Most of you have been to the SAQ once or twice. Fine, maybe three times.
For most of us, the SAQ—otherwise known as the Société des alcools du Québec—has existed as the province's alcohol monopoly for as long as we can remember. (For historical context, visit the SAQ's official chronology or this epic compilation of images and other information put together by the McCord Stewart Museum for the agency's 100th anniversary.)
But did you know it's not the only place you can buy privately imported wine in Quebec? Well, in case you haven't had the chance to discover one of these shops, we're happy to inform you that they have a pretty little name that goes by caviste.
A caviste is, in short, a shop that specializing in selling wine (or even, as an extension, the specialist running the shop). Particularly since the passing of Bill 72, these small boutique shops have popped up across the city to give consumers an alternative for picking up a bottle or two of privately-imported wine, a concept that was once limited to the experience of dining out at a restaurant at a significantly higher cost for the consumer. What's more is that these cavistes can sell a food item, rather than a complete meal, when selling alcohol from their well-stocked cellars, keeping costs low.
Over the course of the last few years—perhaps feeling some of the pressure, or more likely just adapting to the reality of how the taste and needs of wine drinkers' has evolved—the SAQ now offers a fair selection of natural wines from all over the world, including some from Quebec. Yet many wineries in the province (and around the world) choose to work with smaller, privately-owned companies that can operate on smaller margins and do not require minimums.
This has been referred to as the "democratization of wine" by some people, which creates better accessibility for wine lovers to buy rare vintages or limited releases through an open discussion between the customers and the caviste in the hopes of sharing knowledge and an appreciation of the hard work of winemakers. And while the prices might be slightly higher when buying from a local shop, it does allow the consumer to support two small businesses at once, something of a win-win.
Vino Rama is one such shop. Open since March 2022, this boutique store on Beaubien Est. is still something of a hidden gem in Montreal's wine scene, selling a heavily curated list of wine from around the world. The hand-picked selection of wine, based on a combination of their personal preferences as well as customer feedback, are all privately imported through various agencies based in Montreal and won't typically be found in the SAQ, since the bottles are usually reserved for restaurants. This ensures more more variety and a touch of exclusivity.
While not always easy to keep privately imported wines accessible, Vino Rama keeps its costs down by eliminating the need to open wines on-site (such as a restaurant) and passes on those savings on to its customers.
According to partner and shop manager Carolyn Aubry, opening Vino Rama was a way to offer Montrealers a different wine experience. There was a demand—and, arguably, a need—to create a space where people could explore a niche selection of all-natural and biodynamic wines without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated. In other words, it was about "taking the pressure off" and showing that the world of wine can be "exciting, approachable, and enjoyable."
"We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience exceptional wines without breaking the bank." – Carolyn Aubry
Vino Rama works closely with over 30 importation companies, building strong relationships and holding tasting sessions to discover new and intriguing wines with the goal to carry a varied selection that caters to different tastes and preferences.
Stepping into the shop, customers can expect a certain level of service that guides them through the process, helping them "explore new wines that go beyond the traditional or classic" bottles that most people are familiar with. (This can also be described as distinguishing between New World wines vs. Old World wines, where the former denotes wine-growing regions outside Western Europe.)
Vino Rama strives on continuous adaptation of its selection, paying close attention to its customers' feedback in curating what's available. This can depend on the season (for example, bubbly reds are more popular in summer) that means the caviste is always on their toes, keeping pace with the ever-changing trends and tastes of its clientele.
Next time you're in the market for a bottle, think of our local cavistes and don't be shy to stick around for a conversation. They are, after all, experts in their field and won't hesitate to share their love for natural wines of all shapes and sizes.
Click on the image below for more info!