Thursday, October 23, 2008

North Carolina Shows Why State Stores are Actually a Great Idea

It's tempting to post this with no comment, but... I can't. So read the comment after the post (and thanks to the amazing Mark Brown for the clip).
North Carolina: State shuts down Pembroke ABC store
Source: Fay Observer
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has shut down the Pembroke ABC store because of misconduct and gross negligence, according to a state official.
The state's Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE, is that just too funny, or what?) took possession of the store and its contents Monday. The store, at 203 N. Vance St., will remain closed until the commission can determine whether the operation of the store is justified, said Michael Herring, the commission's administrator.
The ALE has been investigating the disappearance of public funds at the store. A recent audit showed more than $20,000 worth of inventory was missing during fiscal 2007-08, Herring said. There have been problems in previous years with missing inventory and money from the same location.
"Preliminary findings reveal a clear lack of fiscal controls to safeguard public monies and unacceptable management practices for conducting public business in accordance with state ABC laws,'' Herring said in a letter to Pembroke ABC board Chairman James Maynor. The commission notified the board of its decision Monday.
The state ordered that the store be closed immediately because of "gross negligence and misconduct,'' the letter stated.
The ALE investigation is continuing and charges could be filed, Herring said

See, the reason that this incident proves that State Stores are such a great idea is that when your State Store employees start screwing you blind (even though they're under your control and keeping that dangerous booze away from those uncontrollable private business types), you can shut them down "immediately," without worrying about any kind of consequences. Cuz, you know, you control it. With a capital K.

Monday, September 29, 2008

If You've Got a Problem...

A point for the PLCB: they're trying to be responsive. Tucked away in their website is this Customer Satisfaction Form. They ask if you found everything you wanted (and if not, what "specific items" were not there; so don't bother putting in something like "a good selection of premium bourbons"), if you found the store hours satisfactory, and how you found the store's appearance, quality of service, and the convenience of the store's location. There's also an open field for suggestions on improving service.

At least they're trying. Though again, as I pointed out, why bother? You've got us over a barrel, we'd have to buy booze at the State Store System anyway. Oh, wait...if things really suck, we might go over the border more. Wonder what percentage of Pennsylvanians live within 15 miles of the border? Wonder how many liquor stores are on the other side of that border?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

PLCB's Joe Conti: MIA?

Check out this "happy talk" story in MarketWatch about PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton being confirmed to his 4th term as a PLCB board member (by a vote of 47-0 in the Senate). A couple pertinent quotes:

"As I continue to work with fellow board members Tom Goldsmith and Bob Marcus, as well as the more than 4,000 valued employees of the PLCB team, I will remain mindful of the confidence and goodwill the Governor and the Senate have shown me.

Hey, that's mention of the contributions of PLCB CEO Joe Conti? Or even a mention of his name?

"The next four years will be exciting for the PLCB. We are planning many changes to our statewide network of 620 Wine & Spirits stores. These will be highlighted by vast improvements in the look and feel of the stores, and a renewed commitment to customer service and employee education.
If I might be permitted...WTF? You don't need to improve the stores: you've got a frickin' monopoly, Pennsylvanians have to shop there. And you don't need to educate your employees...they're not even allowed to recommend specific wines! At least, that's the excuse we've always been given for them knowing next to nothing. Maybe that's all lies. On the other hand, if you're educating them on how to handle customers who ask for things they've never heard of, without being a jerk about it, more power to ya.

"We will also maintain our focus on vital regulatory functions, ensuring that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to the laws of the commonwealth; and on
alcohol education programs, helping to reduce the serious problems of underage and high-risk drinking. Finally, we will continue to look for ways to operate more efficiently and economically, to generate revenue that will benefit all citizens of the commonwealth."

Well, God forbid you should focus on regulatory functions that benefit the ability of the citizens of the Commonwealth to get a good drink at a fair price. And yo, I think you know what you can do to operate more efficiently and economically: get the State out of the booze business.

I cannot understand why we put up with this one day longer. This is a bureaucracy that simply should not even exist.

And again: it's about the money

Even in other states, even in other counties, "control" of booze sales is not really about safety, or consumption, or morals. If you believe that, you've bought into a lie. It's about the money. Read this story from the DelMarVa Times about why the Wicomico County Council decided to keep their County Liquor Control Board and county-owned liquor stores. I'll bold the important parts.

Liquor vote fails
Privatization booted back to discussion
By Greg Latshaw -- August 20th

Advocates of liquor stores run by the government in Wicomico County won a victory Tuesday when a vote to get state legislators involved failed by a wide margin. County Council members voted 6-1 against a resolution that asked the General Assembly for the power to hold a controversial county referendum on privatizing area liquor stores.

Permission is needed because state law created the Wicomico County Liquor Control Board under Article 2B. Despite bearing the county's name, the liquor board is considered autonomous from the county, other than the law that requires it funnel annual profits to the county. The other three government-run liquor stores in Maryland include Montgomery, Somerset and Worcester counties.

Privatizing retail and wholesale liquor stores is an issue that has polarized council members who say they are split on the value of eliminating an agency that contributed $400,000 last year and an average of $288,000 during the last 13 years.

On Aug. 5, a task force made up of business members, public officials and service organizations issued a report that stated while oversight shortcomings exist with the liquor board, there is no guaranteed way to match its revenues.

Tuesday's vote will likely send the debate back into months of work sessions. The earliest any referendum could take place, if given state approval, would be November 2010, Council President John Cannon said following the meeting.

"What substitute there will be for the revenue stream is our greatest concern," said Cannon, who is opposed, in principle, with government competing with private enterprise. "(The) council recognizes that we have more time and will take advantage of it."

Wicomico County Liquor Control Board Chairman Stewart Haemel praised the vote, saying the council made a wise decision in not tampering with a system that has a $1 million net impact. He pointed to the six-figure contribution to the county coffers, as well as the agency's payroll for its 30 employees of about $600,000. (That's a $400,000 "contribution", and a $600,000 payroll. "Payroll," as in 30 jobs that the county is paying for to collect booze taxes, when they could be paid for by private companies...that would also collect booze taxes. Am I missing something?)

"This might come up again," Haemel said. "But it seems to me that there are many people who want the system to stay how it is."

Council Vice President Stevie Prettyman, a vocal critic of the liquor board and the lone vote for Tuesday's resolution, shrugged her shoulders when asked after the meeting about the vote.

"It boggles my mind," she said.

Indeed it does, Stevie.

