I have a love / hate relationship with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (the state-run monopoly that controls the sale and distribution of alcohol in PA). And by that I mean that I love to hate the PLCB. This admission is what we in the world of pseudo-journalism call “appropriate disclosure.” In other words, what you are about to read is entirely opinionated—and therefore, I hope, both entertaining and educational.

For those of you who live in an area of the world where you are free to purchase any wine that you want directly from wineries and other retailers who are competing for your business and therefore motivated to provide you the best possible service at the lowest price – well, just bear in mind this is not a situation to which we Pennsylvanians are accustomed. No, we are accustomed to driving over the borders to Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey—in the Land of Wine-Shopping Freedom.

This story also can’t unfold properly until you realize that PA’s state government is vying against California for the title of “Most Broken Legislature in the U.S.” – it’s September and our lawmakers in Harrisburg have yet to pass a budget, which has left a yawning chasm of a deficit unfilled and was, until recently, threatening to shut down essential services in some minor cities with potentially embarrassing news-coverage potential (maybe you’ve heard of Philadelphia?).

It’s been postulated by many that one way to help close the PA state budget gap would be to privatize the state-run liquor stores, which would get the state partially out of the distribution business and could halve the current deficit. So it should come as no surprise to any PA resident that the PLCB is going to spend more money instead. What the PLCB has proposed is to expand their reach and dig the state further into the pit of monopoly distribution by developing unmanned wine vending machines that could be deployed at over 100 locations state-wide.

Polls held this past summer indicated that consumer feelings about the unmanned wine kiosks were mixed, with the largest segment of respondents indicating concern that wines sold via the machines would end up in the hands of minors or intoxicated drivers. But hey, not to worry, the PLCB responded, as the kiosks require a driver’s license scan and have breath-analyzing technology to mitigate such concerns. Not that Big Brother is watching you or anything like that.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed “Fast Eddie” Rendell himself expressed concern over the reliability of such technology. He probably should have been more concerned about the bidding process used to select a vendor for the kiosks, however, since it seems to have favored some of his biggest campaign contributors. In July, a Pittsburgh’s Team 4 (WTAE/ABC) investigation revealed that the “open bid” process attracted only one entrant; and the winner (Simple Brands) has two main investors who contributed nearly $500K to Rendell’s campaign. Team 4 investigator Paul Van Osdol caught up with PLCB Chairman Joe Conti, who offered this enlightening explanation of the situation:

Van Osdol: “Any concerns about the perception that might be created from something like this?”

Conti: “As I said, of course, we’re concerned about the perception. We understand the nature of your question and we understand why you’re here today, but we think we—in an abundance of caution—went through a very fair and open bidding process.”

Van Osdol: “Was it really fair if there was only one company that responded, and that company was the one that made the original proposal?”

Conti: “It was a very fair and open bidding process.”

PA politics at its finest!

The irony of PA state residents footing the bill for this type of program—which provides (at best) marginal benefit to the state’s wine consumers while helping to perpetuate the state’s monopoly position in wine distribution and therefore bolsters continuing higher prices, limited selection, and decreasing incentive to improve service—well, it’s not lost on all of us, is it?

For those of you who live in an area of the world where you are free to purchase any wine that you want directly: welcome to my world, Pennsylvania. Thanks for letting me vend. Er, uh, vent.

— Joe Roberts is a Certified Specialist of Wine and can be found regularly roasting wine’s sacred cows (and pairing them with a robust red) at 1WineDude.com.

(images: etsy.com, kyw1060.com)

19 Responses

  1. Jeff

    Dude. That sucks. I’m from Seattle, and there is similar crap that occurs there, which I find to be noxious and terrible for consumers. But I live in California now, and although it’s fucked up, at least we have fairly lax alcohol laws and can buy booze (as well as lots of wine and beer) at the grocery store…even on a Sunday.

  2. Ashlynkat

    I’m in Seattle now and outside of the normal three-tier hassles, things are actually pretty good up here. Wine is available at local shops, Costco, grocery stores and local wineries. You can do online ordering from many sites without much problem. Taxes are fairly reasonable. Not perfect but after reading Joe’s piece, I’m very fortunate that I do not live in PA when it comes to wine. 🙂

  3. Pa Wine Guy

    Your article and its tone are almost entirely correct, except that the state is not buying the machines. Advertising revenue (presumably from wineries interested in selling their wine in the kiosk) will go to Simple Brands. It is interesting that they will all be equipped with cameras, and will require a union employee to babysit them remotely to authorize purchases.

  4. 1WineDude

    Thanks, all.

    As in, thanks for rubbing it in! 🙂

    I hadn’t realized that the kiosks will be equipped with cameras also. Scary

  5. Tish

    Looking forward to seeing you, “Joe Rob”, as host of Wine Kiosk TV, aka WKTV, wherein you will deliver daily missives to Iggle and Stiller fans alike.

  6. wineywhites

    Living in Maryland, I find it stunningly sad that anyone would call our state the land of wine buying freedom. When that is comparatively true, it really is a sad day. On a happy note, I was in Philadelphia 2 weeks ago and had a fabulous dinner at a BYO with no corkage. Of course, I bought my wine in Maryland, so it’s easy to look on the bright side.

