Phaneuf makes many changes in new guidebook on wine buying

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.


Stemming from the new attention to far-ranging wine selection, Le Guide du Vin now has space uniquely devoted to:

  • Austria

  • British Columbia

  • Corsica
These are good things! Just looking at the breadth and comprehensiveness now present in the guide makes me want to go to my calendar and assign each week in 2008 a different wine region. (I wrote that in hyperbole but now that it's out there I think I might really try that.)

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:So you know Nadia, it's not rocket science.


Joe said...

so the Dok came first! I can't wait to see your week by week coverage (you see, I am digging you deeper and deeper into that hole...). I have never purchased Phaneuf - will have to check with Santa...

RougeAndBlanc said...

Is there a way for US folks to get a copy of this guidebook? Even though a lot of wines sold in CA is not available in US, Phaneuf's remarks would still be a good reference in general.

Marcus said...

Joe, I hauled away a half-case from Cote-des-Neiges yesterday -- it was for the three remaining Montreal bottles of two new releases praised by Phaneuf. It's funny because I think I go across the island not because of the glowing reviews but because top-reviewed wines become impossible to locate when you hesitate. The Phaneuf effect!

RandB, like most of the wine and wine-related stuff I review, you can click on the product image to go to more detailed information. But I might as well tell you know: all those details I link to are in French -- his guide is in French. Even if you don't read a lot of French, it is still a useful wine book. But it is entirely a French reference of a Canadian wine market, so I doubt you could find it stateside.

Joe said...

I bought that Merlot you recommended...

Marcus said...

Joe, thanks for taking my advice. But I still attribute your actions to the Phaneuf effect. I originally tried that Vistorta Merlot on his recommendation and I reviewed recently because I knew he would do the 2004 and I wanted to compare "blind" (even though tasting notes are not Phaneuf's strong suit). So he writes that the wine is "harmonious: an elegant bargain with a subtle richness and purity. Cannot be improved upon."