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California Wine Private Import / 514 Wine Club


ademello
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Hi Guys - just wondering if anyone here has any experience doing a PRIVATE IMPORT with our friendly monopolists at the SAQ. I have received the forms and after several confusing phone calls and dystopian exchanges of mail, I am a little in the dark. Is there a wine club in Montreal that specializes in importing private label wines from the SAQ? My discussions with various promoters and suppliers at the California Wine Festival last week proved totally fruitless, and nobody seemed to have a good handle on exactly how the process works. Please let me know if anyone here can shed any light on this.

Thanks in advance,

Aaron

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If memory serves, you have to provide the SAQ with the name, address and contact info for the winery as well as the type of wine and quantity that you wish to purchase. If the wine Gods are smiling, the SAQ will purchase the wine on your behalf and charge you for the wine, shipping and markup.

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As far as I know, no such club exists. Les Caves, like many so-called promotional agencies, sells so-called private imports but only from producers with whom they have an agency agreement. So the first question you should ask is this: does the producer whose wine you want to bring in already have an agent in Quebec? The answer is not always obvious and the best way to find out is to contact the producer directly. If the producer has an agent, contact the agent to see if they already sell the wine on a private-import basis or if they would be willing to handle your order.

I've never done the private-import-through-the-SAQ thing. My understanding of the process is much like eat2much's. It's also supported by the following text pulled from the SAQ's website:

Are you looking to purchase foreign products which the Société des alcools du Québec doesn't list? Then the SAQ's private ordering service is just the ticket!

If you wish to use this service, nothing could be simpler: all you need to know is the supplier's contact information, the names of the products, and their prices, and then you need only make a minimum purchase of $150 per product and per supplier, based on the supplier's sales price in the original currency.

The Société des alcools du Québec will take care of everything else and will let you know when your order comes in.

Transport and customs-clearance charges, duties, and the mark-up and taxes collected by the SAQ will be added to the product sales prices.

For further information, or to place a private order, call (514) 873-1913.

Are these the people you're dealing with? What kind of forms are you filling out? What type and quantity of wine do you want to bring in? Get back to me with the details and I'll do some asking around.

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Thanks for the offer, Carswell. Those are the SAQ guys I'm dealing with and I've been advised that it can take a MINIMUM of 4 months for the stuff to arrive in my hands.

The wines I'm looking for falls into two categories: those that have Canadian promoter/distributors, and those that don't.

Category A includes: Firestone Wines, Clos La Chance

Category B includes: Roshambo Wines, Savannah Chanelle Vineyars

The quantities are not significant (couple of cases) but if need be I could put a group together to buy larger quantities.

Thanks again for the help guys.

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Maybe this is not totally relevant to what you want to do, but I've brought in a considearable amount of California wine over the years of going back and forth between San Francisco and Montreal every month. I've outfitted a hardcase suitcase so I can carry 8-12 bottles at a time.

The charge seems totally up the the customs agents - from the guys that says it's really expensive and manage to charge only a minimal sum (or wave me through even) to full charge which is close to 100% of the wine cost in California

Seems if I go through Toronto it's a lot cheaper.

Last time (100% charge) coming into Montreal the major portion was not duties and taxes but some "Alcohol Surcharge" ( I think about 80% of the charge.) I guess that goes to the dear Monopoly?

/gth

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I usually bring a few bottles back and forth every time I'm in the US (at least once a month) but it would be nice to have enough on hand for parties, etc. I have a few cases that I've purchased sitting, waiting for me in Washington, D.C. but I don't have an easy way to bring them back. Do you always declare the wine you bring in or do you pretend that you forgot about it?

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Call me chicken, but personally I always declare what I have. It might be expensive but it's not worth loosing the wine. And for California wine, SAQ prices being what they are, you're likely to come out ahead anyhow. Most of the time customs agents have been bending over backwards to make it as easy and least expensive as possible and been most accommodating. And being a guest - breaking the law of the land is bad karma, I think.

Except when they confiscated my Swedish Cheese (declared,coming in to Montreal from Europe) because some obscure EU/NOT EU cheese rule. That got me upset...Oh, well....

Declare and tell them it's for you personal use, and that you're a wine nut.

