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.

I think your a **** **** to be honest with you. How do you expect every PLCB employee to know exactly what every **** bottle of wine tastes like. Id be more than happy to sample them all for you if you are willing to purchase them for me. Just because you ask me what a wine tastes like and I dont know doesn't mean we dont know ****. The PLCB carries 1000s of times how are we suppose to sample everyone? I hate the **** liquor stores but I hate you more.
I'm a bit disappointed at the rampant anonymous use of vulgarities, and sadly blogger doesn't have a way to censor, so I had to repost your comment.

I also edited the article to hopefully less offend talented and well-versed PLCB employees, of which I am certain that there must be many. Sadly, I have not yet encountered one that has been able to answer any of my questions.

I don't expect that every PLCB employee will have tasted everything. I just expect some rudimentary knowledge of the products sold, maybe some general comparisons --- American Rieslings are less dry than foreign, or whatever. Going to huge wine stores in CA, OH, NJ, and NY I've
always found at least one clerk that has tasted much of what is sold, and can guide newbies through the process of selection. The difference is unmistakable, because in those states, the competition demands that level of product knowledge.

Product knowledge isn't even the only problem...I have a number of other great stories, such as the time I waited for 40 minutes in an otherwise empty store just to find out that a particular wine was not in stock.

Thanks for the comment.
Any thoughts on expanding your survey? Seems like a noble thing to do, and would be illuminating. I'd especially enjoy some sort of user-enable survey of PLCB employees. E.g., can _anyone_ in the store tell you whether "fruit forward" is good or bad in Sonoma? Or some sort of question that would reveal whether they know _anything_ about wine. Great post.
The PlCB is one big monopolistic pain.In the majority of states a person can do one stop shopping for their beer,wine and booze. In Pa you have 3 different stops, o the algore carbon footprint of it all.
Has anybody thought about free market competition?? Where the market sets the price? Back in the day the blue laws were the excuse for a state controlled entity.Obviously that is no longer the case,somebody or somebodies seem to be getting their pockets greased to be able to control such a large market as beer,wine and booze in Pa.
What would be the economic impact of privatizing the state stores,getting rid of all those employees with their health,retirement etc and letting the market determine how many stores and how much would be charged for items as competition determines.More stores selling means more state revenue for licenses..maybe some of the taxes can be reduced so Pa residents don't go across the border to spend their money.
I'm thinking of running for Gov. next time on a " free the Booze " platform Let me now what you think.
Thanks for the vent outlet.
Hey David, you seem like a pretty smart cookie, so why do you supposedly waste your time hanging around PLCB liquor stores waiting for answers regarding how a wine tastes?

Not all of us have the training or the disposable income to sample the many vintages available, but if you come to a large store like the one I work at, and ask a manager or wine specialist working the floor, you will get an answer within minutes. Every one I have worked with has always responded to the customer more quickly than I could believe.

And trust me, as far as other states go, you simply cannot get the choice or assistance that you can here. I have been there and seen it. They are not trained and not paid to do the level of customer service you are talking about. They are folks that just need a job, any retail job. Don S. Village Square Wines and Spirits
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?