Pennsylvania Uncorks Wine’s Worst Idea Ever (A Primer of PA State Politics for the Uninitiated)

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