Time for a Pennsylvania “Tea Party” (of the vinous variety)

52 - Liberty Bell

Lettie Teague’s recent excellent Wall Street Journal piece on the tyranny of Pennsylvania’s Liquor Control Board (PLCB) focused on its injustices to the state’s restaurant industry. But individual consumers also suffer mightily from its stranglehold on the wine market – so much so, Pennsylvania wine-lovers should consider fighting back just as restaurant sommeliers are starting to do.

(I pick on Pennsylvania because I spend a lot of time in the Philadelphia area and have experienced the PLCB-driven wine market. Residents of the various other states with hard-to-navigate wine laws have similar motivation to lobby for change.)

As Teague points out, Prohibition never really ended in Pennsylvania; the ambit of its banned behavior merely shifted. If you want to consume wine in Pennsylvania – at home, in a private club, in a restaurant – it’s supposed to come from a state store or, in limited circumstances, from an in-state winery or certain out-of-state retailers and wine clubs with proper licensing to ship to Pennsylvania consumers. The law includes a $25/bottle fine for individuals who carry wine purchased elsewhere across the state line, but enforcement has effectively lapsed, spurring fed-up consumers in the Greater Philadelphia area to “wine-mule” cases purchased at New Jersey and Delaware wine superstores home in the trunks of their cars.

Pennsylvania’s restraints on consumer choice put up speed bumps to securing the most competitive prices and interesting selections, although determined Keystone State oenophiles will seek out those retailers and wine clubs that deliver to Pennsylvania. And, by the way, I haven’t unearthed a magic algorithm that determines who these sellers are. Examples: New York-based Sherry-Lehmann does not ship to Pennsylvania consumers while Super Buy-Rite in Jersey City does. The Wine Cellar @ Red Bank (New Jersey), which supplies several wine clubs including WSJ Wines and Virgin Wines, cannot ship to PA, but Lot 18, in Mahopac, NY, includes PA on its delivery list.

So, while savvy and diligent wine consumers can take heart from the increasing ease of buying good product from outside Pennsylvania (driven perhaps by the state’s fear of losing an interstate commerce challenge on constitutional grounds), for their local purchases they are stuck with the PLCB state stores. This is where I dream of a citizens’ uprising.

The state is disinclined to relinquish the cash flow it reaps from this monopoly operation, Teague rightly notes. The previous governor, Tom Corbett, tried but failed to muscle a privatization bill through the legislature and incumbent Tom Wolf shows no interest in reform. How can it hurt – a collaboration of consumers and restaurateurs making a stand against the PLCB system?

In the meantime, residents and visitors, don your rose-colored glasses: the onerous rules that lead to sky-high prices on Pennsylvania restaurant wine lists have also created many BYOB establishments. You can wine and dine extremely well in Philadelphia at a fraction of what you’d pay in New York City – especially if you want to protest the system in your own modest way by bringing a bottle from your favorite (out-of-state) wine store.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/64487725@N07/14505752118″>Liberty Bell</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“>(license)</a>

Join the (wine) club? Part one.

I have no personal experience with subscription-model wine clubs. I have feared that selections will be disappointing, that I could do better making my own choices. At the same time, I know many clubs offer labels not typically available to retail buyers and at prices that can be attractive.

So maybe I’m wrongly biased and, if I picked the right club(s), I’d broaden my vinicultural horizons immeasurably.

Most wine clubs are one of two types: winery-sponsored clubs, through which a particular producer can deliver bottles, often those for which it can’t get retail distribution, directly to consumers; and unaffiliated clubs that source from multiple producers.

In the second category, a few clubs are associated with non-wine brands (e.g., Zagat, New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and some offer a specialized selection (kosher, sparkling wine, non-U.S., for example). NOTE: the Zagat and WSJ clubs are supplied by the same retailer, New Jersey-based The Wine Cellar.

Most clubs give subscribers some options – setting red versus white preferences, adjusting the delivery frequency – and make it easy to cancel at any time.

But clubs have pitfalls, notably around shipping: many are restricted in the states to which they can ship, and I can’t discern a coherent pattern to the limitations. For instance, Zagat ships to Massachusetts residents but Cellars Wine Club cannot. Wine of the Month Club apparently ships by wagon train to Massachusetts, as its site warns those residents to expect three- to five-week delivery times. The New York Times Wine Club notes that, in Indiana, it can ship only to certain ZIP codes. Utah and Pennsylvania residents (among others), you’re pretty much out of luck.

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say – and to ask you, dear readers – about wine clubs. In the meantime, does anyone have a wine club shipping story or lesson to share?