Once Again: Sauce for the PLCB Goose Ain't Sauce For the Beer Gander

I've told you how the PLCB interprets The Almighty Liquor Code to their own benefit. Well, they're at it again. The upcoming Pittsburgh Whiskey and Fine Spirits Festival (Nov. 14, 6-9, a benefit for the Nat'l MS Society, details here) is sponsored by the PLCB. Now, when there's a licensed wine festival in Pennsylvania, PA wineries can sell bottles of their wines. At this festival in Pittsburgh, the PLCB is going to have an "On-Site Store," from which you can "Take home a bottle of your new favorite spirit, many not available anywhere else in Pennsylvania".

I'll remind you that you are absolutely not allowed to purchase beer at a beer festival; not from Pennsylvania breweries, not from any brewery, wholesaler, or importer. Not allowed. Does this make sense? Why do you ask? It's a State-mandated and supported monopoly, silly, it doesn't have to make sense.

Abolish the PLCB. Re-write the Code. Treat us like adults. Treat us fairly. Is that so much to ask?

Reason #12: Show Me The Money

Sorry about the long hiatus. I got side-tracked during August when we were traveling and vacationing, and then September got really busy. One of the two blogs had to take a backseat, and STAG won out. I was thinking about more Reasons, though, and now I’m ready to give them to you. The fight carries on; the Reasons continue to build...and here's the latest.

You may have picked up by now that when it comes to government, I lean heavily libertarian. Shrink government, stay out of other country's affairs, and give citizens the privacy and latitude they deserve. Still, we do need regulations on the alcohol serving and retail industry, just as we need them in other industries. Meat and dairy alone should prove that. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle set off a national furor about the conditions of America’s food supply (not, of course, the furor Sinclair wanted to set off about the miserable working conditions of America’s poor, but that’s unenlightened self-interest for you), and there seems to be a similar, if less frenzied, reaction to the revelations in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and the revelations that came out of mad cow disease.

The Almighty Liquor Code does have some consumer-friendly provisions. Bars and restaurants are required to keep the proper tap markers on draft beer (which kind of makes the state’s nebulous growler regs a bit more re-assuring: who needs labels on growlers when you can see the damned thing being filled?); they are also required to break all liquor bottles when they are empty to prevent them being refilled with something cheaper. Yay.

Perhaps the most notably consumer-friendly regulation in The Almighty Liquor Code is the one about keeping beer taps clean. Here it is:

5.51. Cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections.
(a) Coils, tap rods and connections, used in drawing malt or brewed beverages in licensed establishments, shall be thoroughly cleaned at least once every 7 days at the sole expense of the licensee dispensing the beverages on draft. The cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections by one licensee for another licensee is prohibited.
(b) The following methods of cleaning coils, tap rods and connections have been approved by the Board:
(1) Live steam.
(2) Hot water and soda solution, followed by thorough rinsing with hot water.
(3) Another method which thoroughly cleans the coils, tap rods and connections, and leaves them in a sanitary condition. (Okay, actually, this is just stupid, but you get the point.)

5.52. Certificate or record required.
(a) Coils, tap rods and connections may be cleaned for the licensee by a person, other than another licensee, thoroughly equipped to do so by a method enumerated in § 5.51 (relating to cleaning of coils, tap rods and connections). The licensee should obtain from the cleaner a certificate showing the date cleaned, the name of the person by whom cleaned and the method utilized. The certificate shall be kept on file at all times for inspection by the Board.
(b) Coils, tap rods and connections may be cleaned by the licensee himself by a method enumerated in 5.51. The licensee shall maintain and keep a record of the date of each cleaning and the method utilized. This record shall also be kept on file at all times for inspection by the Board.

5.54. Responsibility for condition of equipment.
The licensee has the sole responsibility of maintaining equipment used in dispensing malt or brewed beverages on draft in a clean and sanitary condition. The mere fact that records of licensees indicating that coils, tap rods and connections have been cleaned are no defense to disciplinary action under the law and the provisions of this subchapter if the coils, tap rods or connections are at any time found to be in an insanitary condition.

This is one of the best regs about draft beer in the U.S.; other states either have no regs about it, or point proudly to a requirement to clean lines once a month. We should be proud to live in a state that looks out for their beer drinkers this way.

And we would be, if the state gave a damn about enforcing it.

Reason #12:

Like They Care

Hey, I used to tend bar. I "cleaned" the taps and kept the cleaning log. This consisted of disconnecting the tap from the keg, flushing the line with hot water (as hot as I could stand...or get...or felt like), and shoving a brush up the faucet. Then I’d write the date in the log and sign it...and maybe write in last week’s date, too, and sign that. And when the PLCB Inspector came around (the one time he did in 15 months), all he wanted to see was our inventory and tax paperwork. I asked him if he wanted to see the log (because I actually took it a lot more seriously than I implied above), and he said, "No, that’s okay." Great…*

It’s not just at the retail level, either. I remember walking through a brewery cold room a few years ago with a head brewer. He stopped beside a keg and said, "You know, I could take the cap off and piss in there, and send it out, and I wouldn’t actually be breaking any laws. If I were a farmer, and I did that to a milkcan, they’d throw me in jail!"

So…glass of draft? Or maybe a White Russian instead. Just keep in mind: those open cartons of cream sit in the bar fridge for over a week sometimes…

It shouldn’t really come as such a shock that the PLCB doesn’t spend a lot of time on enforcing laws that protect the consumer’s expectations of good quality booze for their money. After all, what’s their two-fold major mission? Making the state money by selling booze, and protecting the citizens of the state from drinking too much. They’re already protecting us from Demon Rum; why bother to make sure that Demon Rum washed his hands after using the little incubi’s room?

What do they enforce, other than laws about the money? Well, they do enforce laws about nuisance bars – noise violations, public urination, crime, prostitution – and that’s a good thing. The last thing we need is letting freaks take over our bars more than they already have. I blame the dope-ass licensing system enshrined in The Almighty Liquor Code for creating an atmosphere that practically ensures that there will be nuisance bars, but that’s grist for a future Reason, and the PLCB deals with the mess as best they can.

They enforce lewd display laws…’nuff said. They enforce underage drinking laws quite vociferously, although under-21s in the State don’t seem to have any more or less trouble getting booze than in other states. (Funny how that is…) And, of course, they enforce that all-important reg about not having domestic animals on the premises (sorry, Penderyn).

The PLCB should be abolished, and the whole Stalinist State Store System taken down, because it is geared towards nothing more than enforcing laws that benefit the bureaucracy; any benefit to the citizens is indirect. Its useful functions – health regulation, taxation, education, and enforcement – would slot right into state agencies that are already quite competent at those jobs. The few consumer-protection regs on the books are only laxly enforced.

Wouldn’t it be even better if The Almighty Liquor Code were re-written for the benefit of the drinking taxpayers, and focused on making sure we got good quality drinks, in clean and healthy premises? (Er…but not too squeaky clean.) A new Code, streamlined, consumer-friendly, understandable, clear.