/gth

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sorry about the delay, Aaron. It took a while to ask around. Not only that but, to my surprise, no one I spoke to has tried bringing in unrepresented wines through the SAQ. Several were under the impression that, the website's claims notwithstanding, the monopoly makes you jump through hoops by way of discouragement, but no one could claim it for a fact. Truth or urban legend?

For what it's worth, a couple of people said that a four-month waiting period doesn't sound out of line. Bear in mind that you're dealing with a huge bureaucracy and that everything has to go through official channels. Hypothetical scenario: You submit your order. They wait for your deposit/payment to clear. Then they contact their rep for the region. The rep contacts the winery to ascertain availability and price, obtains a purchase order, purchases the wne, has the wine picked up at the winery and then arranges shipping to Montreal. It wouldn't surprise me if for small orders they hold the wine until they have room in a regular shipment from the area; it'd be cheaper and safer (FedEx and kin don't ship wine in temperature controlled containers). Then there's customs. Then delivery to and processing at the SAQ warehouse. Then identification and culling of your private order from the regular products. Then QA. Then they contact the private order service, which contacts you and has the wine transferred to the delivery point. With all the attendant red tape. And remember, it's not really a priority for them.

If the Canadian agent for the wine you want is in Quebec or Ontario, try buying directly through them and picking it up in person. If the agent is elsewhere, get someone in that province to buy the wine for you and arrange for shipping (can be hard since it's illegal to ship alcoholic beverages between provinces; a friend or relative coming to visit is your best bet). For wines with no Canadian agent, you can try convincing a local promotional agency to take the winery on. Or you can buy the wine yourself, have it shipped to a reciprocal state and then carry it across the border "en importation valise", either duty-free a couple of bottles per person per visit or a case at a time (look out for the provincial markup, though!). Shockingly, some people who choose the latter option have arranged for the seller — usually a liquour store — to issue a fake invoice so that duty, taxes and markup are not quite so onerous. Don't get carried away doing that, though, as customs officers have price lists that contain the MSRPs of many well-known wines; you aren't going to convince them you picked up that bottle of Yquem for $19.95.

If you decide to bring it back in one shot, consider crossing the border in Ontario; the last time I checked, the markup was around 50%, compared with Quebec's 90%. It may be even less in some other provinces. Also, there's an absolute limit on the amount of wine you can bring in at a time, even if you pay duty on it. The limit varies from province to province. From the FAQ section of the SAQ website:

Provided you pay the taxes and SAQ mark-up, you may bring back a further 9 litres of alcoholic beverages, which is equivalent to a case of 12 bottles (750 ml).

If you are importing up to 45 litres, you must deposit the merchandise in its entirety at Customs. You then must contact the SAQ Customs and Excise Services to pay customs duty, mark-up and taxes. You will be able to pick up your merchandise at Customs upon presentation of the SAQ receipt.

As for not declaring the wine, you'd be taking a big risk. The "I forgot I had it" excuse won't fly. One person I know who tried smuggling and got caught had his car impounded at the border along with the wine. He had to take a bus to Montreal and then, a few days later, travel back to the border and pay a stiff fine (like $3K) to get the car released (the wine was forfeited). Actually, he considered himself lucky because customs could have kept the car.

(Here's a less-than-surefire strategy that once worked for me. Shortly after Christmas, I drove up from NYC with a mixed case in the car. Arrived at the border shortly after midnight. The customs officer asked if I had anything to declare.

"A case of wine," I answered.

He reached for a declaration form and asked, "a case of 750-ml bottles?"

"Nope," I replied. "There's eight or nine 750-ml bottles, and three 375-ml bottles and a 640-ml bottle of vin jaune and a bottle that's, I don't know, a bit under 500 ml."

His eyes glazed over. He shook his head, set down the pad and waved me on, saying "'Tis the season.")

I'll keep asking around and report back if I hear anything. In the meantime, let us know what you do and how it goes, especially if you private import through the SAQ. It's be great to have some first-hand info on that.

Edited by carswell (log)
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Thanks for the advice, Carswell. I did some fair damage at the Salon Des Vins last weekend, so I'm putting my private import plans on hold right now. I'm mulling over testing the Private Import service, since like yourslf, I'd like to have a documented first-hand experience. I'm guessing from the huge response that California wine received at the show last week, that perhaps the SAQ will start ordering some more of the more varied and 'garagiste' California boutique wines that are out there, so that we have something other than Fetzer and Beringer to Quaff. I'll be sure to let you guys know how it goes...

