There is a thriving niche market in providing wine advice to the however many million Ontarians who are effectively captive to the Ontario LCBO wine monopoly.
Tony Aspler has been doing this for some years on his TonyAspler.com web site. I’ve been subscribing to his reviews for a few years, most recently renewing my subscription last January.
Since then, however, I’ve come across WineAlign, which collects reviews from a variety of sources but whose main reviewers are John Szabo and David Lawrason. Lawrason is well known as a wine critic — I think he used to be the Globe’s wine critic before they took it in-house, and he has been involved since in Wine Access magazine and now the Toronto Life wine column. Szabo is not as well known to me, but he is the wine consultant responsible for the wine lists at Terroni and Indian Rice Factory — I cannot say anything about the latter from personal experience but the diverse list of affordable Italian wines at Terroni is one of the features that makes Terroni more interesting than your average Toronto trattoria.
I got a trial subscription at Wine Align and I find both Szabo and Lawrason interesting and helpful. Szabo in particular is of the “I am allowed to have a point of view” school of wine reviewing which makes reading him genuinely helpful, especially since I happen to share his point of view on some things. In a sense, the whole idea is that since you get to see reviews from a variety of sources, you’ll have a better chance to figure out which critics’ views “align” with your tastes, and let them have more influence on your purchasing decisions. (The reality is that there probably isn’t much point in subscribing unless Szabo’s and Lawrason’s tastes “align” to some extent with yours — you can get the other reviews easily enough elsewhere.)
This excerpt from a recent blog post is a nice illustration of Szabo’s style and the “Wine Align” concept:
This will undoubtedly be a polarizing wine, with many swooning over its full-bodied ripeness and others, probably far fewer, wondering what just hit them over the head. You’ll see in the Vintages catalogue that Robert Parker rates this wine a 90-91, while I was considerably less enthusiastic at just 86. I found the fruit fully baked and raisined and the alcohol, at an exaggerated 15.5% (on the label), well, exaggerated. No balance, no finesse, no poetry, just sheer mass. Any long time First-in-Line or WineAlign readers will likely have already figured out which wines ‘align’ with my tastes so this won’t be surprising. I know Minervois is a hot region. I lived next door to it and traveled through it during the hot summer of 1998. I’ve visited Domaine des Aires Hautes and tasted 16-17+% alcohol barrel samples and found them excessive then too. I know that properly managed vineyards can produce fully ripe fruit at less vertiginous alcohol levels, as plenty of other producers in the area manage to do, so I’m left wondering why it’s necessary. I suppose it’s because lots of people including well-known and respected critics like the style. I can’t help thinking that if I wanted to drink amarone or fortified wine, then I would probably buy amarone or fortified wine. In any case, I encourage you to pick up a bottle and see for yourself – it will at least be warming on a cold winter’s night.
By contrast, Aspler can be a helpful reviewer, but it’s often difficult to figure out what he really thinks about a wine and why.
Wine Align charges about $40.00 a year for a subscription, with a free trial for about 60 days. Worth the cash, especially if you’re at all adventurous and want to make the most of the limited selection brought to us by Vintages and the LCBO.