And maybe lighten up on the domestic animal thing, so we could bring our dogs to the neighborhood bar if it’s okay with the owner. Because that would be nice.

*Look, don’t get nervous about the quality of your draft beer. Some bars definitely take this very seriously. Some have invested in expensive cleaning hardware (you wouldn’t believe some of this stuff: ultrasonics, force-pumped sponge pellets, light beams…) and the training to use it, others hire accomplished services that come around and clean their lines every week. Keep in mind that cleaning tap lines is expensive. You’re talking about dumping all the beer in the lines between keg and tap, lines that sometimes run more than 30 feet, a loss of beer that quickly adds up when you’re looking at Belgian drafts that run $200 and up for a keg.

But the reason they take it so seriously isn’t because of the regs. They do it because they know that properly maintained draft lines mean properly kept beer that tastes the way it’s supposed to, and that means that discerning customers will return and that means more profit.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

PLCB flexes its dumb muscles again

Go read this post on my friend Jack Curtin's blog, Liquid Diet Online, and catch my response in the comments field. The PLCB just cannot keep its paws off booze and booze venues in State College. They get crazy and over-active. Now, partly, that's because the Legislature leans heavily over their shoulder in State College, because of all the constituents who have kids at Penn State. But you know what? If you, The Legislature, want to have this horrible two-headed abortion of an agency doing the job of "alcohol control" for you, step back and let them do it.

I'll have something to say about the wine direct-shipping mess soon. Honestly...sometimes I think the name of the blog should be Why the PA Legislature Should be Abolished.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reason #11: It's Your Move

Try to imagine something more frustrating for a licensee, a business owner, than trying, trying honestly and energetically, to do the right thing by The Almighty Liquor Code, only to have the rules change or be re-interpreted, or find out that there's another set of rules you didn't even know about. You'll be crossing your eyes, ready to scream about how you just want to do the right thing if only you could figure out what the right thing is. Hey, that's what lawyers are for, y'know? So pony up, buy one, and go do battle. That's how things get done.

Then you can really lose your mind when your lawyer writes up your paperwork, sends it to Harrisburg, and...


..... ..




........................................ nothing happens .....

Reason #11:

Harrisburg Is A Black Hole

I've heard the same story many times from licensees. They've got a perfectly reasonable request, one that's clearly allowed under The Almighty Liquor Code, and they properly make it through channels, and they sit, and sit, and sit waiting for a response. Repeated telephone calls, visits, letters seem to have no effect...and sometimes it just goes too long. An event they needed a special permit for, a beer they tried to get registered -- with the willing assistance of the brewer or importer -- a routine license approval that was the only thing keeping them from opening their doors and doing business...whoops. Sat on the desk too long.

It's an arbitrary time period for these things. Or maybe not; there have been rumors of state legislators using influence to speed up or delay applications. I don't know if any of it's true, but it certainly happens at the federal level -- I used it to get a quicker passport for a sudden business trip a while back -- and what's sauce for the Congressional goose is sure to be sauce for the State Senate gander.

If there has been influence used to speed things up, more power to 'em, anything to push things, but using influence to slow things down? Arrest-worthy. Legislators are public servants, and if they want to serve the public by lighting a fire under some bureaucrat, bully for them. But if you're slowing things down because you've got some squealy New Dry in your district scared of a bar opening on Sunday afternoons, well, sorry, but there's clear law on that in The Almighty Liquor Code: it's legal, get out of the way. And if you're slowing things down to benefit another constituent's business, well, remember what your fifth-grade teacher used to say: "I hope you've got enough of that sweet influence for everyone, Miss Smith."
However, there shouldn't be any influence needed. All that's needed is triage. Some bar wants an exemption to open early once on a Sunday in order to show live Tour de France to patrons? Quick decision, and it ought to be yes: where's the harm? Some restaurant asks for a quick registration on a brand for a new beer they'd like to get for a dinner? That's good for a Pennsylvania business and hurts no one: quick decision, and how much work does it take? (Hint: if it takes too much...your system is screwed, because "brand registration" is just an easy source of money for The State anyway.) Those are quick, clear 'em, just hit 'em with your big "HELL YEAH!" stamp and send 'em back; better yet, do it by freakin' e-mail.

Say there are neighborhood complaints about a nuisance bar: top of the pile, get that crap straightened out. Someone wants to transfer a license: have a set time period for a decision, including public hearings if needed, and stick to it.

We have a PLCB CEO now, right? So why aren't performance standards in place? I hear too many stories from licensees about things sent to Harrisburg and not a word back in weeks or months. These people are not drug dealers, they're business people who want to hire Pennsylvanians.

The PLCB should be abolished because it doesn't even work as well as PENNDOT. Let me tell you: I've lived in six other states, and getting licenses, tags, and titles there was -- every one of them -- a chore, a freaking nightmare. At one point, I told my friends that I was probably going to drop dead in a Maryland DMV line, either from a stroke or old age. Getting things done with driver and vehicle registration is one of the best things Pennsylvania government does, and they do it with a beautiful combination of private business and efficient bureaucracy. Why can't the PLCB learn a lesson?

Handle the paperwork, make the decisions, keep records, and get more things online. It's 2008, fergodssake, and you can't even create an online ordering system that works; Amazon's been doing it for over ten years!

If things take so long because there are so many ambiguities in The Almighty Liquor Code, could you tell us? Then maybe we'd push the legislature to fix it. Things can be efficient and still be fair. But when things are this slow, it's not fair to anyone.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The PLCB's Swedish cousin

A reader (thanks, reader!) sent me a link to a post at Reason Magazine's Hit & Run blog about a poster, a real paper poster, done by Systembolaget, the Swedish state booze monopoly. See if you don't think that Systembolaget and the PLCB sound eerily similar:

"Why Can't You Guys Buy Wine at the Supermarket?"

Imagine that you suddenly get this question from a tourist.

Perhaps you know exactly how you should answer.

If not, it might be good to know what the results of a recent survey showed: The Swedish alcohol monopoly saves many lives each year.

If strong beer (Note: beer with more than 3.5% alchohol per volume; really, 3.5%), wine and spirits were sold in grocery stores consumption would increase by 30%, researchers believe. And they stress that this is a conservative estimation—the increase could be more.

They calculate that there will be approximately 1,600 more deaths each year, 14,000 more assaults and around 16 million more sick days.

So the monopoly makes a huge difference for a lot of Swedes.

And because it will only be around as long as people want it to be, we at Systembolaget have to do everything in our power to make sure our customers are satisfied.

This has resulted in our having perhaps the world's largest assortment of strong beer, wine and spirits.

