Ever wonder what Ontarians were drinking while we were all holed up during the pandemic?
Well, wonder no more. At the end of December 2021, the Toronto Star released all the juicy details. From how much we were drinking, to our beverages of choice, and what we learned as fine wine drinkers, or any kind of wine drinker for that matter, was chilling. We were shut out.
Let’s start with a little self-reflection. I know for a fact I drank a fair bit during the pandemic. I started out with a 2600 bottle cellar in March 2020. Due to tasting rooms being closed, I admit to buying very little during the almost two years in the way of vintages wines and, because of this, my cellar has hit an all-time low of just under 1900 bottles. That’s a reduction of over 700 bottles in less than two years. I have never seen that kind of attrition, ever. More than a bottle of day, and I am pretty sure I didn’t drink every day…or did I?
But, while I was traveling the globe via the wineries of South America, Chile and Argentina, hitting up European destinations like France, Italy, Spain or even choosing to staycation in North America with California, Washington, Oregon and our own regions right here at home; it turns out my fellow Ontarians were not digging the fermented grape; they were more about the vodkas and sodas, literally.
Turns out Ontarians were sipping on White Claw pretty much from the moment the pandemic began and continued well into 2021; the statistics accumulated by The Star end in September 2021. Consistently, the number one brand was White Claw Black Cherry ($3.10 / 473 ml can) with the Mango slipping in occasionally to take top spot before Black Cherry would claw its way back there again. And, of course, the top two are the more expensive flavours in the line, being fifteen cents more than the watermelon and raspberry flavours. Other drinks that made it into the top five were Smirnoff Vodka PET ($15.95/ 375 ml), and Smirnoff Berry Blast ($29.20 / 750 ml). The only other beverage of note that cracked the top five, was Bailey’s Irish Cream, and mainly in the winter months when most people needed a ‘correction’ to their coffee, as the Italians call it.
No wine or beer brands cracked the vaunted top five. I will say that again, “ No wine or beer brands cracked the vaunted top five.” Some say it was price dependent, as White Claw was around $3 per can, while others cite the ready to drink aspect of those hard seltzers. I’d have to argue that wine is a ready to drink product; pop the cork or crack the cap and you’re ready to go. But how does one explain that 375ml Smirnoff Vodka on this list? And if cost was an issue, that 750ml Berry Blast, at almost thirty bucks a bottle, makes no sense at all; when you consider it costs six bucks for two cans of that Black Cherry or Mango soda water which gives you the same bang for buck, liquid-wise. Though, when you take alcohol into consideration Berry Blast kicks things up a notch, coming to the party at thirty percent versus five in the White Claw, but still…. It bogles the mind that it is these ready to drink coolers that maintained a stranglehold on our collective palates when there is so much else out there. Maybe Ontario is not as sophisticated as we like to imagine; but that’s an argument to be made another day.
It is interesting to note that some people raised the bar a little, as some portion of the province bucked the White Claw trend. Crown Royal and Hennessy Cognac made inroads in such areas as North York (North Toronto). But still, in these affluent areas, wine was still a no show, and beer was in the same boat. For me, that was the bigger surprise. I thought Canadians were all about beer? The wine I guess I can understand, we’re not a wine drinking culture like France, Italy or the rest of Europe. But surely beer, the beverage the free trade agreement protected for Canadians, would have cracked that top five. Nope.
Perhaps, and I’ll float this idea here to make us wine and beer drinkers feel better: there are so many brands of beer these days that it is hard for one label to dominate, as Labatt’s Blue and Molson Canadian did back in the day. We can say the same for wine: there is plenty of choice out there, and no one bottle dominated the marketplace, like Black Tower and Blue Nun back in the 70s, not even Santa Margherita can boast that kind of recognition. What we saw were plenty of empty shelves in the imported wine realm, blamed on a shortage of boxes for storing, and on bottles for, well, bottling.
On the plus side, local wine saw a huge influx, as some wineries reported online sales up as much as 3,000%; but if you consider the scant amounts of online wine sales Ontario wineries had before the pandemic, it really was a low bar to leap over. That said, the real number of how well local wineries do will be seen post pandemic. Those over-inflated numbers, like 500 to 3,000% increase in online sales, should settle down as things return to normal and then we should see some consistency as to how people’s tastes have changed, or not. Will people continue to support their local industry or will they fall back into old habits and return to the imports? Has the Ontario Wine industry managed to maintain or even grow its customer base? These are the real questions coming out of a pandemic.
A further question that will be answered: are we destined to be in White Claw hell forever? I sure hope not; though my neighbours tell me it is quite delicious.