Thursday, February 22, 2007

Welcome to my Ch√Ęteauneufs

Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, has done several recent stories revolving thematically around Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Most interestingly, the "Best Value" Eric's tasting group, the Domaine de Monpertuis 2004, is miraculously available within the PLCB system, and also, at a store near me. The wine is expensive, the PLCB offers it for $30.49, although Eric bought it in NYC for $32. Score one for the bulk-purchasing power of the PLCB. Oh. But wait. You can buy it for $27.99 in Marlton, NJ.

I wouldn't normally want to buy a $30 bottle of wine, but it's a rare occasion that a wine I read about is available to me, and it just so happened that Corina just got a new job. So it was both cause for celebration and cause for wine exploration. When I got to the wine store, I found the wine not on the standard shelves, but on the racks in the special, temperature-controlled back room of the store. I give rare praise --- this climate controlled wine transport and storage is one way that the PLCB does not suck. We have the work of former chairman Jonathan H Newman to thank for that.

So with wine in hand, Corina and I went in for an evening of roasted beets and risotto cakes, and some Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape. Eric (et al) describe the wine as "earthy," "old-fashioned," and with a balance between "raspberry and tart herbal aromas." Corina and I agreed that the wine was quite good, which makes me proud, since Eric says the wine is "a wine lovers' wine." Our tasting notes give it a dark and earthy raspberry nose and flavor, with an attack that starts sharp, but then lingers mellowly for quite some time. There was something that eluded me in the tasting and the aroma that I could not place. My best guess was mint, but I am doubtful. With all that said, I know how pompously this all reads, and I commiserate. I would buy this again if it cost less than $15, but I'm an explorer, and it's rare I would ever buy any wine again (The exception being the wonderful Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, which I have to get).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Liquor Control Bites

Until I went to Paris in 2004, I spent my entire life dry. On my 2004 trip to Paris, the heart of the oenophilic, I decided to try as hard as I could to enjoy wine. Every night, I suffered, buying a glass of wine with dinner, and forcing it down, despite my shocking distaste for the swill. I even suffered one awkward night, getting tipsy after just one glass, trying to get back to my hotel without falling in the street. Then it happened: at the end of my 10-day trip, I had a wine that wasn't completely awful. I didn't like it, but it wasn't as bad as the others. I could understand that somebody could like the stuff.

It took about 2-3 more years before I really tried wine again. When I lived in California, I bought cheap wine at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Sadly, I disliked every wine I bought, but at least I was making an effort (In hindsight perhaps I was just buying too much of the cheap swill). Now that I'm back in Pennsylvania, I help to consume about 2-3 wines per week. Maybe it's just because I'm buying more expensive bottles, but I even like the stuff now.

One of the things I don't like about wine, however, is buying it. More importantly, I hate buying at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) stores. By law, they're the only places to buy wine in Pennsylvania. And surprise of surprises, even though it's a government-run monopoly, the PLCB sucks.

Going to a PLCB store is a singular experience, much like going to a concert performed entirely by the deaf. Most of the employees I've encountered have no understanding of the product which they sell. Since there is no competition, it doesn't matter if the employees know anything at all, they just need some alcohol for sale. The best wine information I've ever gotten from a PLCB employee is "This is on sale for under 8$! It must be great!" and "I don't know what it tastes like, but it always sells out, so it must be good!"

Also due to the lack of competition, consumer choice is entirely at the mercy of the PLCB. The poor selection is what infuriates me most as a consumer --- when you want something particular, you're screwed. After reading a wine magazine, newspaper article, or blog, and I want to try a "hot new wine," inevitably I cannot buy it. Most of the time, say around 80%, the PLCB simply hasn't even heard of the wines or vintners. About 15% of the time, the PLCB has heard of it, but either has never purchased any, or has no more left. Of course, they cannot order these for you (except in very special circumstances, and when you want to buy a few cases). 5% of the time, they have some in stock, but not at any store within 200 miles. Of course, they cannot ship some stock to a store near me. The remaining 1% of the time, I can get my wine. ("Fortunately," the PLCB web site allows you to search for product availability. I should warn you, however, that that it will be far easier to pound an 8 inch nail through your skull than to use that site for any length of time).

Thus, I have believed the PLCB was The Devil, existing only to hurt Pennsylvanians, and that the only way to Happiness and Morality was the demise of the PLCB. This model of the world, however, was shattered on a recent trip to Cleveland. I was buying a wine, and found the bottle was 3-4$ more expensive than in the PLCB. I couldn't believe it: it was better to buy that wine in Pennsylvania than in Cleveland.

I figured that the Pennsylvania and adjacent non-control wine markets must have been extensively compared online, and I could learn whether this was a trend or not. All I found online, however, was a testimonial from Vice Carocci discussing historical changes to the PLCB. Vince argues that the PLCB has gotten much better, and today helps Pennsylvanians get better prices. I wanted to examine this hypothesis more carefully.

The PLCB is the second-largest single buyer of wine and liquor in the world (after Ontario's liquor control board). As such, it may indeed have the power to negotiate unbelievably low prices. In fact, PLCB stores have drunk of Vince's Kool-Aid, and have signs touting these extremely low prices. Sadly, all the PLCB's information is misinformation. They compare their retail price to vintners' "suggested prices," which are far higher than anybody pays for the wine. What they should do is compare the price Pennsylvanians pay for wine to the price Ohians and Jersyites pay for the same wine.

That is the comparison I hoped to make. Using the online wine store WineZap and the PLCB Web Site, I did a quick survey of wine prices, and came up with the following sample data:
WineInternet $$PLCB $$Ratio
Brundlmayer Riesling Steinmassel 200425.99-30.0021.490.82
P Jaboulet Aine Cotes-du-Rhone17.9918.791.04
Belle Glos Pinot Noir Taylor.Ln 200446.4049.991.07
Annies Lane Riesling 200512.0012.991.08
Carretta Barbaresco Bordino 200035.9939.491.09
Chateau Mont Redon Cotes-du-Rhone 200314.35-15.9916.591.15
Kim Crawford Marl. Sauv Blanc12.99-24.9914.991.15
Ch Doisy Vedrines Sauternes 200136.99-69.0042.991.16
Ch Piada Sauternes 200162.99-69.9974.591.18
Ch St Michelle Eroica Riesling 200417.99-26.2921.991.22

I chose the wines more or less haphazardly from some wine varieties that I would like to try, and in several different price brackets.

The quick summary is as follows: Only in one case did the PLCB have the best price available. In about half the wines, the PLCB was competitive --- within 10% of the best price available, but the other half, the prices were significantly higher. If you have to buy your wine, buy it when you're not in Pennsylvania. You'll get a better selection and (if you look for it) a better price. Of course, almost NONE of the wines listed above could actually be purchased at a PLCB store near me, even though I could buy those wines online if I lived in Ohio.

More detailed analysis, however, will indicate that the PLCB really does a good job of securing good prices for its wines. The problem is Pennsylvania alcohol taxes. The Johnstown Flood Tax imposes an 18% tax on all wine (contained in the PLCB prices above). If you remove that 18% tax from the PLCB prices above, the PLCB has the best price for all but one of the wines above.

This is already a long post, and there is much to say, so I will return to these subjects in future posts. In the meantime, I want to tell you that the PLCB is probably still your enemy, but at least it could give you good prices, if it weren't for state taxes.

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