(And an assortment one not finds in Stockholm and Gothenburg, but also in Jokkmokk and Töreboda.)

Wow. Separated at birth, or what?

Let me parse this my way. "We're saving you from booze. If we didn't, you'd drink yourself to death, you idiots; we know this, because of Science. That's why we sell you all the great booze you need, from the cities to the reindeer-herding stations in East Jebip. Tell your friends."

I mean, it doesn't even make sense. If booze really is as scary, uncontrollably bad as these guys say...why sell it at all? Prohibition would be the course of a truly caring state. Save us!

I put the full text of the poster up, but you should go read what Reason said...and check out the paternal-looking Swedish øldska fårtskë on the poster. Oh, man, the PLCB should just lift this!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reason #10: 623 Reasons (wait, make that 596!)

There are approximately 450 liquor stores in Washington, DC, for 581,000 people, in 61 square miles.

There are 627 liquor stores listed in the Chicago phonebook, for 2,869,121 people, in 227 square miles.

There are approximately 2,500 liquor stores in New York state, covering 47,213 square miles of land.

The entire state of Pennsylvania, with a population four times that of Chicago, spread out over 44,820 square miles of land (94% the size of New York), including Philadelphia (the fifth-largest city in the country), has 623* liquor stores. [Update: as of 6/1/2013, there are now only 596 State Stores in Pennsylvania. No one will say why they've closed 27 stores in five years...but it does give me hope.]

Reason #10:

We're Seriously Under-served

This is a problem with multiple sources, and multiple effects. It comes from parsimony -- when you're paying for the stores and the employees and the transport of booze to them, you don't want too many cost centers -- it comes from patronage -- more votes, more state employment bucks in the district, and the boonies get the shaft -- but never doubt that the main reason goes back to the Two-Headed Monster: it's about "temperance."

Specifically, it comes down to "control of access." The New Drys, having officially given up on prohibition, have latched on to the idea that fewer booze stores means less drinking. As usual, I think their cause-and-effect thinking is ass-backwards: less drinking means fewer booze stores, that's just capitalism. But they have a point: if they make it as big a pain in the butt as possible to buy booze, people will probably buy less booze. (In Pennsylvania, anyway: there's a reason you see so many PA plates in the parking lots at Delaware and New Jersey booze stores.)

After all, when it comes right down to it, you don't need that many booze stores. The State's got it all figured out, just how many stores is enough...and, obviously, exactly what you need in those stores. Amazing, really, how the market has figured out a completely different number in New York, 4 times as many, but that's the mind power of the PLCB for you. You only need to buy so much booze, so you only need so many stores.

You know, they're right, to a certain extent. I have way more booze than I need. It's because when I get out of State -- "out of Control," as Carolyn so brilliantly put it -- I see stuff I can't get at home (or don't find because the organization and signage is so pathetic) and I buy it. Now...that's probably booze I didn't need. But you know, I don't need 30 different kinds of cheese either, or five different kinds of bacon, or (God help me) 45 different kinds of mustard. But there's no pack of ying-yangs in Harrisburg making that decision for me, and there's no group of commissars on the Susquehanna deciding that Bucks County only needs ten supermarkets.

Why is there one for booze stores?

The PLCB should be abolished because the number of State Stores in Pennsylvania -- as set by the PLCB -- follows no logic, no rhyme or reason, no market demand or niche. It is simply a decision, an arbitrary is much of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code. There is no need for the PLCB -- the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board -- to set limits like this. There is no legislation to limit numbers of gun shops, gas stations, fast food outlets, pet stores, tanning parlors, or supermarkets. Why are there limits on the number of booze stores, who sets those limits, and what arcane formulae do they use to determine them? I suspect the answers to those questions are "Just 'cuz," "us," and "that's all you need." I strongly suspect that.

I don't need a booze store on every corner, to be sure. But I also don't need a State bureaucracy telling me just how many they think I do need, especially when it's a number that's obviously out of whack with the rest of the Union.

*It may be a few more or less: the PLCB has been opening and closing stores recently in some mad rationalizing process. Needless to say, there is no apparent pattern to these openings and closings.

What a great opportunity

Pennsylvania could join the movement to rationalize archaic post-Prohibition laws that is apparently sweeping the nation. As this AP story reports, Colorado now allows Sunday sales of booze (and "full-strength" beer, whoopee!), Idaho now allows booze sales on Election Day, Virginia bars are allowed to mix spirits with wine or beer (which should make Steve Beaumont happy), and municipal officials in Wisconsin are now allowed to sell products or services to bars (Huh? Well, there was some poor booger who had to resign because he had a business that -- gasp! -- sold vacuum cleaners to bars and restaurants. Good Lord).

Add to that the many towns across the South that are deciding that being dry is just stupid (mainly because it means that their town won't get an Applebee's, but I'll take what I can get), and you've got a tidal wave of reason sweeping over the booze law establishment in this country.

Wouldn't it be a great time for Pennsylvania to enter the 21st Century? Hell, I'd settle for the 1950s! If even Utah can make their liquor laws more reasonable, aren't you ashamed of Pennsylvania's record? Now is the time. Form a committee in the legislature, get some citizens on there for a change, and get reasonable booze laws in the Commonwealth. We deserve it, because our situation is only becoming worse by comparison.

More on Ontario's "Beer Store"

My colleague (and good friend) Steve Beaumont has -- he claims reluctantly -- taken on the "Beer Store" mess here. I think you'll agree that there are many parallels to our PA-based situation, among them being a ridiculous system, complacent satisfaction, and a simple solution. Take a read; I've got something coming up soon on the similarly ridiculous Swedish government-owned monopoly.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another Country Heard From

Literally, as in Canada. I just got an e-mail from Cass Enright at BarTowel (a great Ontario beer/bar website that I've used and endorsed in the past). Cass has started a blog dedicated to dumping Ontario's monopolistic -- duopolistic? -- beer retail system -- known by the deadly simple name of The Beer Store -- in the dustbin of history where it belongs: Free Our Beer. Rebellion thrives; welcome aboard.

An Ontarian has started an online petition: "We the people of Ontario demand that The Ontario Government immediately remove the monopoly currently enjoyed by The Beer Store. The people of Ontario demand that the Ontario Government allow beer to be sold and distributed through existing and regular grocery and food store channels."

Does that sound like something we should start? Think Pennsylvanians would sign that petition?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

More Great News For Pennsylvania from the PLCB!!

A Pennsylvania licensee (a restaurant owner) forwarded this communication from the PLCB to me, with the attached note: "Please hurry with your project to eliminate the LCB!!!" (Yes, the emphasis in the following was added.)

