What seems at first like a subtle change is nothing short of a revolution: The 2008 Phaneuf Le Guide du Vin has become a wine guide for SAQ specialty products.
In Quebec, the government agency SAQ regulates all wine distribution. At its most simple, it owns a catalog of products for retail sale that is divided in two: wine spécialités, harder to locate and stocked in lower numbers, and wine of the répertoire générale, which is cheaper, more generally distributed bottles that one can easily locate throughout the province.
(To give you a practical sense of this, it's the specialties from the SAQ I most often blog about, that Joe from Joe's Wine blogs about, and that Bill Zacharkiw of the Gazette most often writes about.)
For this 28th edition of his guide, which appeared in stores midweek, Phaneuf explains the new approach. The new focus on specialty wine serves to help the wine buyer navigate a more elaborate and far-ranging part of the SAQ catalog. That makes sense. But I think he's stopping short of saying it all -- he's not mentioning the huge amount of mostly pedestrian wine criticism (mine, example) oozing out from everywhere and that perhaps he wants to "specialize."
Or could Phaneuf actually be saying that the ubiquitous, often characterless cheap wine of the general repertory is just not worth reviewing? With many of the these bottles around the $10 mark and going down in price, does a consumer guide that costs three times that price really add much value to your buying power? Ten dollars in a liquor store is simply dispensable for most people and a three-star review is generally not required to try out a wine with that kind of price tag.
Not that Phaneuf is never reviewing cheap wine anymore. He picks his very favourite items from the general stock -- the bottles signaling the greatest value and the most accomplished wines with a budget price. Yet clearly, he is also announcing (without actually saying it) that the really interesting wine values are not in the general repertory but in the range of wines typically hovering around $15 to $30. This is not surprising. Jancis Robinson and many other have said the same thing.
But never before has Phaneuf so purposely focused outside the general repertory. Ultimately I think this has to make a difference in Quebeckers' buying habits. People who use this guide will slowly start raising the amount they spend on a bottle. As a result, they will buy more specialties. The SAQ will respond by listing more specialties their catalog, achieving greater depth and selection. Better wines will be more readily available in Quebec.
OTHER THINGS TO LOOK FOR IN THE NEW PHANEUF
Stemming from the new attention to far-ranging wine selection, Le Guide du Vin now has space uniquely devoted to:
- British Columbia
Axed is a half-hearted and rarely updated section on wine and food pairings. In its place are expanded listings of wine-friendly restaurants in Montreal and beyond, which I like.
Also a nice move, a major change was made to the problematic page design adopted in last year's edition. In this update, designers appear to have taken all of my criticisms to heart: Inset wine labels feature wraparound text and the type itself is a huge improvement. The silly oversized font from 2007 has been relegated to the index, where its cartoon-ish size may actually be helpful since you're skimming for a lot of foreign names and long strings of numbers in their product codes. Improved typesetting throughout the book adds an extra line per page and around six extra characters per line, all while being highly legible. At about thirty pages more than last year's (and I like the new page stock) it's clear the 2008 guide has a lot more words. More words means more wine reviews and that means more consumer guidance and bang for your buck.
Perhaps Phaneuf is picking up the pace a bit because of the increased competition in the wine-expert industry. With those factors looming, he now introduces a collaborator, Nadia Fournier, to whom he seems to be passing the torch, or at least grooming for a hand-over.
I would love to be an intern working on the production of the Phaneuf book -- this thought came to me last year after criticizing it -- so it seems Ms. Fournier is now my official nemesis at six years my junior.
With that in mind, I now offer my very own published critiques of wines which now turn out to have been given top marks in 2008 (the famed Phaneuf Grappe d'Or rating). Remember, these are glowing reviews that I wrote up myself before the guide pronounced upon them: