JULIAN HITNER TORONTO WINE CONSULTANT

"For love of everything that is wine"

SATURDAY, JANUARY 20, 2007

~A brief essay on the Summerhill L.C.B.O. store: a government-controlled paradise~

     For those that have been inside or have viewed it from the outside, the Summerhill L.C.B.O. is an absolute marvel to behold. Located at 10 Scrivener Square (one block south of the Summerhill subway station) in a beautifully-converted railway station at mid-town Toronto, the flagship liquor store of the L.C.B.O. is one of the biggest of its kind in North America, housing an enormous collection of wines (which vary in quality to a marked extreme, from Baby Duck to Château Petrus), along with imported and domestic beers, coolers, premium spirits, and liqueurs. In addition, the store also features a tasting bar, a private tasting room, an ‘events kitchen,’ two parking lots, an actual (clean) washroom for customers, an exceptionally polite staff, and ten consultants (one of which who even possesses a Master of Wine [MW] certification).

     Completed about five-or-six years ago, the Summerhill L.C.B.O. (henceforth, Summerhill) has slowly become a sort-of municipal and tourist icon for Torontonians, visitors, celebrities, famous critics, prestigious winemakers and estate owners, and, most importantly, general wine enthusiasts like me. To put it mildly, Summerhill is a marvelous place to explore and cultivate one’s personal interests in wine (and spirits), from simply browsing the items on the shelves to conversing with some of the most knowledgeable ‘wine staff’ in the world.

     For all intents and purposes, however, the brilliance that is Summerhill is owed neither to the endless stream of luxurious (and mundane) items it contains, nor to the impressively knowledgeable individuals who preside over them. Granted, both the former and the latter are an integral part of the store’s uniqueness (the latter of which I shall elaborate later), but what really makes Summerhill such an extraordinary place is the uniquely fascinating experience it is able to offer to its customers.

     As mentioned previously, Summerhill is located in an old converted railway station – or, more specifically for about half of its sections, under it. Thus, whenever a person remains in the store for a long enough period of time (which is to say, about five minutes), it is not uncommon to hear the almost-thunderous, earthquake-like rumblings of train cars speeding along the tracks located above the middle portion of the roof, especially if one is near the Rhône and Burgundy ‘Vintages’ sections of the building. For me at least, whenever this occurs, I am always in awe at how the wine bottles in the middle sections of the store – which, by the way, range in price from around twelve-to-three hundred dollars – always manage to do a little bouncing against each other, but never actually fall over. I suppose this can be attributed to the probable fact that the sound of the rail cars is far worse than their actual ‘movement-making’ abilities. Still, it does cause one to remark at how careful and professional a job the construction workers must have undertaken in order to successfully convert this beautiful old railway station into something that can allow wine bottles to be comfortably displayed in such close proximity to roaring overhead trains.

     This aside, an even more illustrative example of the intriguing nature of Summerhill is the sheer fact that one is actually capable of losing their way while navigating through it. Though hardly the size of a full-scale warehouse, first-time (and second-and-third-time) customers at Summerhill often have difficulty locating the exact room – or ‘track number,’ as they are referred to – containing the type of product(s) they are searching for. At one end of the store, there is an impressively-sized beer section, which is practically equivalent to the square-footage of a Beer Store outlet. On the other side of Summerhill, there is the ‘Great Hall’ of the former train station. This is the area of the store that houses all the ‘general list’ products the L.C.B.O. carries. In all, the actual size of the Great Hall is notably large, comparable in size to an average L.C.B.O. outlet.