Dear Licensee Partner:

As you are probably aware, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has been experiencing continued difficulties with its online Special Liquor Order system, and as a result, your vendor sales representatives have been unable to successfully submit your SLO orders. We apologize for the inconvenience. With the support of the Board, we have decided to suspend SLO submissions via the Internet vendor portal for two months while we switch to a new, upgraded database platform.

Beginning on Monday, June 30, orders that vendors had been submitting on your behalf online will now be sent to the PLCB's Central Office via fax or e-mail. We have additional resources in place to enter all orders we receive and there should be no delay in filling those orders.

Please note that you still have the option of placing an SLO order through any of our 621 Wine & Spirits stores. However, please do not ask your vendor sales rep to place an order for you and place the order yourself through one of our stores, as this will result in a duplicate order. We value the partnership of licensees and vendors in distributing wine and spirits in Pennsylvania, and we are taking significant steps to ensure you still receive prompt service.

I appreciate your cooperation during this improvement in the SLO ordering process. Upgrading our SLO order system is of utmost importance, and on behalf of the Board, I pledge our agency's full commitment as we move forward together.

Thank you for your patience. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any additional questions or concerns.

Joe Conti
Chief Executive Officer

Does anyone else just find it hilarious that the PLCB's special order system is named "SLOW"? Oh, sorry, my mistake: SLO. Did he really say two months? "I appreciate your cooperation..." Like they had a choice! And what does this mean: "With the support of the Board..."? If Conti has to run his decisions past the Board...and its Chairman...exactly what is his position for again? Signing bad news?

If you like good booze, something other than the biggest sellers, this means getting the good stuff will be more of an annoyance for your favorite bar or restaurant. Licensees are sounding off about this, and they're not happy. If it were legal in PA, I could buy booze over the Internet from foreign countries today, been able to for years...but the PLCB is still trying to cobble together something that works.

You know...I worked for the federal government for four years. I worked pretty hard, I enjoyed my work, and I really came to hate hearing the phrase "close enough for government work." I find that as a taxpayer, it pisses me off even more when it's true, and when it's said about a government agency that shouldn't even exist.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How Other People Shop for Booze

Yesterday I was in New Jersey.

I did stop at a liquor store.

It was big. It was full of booze: spirits, wines, beers, even mead. I did see wondrous liquors, a rainbow of cordials, and I did take a bottle of St. Germain down from the shelf and fondle it (noting as I did that it was on sale for $6 off).

It was well-marked. I did see large signs declaring wines from Italy, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand (where I did see a marvelous array of wines with shelf talkers and swell prices), California, New York, France, Spain, Portugal; dessert wines, sparkling wines, jug wines, and fighting varietals; wines in coolers, wines in cases, wines to be sampled. Wines on sale: every non-sale bottle of wine was 20% off on Tuesdays! Amazing.

It was friendly. I asked about a wine, "Passion Has Red Lips," and the clerk didn't sneer or look at me blankly...she looked it up, and another clerk made helpful suggestions. They apologized when they could not find it.

The beer was chilled, and displayed in its myriad assortment. It was nicely priced, and so convenient to buy, by the single bottle, or six-pack, or 12-pack, or case, all there with the wine and spirits.

Whiskey? Oh, my yes, a nice assortment, and an amazing assortment of gins, vodkas, brandies, cognacs, and even armagnacs.


I did buy a little. And took it to my car.

And I did drive back to the land of the PLCB.

Growlers: a response from the PLCB

I asked the PLCB about growler regs for a newspaper piece I'm working up, and I got a response this morning. My thanks to Ms. Chapman for a thorough response with a minimum of bull...and I gotta figure the PLCB knows about the blog: my tracking software has registered multiple daily visits from a PLCB computer since about the third week the blog was up. Cheers to the fairness, which is why I have tried to be as fair as possible myself.

Here's the response; I've bolded some interesting bits, (and added some comments and "interpretation"):


Your query on growlers was passed on to the PLCB press office. It seems plausible that everyone you ask might have a different idea of the law, because there are different restrictions on beer sales depending on the type of licensee selling the beer.

There is no specific language in the Code addressing growler packaging . In many cases the customer provides the actual container, whether it is a growler he's purchased from the brewery, or something else. (This would certainly seem to indicate that the PLCB doesn't care what growler a brewpub fills, or what the label says, or whether it's sealed.) All the language concerns the maximum or minimum amount of beer that a customer may take off the premises.

Here's a summary of what is in the Code concerning take-away draft beer, and the actual code:

Brewpub licensees, MAXIMUM of 192 ounces. These are establishments that serve food and beer on the premises, and sell for off-premise consumption. They have the same take-away limits as restaurant, hotel and eating-place licensees. (Note that this seems to imply that growler sales by restaurant, hotel, and 'eating-place' licensees are legal. No problem there.)

[Relevant code: SECTION 4-442. Retail dispensers' restrictions on purchases and sales

(a)(1) No retail dispenser shall purchase or receive any malt or brewed beverages except in original containers as prepared for the market by the manufacturer at the place of manufacture. The retail dispenser may thereafter break the bulk upon the licensed premises and sell or dispense the same for consumption on or off the premises so licensed: Provided, however, That no retail dispenser may sell malt or brewed beverages for consumption off the premises in quantities in excess of one hundred ninety-two fluid ounces: Provided, further, That no club licensee may sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption off the premises where sold or to persons not members of the club.]

Brewery licensees, MINIMUM of 64 ounces. These licensees only brew beer and only sell for off-premise consumption.

[Relevant code:SECTION 4-440. Sales by manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages; minimum quantities

No manufacturer shall sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such malt or brewed beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board, nor in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing sixty-four ounces or more which may be sold separately; nor shall any manufacturer maintain or operate within the Commonwealth any place or places other than the place or places covered by his or its license where malt or brewed beverages are sold or where orders are taken.]

FYI, this 64-oz. minimum is a result of Act 15 of 2003, actually passed specifically to reduce the minimum from 128 oz. and permit growler sales at breweries . (Note that this means half-gallon and two-liter growlers are legal at all retail locations; and explains why Weyerbacher was selling gallon growlers; they did it before the 2003 rule change. Anyone still have one of those gallon growlers?)

The only other thing to keep in mind is that local municipalities may have open-container laws that could restrict growler sales. (Which begs the a growler an "open" container?)

I know you're familiar with the law governing non-growler sales:

Beer distributor, MINIMUM of 128 ounces (kegs, cases). Off-premise sales only.

Restaurant or eating place licensee, MAXIMUM of 192 ounces. (Two six-packs to go.)

If you want to peruse the whole Liquor Code, you can find it online at

Please don't hesitate to call us directly if you need anything else.