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From the FAQ section of the SAQ website:
Provided you pay the taxes and SAQ mark-up, you may bring back a further 9 litres of alcoholic beverages, which is equivalent to a case of 12 bottles (750 ml).

If you are importing up to 45 litres, you must deposit the merchandise in its entirety at Customs. You then must contact the SAQ Customs and Excise Services to pay customs duty, mark-up and taxes. You will be able to pick up your merchandise at Customs upon presentation of the SAQ receipt.

No question that's the 'rule' that applies. Don't know the SAQ well (I live in Ontario) but the LCBO allows 45 litres as a 'personal' importation.

HOWEVER, if we have any lawyers out there there are two distinct issues:

1. There is no legislation (in Ontario) supporting the limit. It has never been tabled as a Bill (or Amendment) or voted on in any way (or published in the Ontario Gazette). My understanding is that it's not 'legal' so you could sue for damages if confiscated (at what cost?). Basic principle is that all 'laws' must be published (it was imposed as a regulation by fiat).

2. Good old NAFTA (but not FTA) requires that all duties (used loosely to cover any taxes, markups etc) must be posted (no problem - you know how much to pay). It also PROHIBITS 'quotas' - only 'duties etc' can be applied to goods originating in USA/Mexico. (interesting aside: there was a similar rule in FTA, but when the US tried to enforce it, Canada replied that liquor/wine was a Provincial responsibility and the provinces hadn't signed FTA). Having been bitten by FTA, when NAFTA came along the Americans inserted a clause that 'requires the federal Government to do everything in its power to ensure that the Provinces couldn't pass countervailing legislation' (I'm paraphrasing for ease of understanding). And it specifically requires the feds to honour NAFTA and not enforce any provincial shenanigans.

So the net effect is that the Provinces can impose a quota/limit, but under NAFTA the Feds can't enforce it. And all crossings are federal responsibility.

Of course, the reality is obviously different - but if anybody has a friendly US politician who would like to investigate this further I'm pretty sure Canada would have to back down (to US and Mexican wine imports) - although the Provinces can still charge whatever they like in markups (as long as it's collected by the Feds).

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im sorry but ive read through this quickly,i dont really understand where this is going ,what wines do you all want to import? ,unless something very limited or very abnormal i can usually find it in the system,i think this is the problem,as a restauranteur i deal with wine agents that have product lists that are updated every week (in most cases),my dad for example, must deal with the saq direct, he rarely meets agents unless he goes to wine shows wich he doesnt,what i feel everybody needs is acess to the agents and there portfolios,there is a guide published every year by l association quebecoise des agences de vins ,bieres et spiritueux,you can order this guide at 722 4510,it lists all agents and all the wines in their portfolios,you can call them ask them when what is coming in and for the most part if you buy by the 6 or 12 can get the agent to deliver the private import wines from their portfolios directly to your home,the book is roughly 200 pages and is very useful to me everyday,it is updated every year,i hope this can help some people with their quest for good juice,wine is only a beverage made from grapes,dont look to deep into it..........

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You're right Dave, I didn't realize that so much product was readily available from the local agents/distributors/promoters until I met them at the Salon des Vins. The more boutique stuff I'll bring back with me from my trips to the US, but for sure almost everything you'd want is available through the local agents. Dave, do you happen to know who the distributor is for Firestone Wines?

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what wines do you all want to import? ,unless something very limited or very abnormal i can usually find it in the system,

Ok here's the challenge in a large nutshell.

I want to COMPARE wines to determine my favourite producers/vintages/sites

e.g should I order a 1990 Chateauneuf-du-pape or a 1998 to go with my meal?

Where can I find both an aged and a young wine to help me know how long to cellar?

Same with e.g. vintage ports

Where do I get my aged wines (e.g. Taylor, Fonseca, Warre, Graham) to do the comparison? Sure the 2000's are/were available but which flavour profile will I prefer? And, equally, if it's Graham (say) where do i get the 63, 66, 70, 75, 80 etc to determine how long I want to keep them?

Same with any country/wine. They're just not available with the current system (including agents).

Such wines are often available retail in other countries - but even if I find them and are prepared to pay whatever duties etc exist - it's still almost impossible!

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