Not to divert the thread, but does Quebec have a special relationship facilitating the import of French wines? It seems that the selection in many restaurants is far broader than that in Toronto, and better / lower priced.
(Or does Ontario just tax the hell out of all imported wines, while Quebec has a more modest hand?)
One of the servers at JB told me that the way it works with either the Canadian or specifically the Quebecois governmental wine monopoly is that less expensive bottles end up costing more than they should -- but expensive bottles end up costing less. In other words, he said, the prices are curved toward the middle -- making it a good place to drink more expensive bottles. (I have no idea if I understood this correctly.)
It's complicated, but you should pay a visit to the fancy SAQ on St. Catherine to see how the monopoly stores those expensive bottles before buying them - especially a summer time visit will teach you a lot.
But of course a lot of bottles are simply not available for purchase except at the restaurant for which they were imported since SAQ has little interest in carrying good or interesting wine in most of their shops.
Really nothing wrong with how the SAQ signature store their wines. All the actual wine is in the basement, more or less temp controlled room, and lighting is not harsh for a retail store. Damn sight better than most all retail wine shops in north america.
As for the best bottles simply being available for purchase at the restaurant, that simply isn't the case. Everything bought and sold in restaurants has to go through the saq regardless, and as long as you know the private import group that brings it in, you will be able to purchase it , by half or full case, as long as quantities allow. Even then, payment is made to the SAQ and picked up at the SAQ of your choosing. Also, wines that are bought through private import dont make it into the store, so for storage conditions, you'd need to look at their stock rooms.
General selection in the average store is pretty similar across the board, but buyers for the individual stores get a fair amount of latitude for stocking the Cellier section (ie. wines 20$ and over). Knowing who the buyers are helps, to know which stores are more likely to carry wines you like. If you like premium wines, you are limited to the SAQ signature downtown in montreal and quebec, but a good % of their wines are available for purchase online. The website has an updated, close to real time inventory or all wine in every shop, making it easier to find the product. The SAQ does require products to have a minimal production number in order to be stocked at the regular saq stores, as well as forcing the use of at least minimal sulfur, which can limit their offer of currently in vogue wines. However, those wines are either available through the private import system, or through courrier vinicole, seasonal wine offers for wines with either low production, or low allocation.
As for the SAQ canadian whiskey situation, the SAQ doesn't seem to give a shit about canadian products generally. General buying practices and consumer preferences have already long been established, and they dont seem to be very interested in creating a demand for them either. They seem to want to get better, but I dont think there has been that strong a consumer push in that direction. Most of the positive changes in what is stocked in the saq comes from private import groups and their lobbying for certain wines and sprits to either be stocked or offered by the saq.
The SAQ is far from perfect, but operates fairly well for a monopoly. Call it damning with faint praise, but I'm much happier to have the SAQ than, for instance, the LCBO.