Francesca Chapman Deputy Press Secretary

Friday, June 20, 2008

Reason #9: Can I Get A Ruling?

Anyone know about growlers? Growlers are jugs of draft beer, filled and capped at the retailer level (bar, restaurant, club, brewpub), that have become popular since the rise of craft-brewed beer. I've got one in my fridge right now; some Grisette I bought at Sly Fox last week (and very nice: dry, refreshing, kind of like a spicier, brisker saison, just had some with lunch).

I remember buying beer by the pound this way in Kentucky back in the 1980s: bring in your jug (I had a plastic milk jug, cleaned out and dried), have it weighed empty, fill it from the tap of your choice (I got Busch, just for the experience), have it weighed full, and pay the poundage fee on the difference. Brewpubs and the bars and bottleshops that do sell growlers in the Commonwealth generally only fill two sizes, half-gallon and two-liter, which simplifies the pricing.

The devil is in the details. Some places will fill practically anything; my Sly Fox Grisette, for instance, is in a growler clearly labeled as Iron Hill. Some places will not fill anything but their own growlers; not even unlabeled ones. Some compromise by slapping their own label on whatever growler you bring in. Some places insist on "sealing" the screw-on caps with a heat-shrink plastic band or tape; some don't. Some places won't do it. Weyerbacher, for a while, would only fill gallon growlers.

Why all the confusion? Check the Code...I dare ya.

Reason #9:

What to do about growlers?

This is a very small thing, to be sure. Growlers are a tiny little part of a relatively small niche of Pennsylvania's beer sales, which are about as privatized as it gets in the Commonwealth...but even here, the PLCB gets involved. Talk to different brewpub servers and brewers, talk to bar owners, talk to deli license guys, and you'll soon find out that the PLCB has all kinds of rules about growlers.

Or do they? I've been combing the PA Liquor Code for the past week, and I've got a request into the LCB itself. But I can't find any reference to this kind of off-premises sale of draft beer --about labeling, or sealing -- except for this, about containers and packages from the manufacturer which does kind of mention it, in context of sales at breweries and brewpubs:

SECTION 4-440. Sales by manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages; minimum quantities

No manufacturer shall sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such malt or brewed beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board, nor in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing sixty-four ounces or more which may be sold separately; nor shall any manufacturer maintain or operate within the Commonwealth any place or places other than the place or places covered by his or its license where malt or brewed beverages are sold or where orders are taken.

As for actual filling and selling... There's language about cleaning the taplines, about putting clear labeling on the tap knobs, about off-premise sales...but nothing about growlers.

Until I hear otherwise from the PLCB, I'm going to have to assume that there is no allowance for growlers in the Code other than that they should be at least 64 oz. That in itself would be fine: why exactly do we need such regulation? The bartender almost always fills the thing right in front of you, so you know what you're getting and labeling would be superfluous (though useful if you were getting multiples: "Licensee shall provide a Sharpie and labels so customer doesn't open the Pilsner instead of the Maibock", now that would be a good law), the cleaning is usually up to you as much as to them.

But the problem is...if there is no law about growlers, what's all this stuff brewers tell me they're hearing from their local enforcement officer? "Interpretation"? Of what? Tea leaves? There is no law to interpret! All you're really doing is selling a big glass (or small glass keg), so there's no regulation needed, but where do these guys get away making stuff up?

The PLCB should be abolished because of the arbitrary nature of the interpretation of the PA Liquor Code, brought on by the density of the Code and the nigh-unrestricted power of the local PLCB enforcement agents. Growlers are harmless sales of beer; any policy on their sale should be left up to the individual licensee.

Common sense in the Code, common sense in its enforcement. That's what's needed.

Photo credit: Adem Tepedelen (thanks to Scott @ East End for permission!) *and I did edit the original post: thanks to Scott again for pointing me to that 64 oz. reference.

More PLCB blogging

Check out these pages from a blog called tleaves, done by some engagingly clever folks from the Pittsburgh area. Like me, they (or at least one of them) are driven mad by the PLCB. The post title that first caught my eye: It'd Probably Work Better if it Were Run By Drunkards.

But it was this post that let me know I'd found a true kindred spirit, someone who really understood just how messed up the PLCB has made retail liquor in Pennsylvania. Because I, too, had tried to buy a bottle of Luxardo maraschino liqueur at a State Store, and met with the same response: "There's no such thing." Actually, the first response I got was "We don't sell grenadine." Good God.

Good to know at least one other blogger out there is as pissed off as I am.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Reason #8: The Octopus

You remember the brilliant "winebot" idea? How the PLCB was going to get a contractor to open automated "wine kiosks" in grocery stores? I told you how they were going to use fingerprints and other biometrics to identify you and confirm your age.

Subject...identified...Nate "The Wino" fixed address...please wait a minimum of...30 seconds...before handing your purchase to the underage person standing beside you with the cash in...his...hand...thank you for shopping at the Wine Kiosk!

But I missed something, which I just noticed in a Chicago Tribune reprint of a Morning Call story. Check this out.

Union head [Wendell] Young [IV, president of Local 1776 of the Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents state store clerks and assistant managers] said the bottles would be etched at the time of sale with identification numbers that could be traced back to the buyer.


Reason #8:

Too Much Information

Like that idea? After all, who needs to register guns when you can register bottles of wine? Once they register the bottles that are being sold in the kiosks, why would they not register every bottle sold in the store? And then...anyone remember the guy in Lebanon, PA, who told his doc he had "a few beers after work" and the doctor dropped a dime on him and had his driver's license suspended, based on a DUI conviction from three decades before?

I testified about the futility of keg registration before a joint committee of the PA legislature back a few years. One of the other people testifying was a guy who'd lost his underage son in a drunk driving accident. He wanted the State to tag every bottle of liquor and wine sold at State Stores, every keg and case sold at beer distributors, on credit or cash, so that any empty could be traced back to when/where/who bought it.

I thought that was crazy at the time -- I still do! -- and the legislators didn't seem wild about it either. But with the wine kiosk thing, it appears that the PLCB doesn't think it's necessary to get legislation to do the identistuff, which is seriously troubling.

But how far off is it now? When I buy booze at the State Store, I use my debit or credit card, and I get a receipt with every bottle listed on it. How do I know that information isn't saved? It may be paranoid to think they save it, but it may be optimistic to think that they don't. And once again, we have no other options.

I'm no conspiracy theorist. But when it comes to not keeping info on what I'm buying, booze-wise, I'll trust the corner booze store before I trust the State. For one thing, if I've got corner booze stores, I can buy at any one I want, and the info doesn't get compiled from the aggregate; if I buy anywhere in PA, that's potentially on my record. For another, there are more ways to opt out of privately-owned data-gathering schemes.

