Kensington Wine Market

Knowledgeable staff, outstanding service and excellent wine in Alberta
Written by: 
Jeanee Dudley
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Nancy Carten first opened the doors at Kensington Wine Market (KWM) May 15, 1992, which was two and a half years before the provincial government fully privatized the sale of alcohol. Carten, a local businesswoman, had formed strong partnerships with investors dedicated to the success of the new company. As an experienced retailer, she gathered together the market’s first small, but eager staff, training with an emphasis on knowledge and service, which have become the trademark philosophy behind the operation’s success over the years.

It is important to note that KWM was the first retailer in Canada to offer whiskies from the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, the world’s foremost private whisky club and leading authority on single cask, single malt whisky.  

Today, the award-winning retailer has grown significantly. From a small family of four employees, KWM has expanded to a landmark operation with 20 dedicated oenophiles on staff. Carten’s wine market has evolved from a modest neighborhood corner store to one of the most dynamic and unique stores in the country. The addition of KWM’s e-tail website has added another milestone to the company’s history of growth, as Nancy and her team were pioneers in web design and service for wine and spirits in Canada.

Through the grapevine

The market’s product mix is 80 percent exclusively or semi-exclusively sourced. KWM works with agents to broker wines that Carten and her team members find on their travels. “We offer wines at all price points that distinguish us from other liquor stores,” she explains. “We try to focus on smaller producers, which allow us to represent the little guys without a ton of pressure to sell in high volume. Our team looks for small, hands-on, artisanal producers.”

The market has an impressive offering. “Our product offering really shines with wines from Spain and France,” Carten continues. “We also have a very dynamic section of American wines, especially pinots and chardonnays. We work really hard on sourcing quality wines from Italy. The Canadian selection is also a growing and patriotic section for customers, though it can be harder to find exclusive products with Canadian producers. This summer I found a great Rose from Pender Island. It is an ongoing process.”

Kensington Wine Market

Whisky business

KWM is identified primarily as a wine market, although Carten notes that her operation offers a lot more than wine. The company first opened two years before privatization; Carten’s permit allowed her to sell alcohol, but only wine. Now, the market offers a range of wine and single malt Scotch, while promoting education through wine-savvy policies and programs.

Furthermore, the company recently received a certificate of honor from Alberta Liquor Store Association (ALSA), recognizing KWM as a leader in education for the industry.

For single-malt Scotch, KWM has one of the largest selections in the country. “We buy barrels from distilleries so we have exclusivity,” Carten notes. “The website now accounts for a huge amount of our business.” The company’s Scotch whisky offering is popular in corporate gifting. Recently, a local law firm bought a cask and KWM had it labeled personally.

While Carten is the resident wine expert, her skills are complemented by the knowledge and leadership of Andrew Ferguson, the company’s in-house single-malt expert and co-manager. Ferguson has the country’s largest personal collection of single-malt Scotch and is one of Canada’s leading experts on the spirit. He is involved with several industry organizations and writes a newsletter, The Malt Messenger, which has a readership of approximately 5,000 people. In April 2011 Andrew was inducted into the Keepers of the Quaich, the first Canadian retail expert to be honoured.

Staying involved

While the primary business of KWM is the sale of alcohol, Carten and her crew maintain a strong focus on community and customer involvement. The company is involved in Calgary’s business development zone board and contributes to several community organizations. Carten and her team are also involved in regulation of liquor in Alberta through ALSA.

KWM is a sponsor of the Calgary Opera, and Carten and her team have more recently been involved with Heritage Park fundraising. “We prefer to keep the causes we support within the neighborhood,” she explains. “We are a neighborhood business and donation is great in an environment where people actually know where the donations are coming from.”

The business’ continued success allows KWM to stay involved both in the neighborhood and the industry. In the coming years, Carten sees continued growth for her business. “I am excited to bring this staff and this company along to see what the next decade will look like,” she elaborates. “I want to ensure that everyone has a job for years to come. Our team has been incredibly loyal.”

Carten takes pride in her crew of long-term employees, many of whom have been with the business for 16 or 17 years. In retail, where turnover tends to be more significant, this kind of longevity is unusual. Carten strives to empower her employees as much as possible. Staff members are paid to conduct tastings, but they have to do all the research, present a lesson plan and pick the products. She also pays for staff education if they want to take classes off-site and many of her employees have completed the highest level of sommelier training.

The business has a strong future as the market grows throughout Alberta. Economically speaking, Carten is optimistic about the direction of the province. On top of that, changing technology has made the company more accessible than ever. Over the coming years, Kensington Wine Market will continue to grow, providing fine wine and spirits from all over the world to customers in Alberta.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
ALSA Alberta Liquor Store Assoc.
Lucas & Wright Insurance