I live around the corner from WineOnline (166 Ossington Avenue) but up until recently I never quite pieced together what they did. Perhaps if I thought about it for just, um, a second I would have figured it out. They sell wine. Online. In fact, they're probably the most established online wine retailer in the Toronto area that sells products that aren't available at the LCBO.
If there's an industry that's old school, it's the winemaking business and stiff regulations in Ontario ensure the LCBO is almost the only game in town. Almost, because WineOnline's Aaron Bick is able to sell wine online - and not just Ontario wine. They differentiate themselves from the massive retail giant by hand-selecting hard-to-find boutique wines from around the world. Most of their imported selection comes from France, Spain and Italy.
They can pull this off because they're a wine agent. Wine agents represent products, and only one agency can represent a given product. Like all agents, they're obligated to stock their wine in LCBO consignment warehouses but they're not allowed to carry inventory at their own office location on Ossington. So this rules out retail, but not online retail.
When someone orders wine from WineOnline, Aaron and his team use the LCBO's private ordering service or consignment program and either get it shipped to the customer directly from the source, or in most cases, they pick it up at the consignment warehouse and then ship it out to the customer later that day. Keeping it overnight would be against the law so their logistics are finely tuned so inventory doesn't sit still. This means quick service. All wine ordered online gets to its destination within 1 - 4 business days.
WineOnline shipped their first case in May 2004 and sales have been growing ever since. And while the online business represents the bulk of what they do, they supplement this by supplying boutique wines to Toronto area bars and restaurants like nearby Foxley and Crooked Star.
The typical customer of WineOnline is someone with a busy lifestyle who wants convenience and appreciates - or is learning to appreciate - that there's a lot of great wine out there that's not available at the LCBO (even Vintages). While some might equate online shopping to 30% discounts, that's not the motivation nor a possibility here. Prices are fixed (the LCBO dictates how much the wine can be sold for) and unless the order is for more than $500, there's shipping costs too (typical shipping costs are $9 for the first case and $3 for each subsequent case).
Did I say case? Yep. Don't go to WineOnline or any other private wine agency looking to buy a single bottle of the latest Australian Shiraz. This private ordering business is strictly cases only (each case is 6 or 12 bottles).
So what to get? Among Aaron Bick's picks are a 2004 Barbabelle or the Poggio Maestrino Le Spiaggiole by Erik Banti from the same year. For champagne, he highly recommends the Champagne Brut Merveille by Zoemie De Sousa.
With sales increasing and logistics demanding, I couldn't help asking why a business like this is located on a burgeoning retail and restaurant strip like Ossington. As it turns out, Aaron also owns the building so it's unlikely they'll be moving out of the neighbourhood any time soon.
Other popular agencies that sell privately and take orders via their web pages include Lifford, Rogers & Company, The Small Winemakers Collection, and many, many more. There are also smaller agencies yet, that specialize in even more niche products (like Organics), or focus on specific countries. Some agents also sell craft beers under similar conditions.
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