The PLCB should be abolished because granting the State too much information, more information than it needs, is not a good idea in these days of data-mining and info-insecurity. How much booze I buy, what booze I buy, and where I buy it is no one's business but my own...until I start abusing it. I've got nothing to hide, but it's not everyone's business.The PLCB clearly has a mindset that disagrees with that.

This reason may seem a bit whacky, a little hard-shelled. Me, I find the idea of this state agency that doesn't seem to feel that it needs further legislative authorization to start gathering this kind of information about me...troubling. We could write that into law, but it would be easier to just do the right thing: privatize booze sales in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Reason #7: One Problem, Everyone's Problem

Take a look at this story. The PLCB's special order system broke down, and restaurants and taverns have been unable to place weekly booze orders. That specific problem is bad enough, but what makes it worse is the universality of it.

Reason #7:

A Monopoly of Errors

When the PLCB screws something up, it's screwed up for everyone, across the Commonwealth.

When the PLCB "de-lists" something, no one can get it any more.

When the PLCB puts something on "special order" status, that's how everyone has to get it.

When your local State Store has a great set of clerks (or just one real gem), you're well-off; but if it is staffed by wine-ignorant drones, you're simply screwed.

All of these are true because we have no choice. None. The PLCB State Stores are the only legal choice for booze purchases for every Pennsylvania licensee, and unless a citizen goes outside the state to drink, or purchases booze out of state and then drinks it out of state, everything we drink in the way of spirits and wine (excepting always Pennsylvania wines, which may be bought at the vineyard or the vineyard's stores) must come from the State Stores.

If a tavern-owner in some other state is disappointed in the service he gets from his supplier, well, he either gives them specific hell and expects results, or he changes suppliers. If a restaurant owner in some other state wishes to drop a load of bucks to amplify his wine cellar, he can bid on collections at auction. If either one is in Pennsylvania? Forget it. You're dealing with the PLCB, and you cannot switch suppliers, nor can you buy wine from private sources, because the PLCB is a state-owned and state-regulated monopoly, and if you try to get around that monopoly, not only will you find that it's hard to do, it's illegal, and you stand a very good chance of losing your license, your business, and your personal freedom.

Now, there will be those who say, "Exactly. It's the law, and you knew that when you bought the license. Why are you complaining now?" Did you read this? Do you really think it's right that when this sole-source supplier screws up, you have no recourse? That would seem to be a basic right of businesspeople.

The PLCB should be abolished because it is a monopoly, and leaves tavern/restaurant operators, and private citizens, no choices in what is supposed to be a free market economy. We have choices in food purchases, choices in gasoline, in churches, in clothing, in insurance, in banks, even in which hospital emergency room we are taken to...but if the PLCB stops carrying something -- Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, for instance, a delicious award-winner and a personal favorite -- or puts it on special order status -- Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, a former special that was quite nice at $10, but is now a 12-bottle minimum order -- that is how it goes and you have no other choice. You cannot walk down the street or drive to the next town: you're hosed across the Commonwealth.

All because Repeal seemed like a bad idea, and because keeping the profits from selling booze seems like such a good one, public good and taxpayer convenience be damned.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Reason #6: the Pennsylvania Legislature

I have to be fair about this; I don't like to, but I have to. The PLCB's constant refrain to criticism -- "We just enforce the rules, we don't make them." -- has a strong underlying validity to it. Yes, there's a certain latitude of interpretation to that enforcement that is sometimes mean-spirited and sometimes mindlessly arbitrary (I've got a story to tell you one of these days that will absolutely curl your hair on that aspect); yes, the PA Liquor Code -- "the rules" -- is positively byzantine in its overwrought complexity; and yes, they are hampered by their duality of mission. But at the base of that, the PLCB can indeed point to the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, Title 40 of Pennsylvania law, and claim "We were only following orders."

And whose fault is that?

Reason #6:

The Politicians' Plaything

The Pennsylvania Liquor Code (hereafter referred to as "the Code") is a plaything of various interests in the Pennsylvania legislature. The most recent example of this kind of thinking is the whole Sheetz/Wegmans uproar, in which politicians who are aligned with either the beer distributors or the New Drys say they are contemplating changes to the Code to keep beer out of grocery stores. Now you'll note that nothing has actually happened yet...and you'll also note that the "six-pack bill" is still diddle-fiddling around in committee.

It's been my experience that no changes to the Code are ever simple. I remember that when the Code was changed to allow beer distributors to accept credit cards -- wow! -- I talked to the legislator who introduced the bill. She told me that it was initially one sentence that would be added. By the time everyone was done tacking things on? "Pages," she said.

The legislators appear simultaneously fascinated and terrified by changing the Code. Fascinated, because the State's monopoly power with wine and liquor sales (and yes, "monopoly" power over beer sales, because you cannot sell beer in PA without a state-issued license) gives the legislators such opportunities to reward or punish groups and individuals, or raise oodles of tax revenue (the PLCB, after all, didn't institute or increase the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax). Terrified, because almost anything you do to booze law is going to piss off some constituency.

Sometimes it's not the Legislature, it's the Governor. For reasons unknown (because I'm pretty sure the reasons stated weren't the most important), Governor Rendell suddenly added a highly-paid CEO to the PLCB's towering structure of managing bureaucrats in late 2006, a post that was filled by an out-of-work legislator, apparently with no interview process. The appointment stunk of patronage, and precipitated the resignation of Jonathan Newman, possibly the PLCB's most popular Chairman ever (words that might otherwise never have been strung together in that order...I mean, the mind boggles). It's unclear why the position was needed, but at $100,000+ a year, we've got it to pay for, you and me, taxpayers. Plaything. Patronage source.

And some of the stuff doesn't even make sense. Take a look at this one, for example, a change that was added to the infamous "case law" section of the malt beverage sales part of the Code in 1996:
(1) To salvage one or more salable cases from one or more damaged cases, cartons or packages of malt or brewed beverages, a distributor or importing distributor may repackage consequent to inadvertent damage and sell a case, carton or package of identical units of malt or brewed beverages.
(2) Repackaging is permissible only to the extent made necessary by inadvertent damage. Repackaging not consequent to damage is prohibited.
(3) The term "identical units" as used in this subsection means undamaged bottles or cans of identical brand, package and volume.
So...what this means is that if a distributor dropped a case of Sly Fox Dunkel Lager and a case of Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, for example, and three cans from each case burst, he would be forbidden by law to combine those two cases and sell a mixed case. He would be forced to send them back to the wholesaler. God help him if he were crazy enough to mix the cases on purpose, because, you know, chaos might result.

