her sister Marlo have created the cutest atmosphere paired with excellent pasta and perfect natural wines to pair. Sit on their summer patio and drink it all in.
The Third (Hintonburg)
My favourite little diner and it happens to be in my neighbourhood! They offer both conventional and natural wine (some wine is even on tap!) but they offer it with the perfect classic club sandwich, maybe a brisket platter, and it’s very politely priced. They do a ton of take-out as well, so it’s perfect for picnics!
Bar Lupulus (Wellington West)
Levelling right up is Bar Lupulus. Their menu is complex and fascinating (and delicious!) and that doesn’t stop with their wine list. If you fancy yourself a connoisseur, this list will challenge you in the best way and will be an experience of every time.
The crème-de-la-crème of natural wine lists! One of the largest natural wine lists in the city, and great food and atmosphere. Almost every member on staff is a sommelier or training to be a sommelier so if you have any questions, it’s a great educational experience.
Little Jerry (Little Italy)
My favourite wine/vinyl/food bar in Toronto. Some of the best natural wine I’ve ever had, great prices, and even better atmosphere (which is to say cozy, fun, and vinyl-heavy DJ nights).
Also a great little diner spot with incredible food and a notable wine list. Not to be missed; I visit every time I’m in Toronto.
Milou (Little Portugal)
This came as a recommendation from a close friend living in Toronto. Milou offers classic French-inspired fare (from brunch to dinner!) with a great wine list.
Côte du Boeuf (Trinity-Bellwoods)
My favourite little butcher/wine shop! Best beef tartare in town (not to mention the steak) and you can leave with charcuterie and a bottle of wine if you please! This place reminds me a lot of La Buvette in Paris which is my favourite of all time.
All this to say, I love to good wine find, and I want you to enjoy that chase as well. While many of us in Ontario are used to going to regional sections at the LCBO and picking what feels best, it has become so much more fun to explore wines outside of such specific guidelines.
Take a risk and dive into the world of wine collecting outside of the cold LED lighting of a [monopoly] superstore. It might make you a bit nervous at first, but it’s worth its weight, and before you know it, you’ll be your friend group’s wine aficionado.
Go forth and find!
Really enjoyed this Aryn. Nice to read happy, unpretentious and adventurous words on wine. Looking forward to future articles. Thanks for the trip. Pat. ( Old Som and aficionado )