  7. Larry Chandler

    Ok, so you have a poor selection in PA. And your prices are high. And service is bad. But you can at least have intelligent conversations with the salespeople, as I had when I was in their Chestnut St. store in Philly:

    Me: Hi. You advertised a wine from Margaux on sale.
    Clerk: We don’t have wines from there.
    Me: But you advertised it.
    Clerk: I said we don’t have wines from there.
    (I wander over to the French wine section.)
    Me: Oh, here it is.
    Clerk: That’s from France. You said Margaux.
    Me (being helpful): Margaux is a French wine, from Bordeaux.
    Clerk: Oh, you know, one of these days I have to learn all this stuff.

  8. ned

    Greatest nation in the World? If it was ever true it certainly isn’t now. We can claim greatest
    dysfunction in the world at this point. Add this to dysfunctional health care, financial markets and institutions, immigration policy, defense policy, drug policy, and on and on.
    Are we ungovernable yet?

  9. 1WineDude

    Larry – if that story is true, it is probably the single best summation of the PA wine situation I’ve ever read!

    ned – At least we have the ability to *change* those things in this country. Unless of course the state is able to make $3B from the potentially unconstitutional control of alcohol, in which case the state government has basically told us to f–k off…

  10. Eric V. Orange

    I moved to PA in 2004 and the service, epitomized in Larry’s comment (he probably thought you said Margate) is, I think the most frustrating. It’s like the DMV.


  11. dave

    That’s whack.

    In a world where more and more boundaries are being broken down, it always gets me when I see new ones being built. I used to run a wine bar in California that shipped under our own, “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to those 14 or so states that don’t allow it.

    Considering you could likely ship a live monkey, what’s so wrong about wine?

    Greedy bastards.

  12. Larry Chandler

    The story in the PA wine store is true. I did edit it down; the conversation was more extended. However, this is the essence, and the last line is an exact quote and the last thing the clerk said to me.

    Another story is when the Chestnut St. store in Center City opened on Sundays for the first time (around 2003 or 2004). I was in the store that first Sunday and it was picketed by people carrying signs saying “Sunday is the Lord’s Day” and other similar messages. But it turned out the people picketing were not religious folks. They were civil service guys who didn’t want to work on Sundays.

  13. Mark

    Yes, I’d agree that Delaware is probably more wine shopper friendly than PA, but we’re still not without our own goofy wine laws in the First State.

    Here’s one that will have you scratching your head – If you physically visit a winery, you can legally ship a certain amount of wine straight to your Delaware doorstep. Delaware residents that do this are subject to pay a $0.97 cents per gallon tax. However, if a Delaware resident were to visit that same winery via the internet from their Delaware residence and try to purchase and have wine shipped to their home – well, that’s illegal. Go figure?? I guess our state’s Alcohol Control legislative members love to travel and drink wine while on vacation, but are not fans of Amazon…

    Here’s a link to an organization dedicated to wine democracy in the US –

  14. Ed Thralls

    Wow, Joe… I thought we had it bad down here in the Bible belt in Georgia. I have to give the state props though for passing legislation last year that now allows wineries to ship to Georgia, though it’s an arduous application process and many wineries are still catching up to it. It was really frustrating to visit wine country and then not be able to send wine home… internet purchasing is still a struggle.

    However, I still cannot go buy beer or wine at the store on Sundays, yet I can go to a restaurant (after 12 noon) and buy a drink there in some counties.

    Anyone catch the new Family Guy last night where one of the parallel-universes Stewie and Brian beamed to was a well-advanced society complete with scientific and other progressive developments. Stewie goes on to explain that in this universe the church never existed. <>

  15. Susan Guerra

    Joe: As usual, this is a great and very entertaining article. And frankly I give you a lot of credit for tolerating what must certainly be a frustrating situation for a wine geek such as yourself!

    I promise never to moan again about the “punitive amount” I pay in property taxes to live in my tiny house here in the suburbs of Jersey.

    Because at least when I watched that last corruption scandal involving New Jersey state officials unfold last summer, I was sipping a competitively priced, artisanal wine—purchased from one of the many great (and knowledgeably staffed) stores in my area.


  16. 1WineDude

    Thanks, all!

    Special thanks to Larry for the true and amazingly entertaining stories of PA state government interaction!

    What these comments tell me is that, while I might be alone in terms of the extent of the PA madness, I’m not alone at all in dealing with *some* level of madness when it comes to shipping booze! God speed to FreeTheGrapes.org and to specialtywineretailers.org!

    Also – I LOVED the reference to shipping live monkeys…!!!


  17. » This Just In: I Join A PLCB Advisory Group. Also, Hell Freezes Over. Sort Of. Wine Blog

    […] 1) Blogger Lew Bryson is doing a fine job of detailing all of the latest PLCB debacles and on-again/off-again satutus of PA’s move towards Privitization, and I’ve little to offer above-and-beyond Lew’s excellent and opinionated coverage. For a pertinent example, check out Lew’s tirade about the state’s failed automated wine kiosks – turns out the PLCB knew that the kiosks had little chance of succeeding before they deployed them (I had a similar view of their potential success published around the same time). […]