     The different rooms located in the middle of Summerhill are just about as imposing as the ones mentioned above (if not even more elaborately decorated), from the windowless ‘Old World’ Vintages wine section of the store to its ‘New World’ counterpart located in a large, well-light room facing one of the parking lots. It is arguably these two rooms – along with premium spirits room, as well as the fortified and sparkling wine selection areas, which are located in a large panoramically-styled room next to the Great Hall – of the store that draw the most attention. The reasons for this are blatantly transparent, in that, at any given time, the selection of different wines on the shelves – along with the varying price levels for them – in each of these parts of the store is definitively astounding. For wine enthusiasts like me, these are, symbiotically, arguably the two most important features of any wine store: its selection and range of prices. At Summerhill, then, one of the most appreciable niceties of browsing around is that there are (except perhaps during – and right after – the holidays) almost always decent, fascinating items available in a wide range of price brackets --- this is particularly visible in the Vintages sections of the store. Though some might disagree, I find this to be one of the most remarkable aspects of the Summerhill store. Having traveled around many parts of the world and having visited countless numbers of wine stores, not once have I stumbled on a wine store that has ever come close to offering as widely ‘price-bracketed’ a selection that Summerhill provides to its customers. Such is probably the most illustrative example of the unique experience Summerhill is capable of offering to its very appreciative audience of wine enthusiasts – in other words, people like me.

     Now, another point of interest concerning Summerhill is the actual wine experts of which it is able to boast. On walking into the Vintages section(s) of the store (remember, there is both an ‘Old World’ and a ‘New World’ department), one will stumble upon persons sporting white shirts who retain an unparalleled knowledge of the countless products Summerhill carries. These people are known, in utilitarian fashion, as the store’s ‘product consultants.’ Numbering ten in total, these individuals are, without exception, among the most knowledgeable experts of wine I have ever personally encountered in my travels. For some readers, such a statement of praise might seem surprising and somewhat exaggerated, but I can assure such individuals that they are mistaken with regard to the latter. The product consultants at Summerhill are, quite simply, among the most knowledgeable wine experts I have ever had the fortune of meeting and interacting with.

     Why is this so? Well, though it might seem awkwardly simple, the main reason for this is that the product consultants of Summerhill are sort-of ‘products’ of their environment, in that – as a result of the store’s brilliant selection – they are, quite literally, compelled to possess a grasp of practically every winegrowing region in the world. From what I have witnessed, this seems to stand in direct contrast to most other wine stores I have walked into, which (for want of space or actual interest), generally specialize in only one or two countries. This is particularly the case in most European countries, where, in the stores, wine experts only possess information on the country their store is located in, or (if they are fortunate enough) only knowledge of wine-producing countries on the European continent, itself. On the other hand, for such a place as Summerhill, with such a selection as it contains, its product consultants must possess an enormous data of facts and figures if they are to properly assist their customers in finding one (or two) items out of many that best suit the needs of the latter.

     On a final note, in addition to the above, another considerable attribute of Summerhill is that, included among its many rooms, is an actual tasting bar. Known as the ‘Tasting Tower’ (because it is located right below the old clock tower of the station), it is one of few tasting bars offered in any of the L.C.B.O. outlets throughout the province, featuring over one hundred products for customers to sample at various prices. While customers are only limited to two samples per visit, the selection of different wines (most of which are procured from the ‘Vintages’ department of the store) is comparable – at least from what I have seen – to any decent wine bar or restaurant within the city of Toronto. In the time span of about four years, I have probably visited the Tasting Tower over a hundred times, sampling all sorts of interesting wines from around the world. Whenever I walk in, pen and paper in hand (I always write down whatever I taste), I am almost always fortunate enough to sample an item I have never tried before; and this, for me, is one of the most exciting aspects of tasting wine – the trying of something new.

     In the end, then, it is truly unmistakable that Summerhill is an incredible institution, offering all sorts of delights to those who partake of its confines and contents. From its awesome size and selection to its encyclopedic-like product consultants and highly-civilized tasting bar, Summerhill is able to provide wine enthusiasts like me with endless hours of browsing, drinking, and discussion. For these reasons then, Summerhill is, unequivocally, the finest wine-related paradise ever controlled by a provincial government in the history of humanity.

COPYRIGHT 2007

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