What drives this kind of meddling, making the requirements of a wholly unloved law even stricter? I don't know, because the legislator who proposed it retired and went into lobbying (for a medical group, so the obvious answer doesn't apply).

What I do know is that the Code has rarely been touched by the legislature with results that made things simpler or better for the consumer...the consumer, of course, better known as the taxpayer, or the voter, or you. The upside of this is that while we are virtually powerless to affect the actions of the bureaucrats at the PLCB, we can do something about the legislators. All that's required is passion. Passion for privatization, passion for simplification, a passion for Pennsylvania's alcohol policy to enter the 21st Century. As it is, we're barely past 1934.

The PLCB should be abolished because the Code would be better off simplified and streamlined, without an entrenched, unneccesary, and expensive bureaucracy to serve as a patronage pit for politicians. Do away with the PLCB: privatize booze sales, put licensing and inspection in the hands of the Dept. of Agriculture, tax collection in the purview of the Dept. of Revenue (they've got some experience with that), put the anti-alcoholism and underage drinking prevention programs under the Dept. of Health, and fully hand over enforcement to the State Police. Give a re-write of the Code over to a commission that includes interested consumers for a change, and charge them with writing a simpler, more understandable Code.

You'll lose the revenue stream from the mark-up in the State Stores (and we could stand to change the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax to a more reasonable amount (and God knows, a better name)), but you'd make up a lot of it by getting the PLCB payroll and lease payments off the books, and getting more taxes on sales made in PA rather than across the border. Offer early retirement to PLCB employees, bump them up in hiring preference for other state jobs, offer them low/no-interest loans to start their own stores, and, eventually, realize that this was a business that the State should never have been in at all, and that this is not an employment plan.

It would be complicated, and probably messy, but only for a while. More to the point, it would be the right thing to do. There's a feeling of reform in the air in Pennsylvania; why not blow that wind of change through the barroom and liquor store, while we're at it?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More flummery

I've posted about some PLCB stuff on my other blog because it's more about beer. Still applies to this audience, so go read it there. We need to re-write the Pennsylvania Liquor Code.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I'm still mad...

Sorry about the lapse in posting. I haven't posted here (or at Seen Through A Glass) much in the past week because I've been busy writing for work and because it's that time of year when parents have things to do for their exceptional kids. My son's leaving for the national finals of the National Catholic Forensics League today; my daughter is winding up her final year of primary school and had her last school concert Monday night. I've been winding up the latest issue of Malt Advocate (a major issue in which we are introducing three new regular features, two of which I'm writing) and an overload of beer writing, while getting ready for five lectures in the next eight days.

None of which feeds your need for Reasons Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished, I know. Just letting you know that we should be back on track soon, picking up where I left off two weeks ago.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wine blogger wanted

I need a wine blogger.

Look, I'm a beer guy, a whiskey guy. I know them really well. But a major piece of the PLCB puzzle is wine. Wine buyers are probably the folks who are the most majorly pissed-off at the PLCB, and rightly so. But I don't know that much about wine except what I like and don't like. So I'm looking for a PA-based wine blogger who's fed up with the PLCB and would like to write about that.

Send your suggestions, links to blogs, or your names. I'm looking for established wine bloggers, good writers, someone with the chops to find and explain good, solid reasons that the PLCB should be abolished because of how they handle wine. Anyone out there?

Spread the Word!

We've got a good roll started here, but we need to roll it bigger. The blog is already getting 20% of the daily hits I get on my longer-established beer and whiskey blog, Seen Through a Glass, after only two months. But we need a lot more if we're going to get a significant number of people torqued about the PLCB.

I'm asking for your help to Spread the Word about the PLCB Abolition Movement. Pennsylvania doesn't need this outdated system, Pennsylvania doesn't deserve it. We need to get as many Pennsylvanians as possible to realize that. Getting rid of the PLCB is not about "saving a few dollars on alcohol," or selling fancy mail-order wines to elites, or putting bureaucrats and State Store clerks out of work, or selling booze to kids, or any of the things that will be brought up to oppose us. It is about free enterprise, about dignity, about common sense, about the 21st Century, about convenience, about getting government out of an enterprise it should never have been involved with in the first place.

Tell people about this blog. (Believe me, I don't make a dime on this, getting more readers will not make me more money because I get none now; if anything, the time spent on it costs me money.) Tell them about the Reasons you read here. Write e-mails: to your paper, to your state reps, to your friends. Get mad. Think of more Reasons and send them to me. Spread the Word, and we can get this State off the dime and moving out of post-Repeal thinking.

Control is not the norm. We are Americans; we are Pennsylvanians. That shouldn't be a reason for excuses, it should be a reason for pride, and for action. The PLCB robs you of money, of choice, of respect, and of dignity. Why do we put up with that? Yes, it's "only booze," but booze has been around a lot longer than the PLCB. We don't need them to control how we buy wine, we don't need them to control what spirits we choose. Spread the Word.

"Pennsylvania's Most Popular 'Whine'"

I don't want to infringe on any copyrighted material, so I'm not copying/posting it here, but you have got to take a look at this editorial cartoon from Rob Rogers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the PLCB. I saw it in this morning's Inquirer where they ran it as the main editorial cartoon. Pittsburgh's press has been running some very critical reporting on the PLCB; bravo! Now the Inky picked this up... Are we getting a wave here, a rising tide?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"They sure sound like bold thinkers"

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Eric Heyl put a column out a few days ago on the PLCB's $3.6 million makeover that is just too funny and too spot-on accurate to be missed. Go take a look. Laugh for a while, then remember that he's talking about $3.6 million of your taxes (I'm assuming it's mostly PA residents reading this; if you're not, well, just get pissed on principle). Not so damned funny anymore, is it?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Reason #5: For Us, Okay; For You, Forget It

We already discussed how the PLCB has a personality split. One side of the agency wants to sell you booze (gotta make money at the State Store!), the other side wants to control how much you buy and how you drink it. Brilliant idea for a state agency.

But there's another two-sided bedevilment going on at the PLCB. The PLCB always says that they don't make the liquor laws in Pennsylvania, they just enforce them. Yes, that's an extent. Because when they enforce them, they also interpret them. So you'll get interpretations on just what a "case" of beer is, and about how licenses can be apportioned within a county, and ... and what constitutes a State Store, apparently. Because while the PLCB is currently "enforcing" laws that make it illegal to sell beer or liquor at a grocery store, they are also currently considering an "interpretation" that will justify them putting 100 wine vending machines in grocery stores. Really.

Reason #5:

The Liquor Code serves the PLCB, not the citizens of the Commonwealth.

The PLCB is not stupid; not entirely. They see the great opportunities for selling booze in supermarkets; they'd have to be truly blind not t0. The Pennsylvania Liquor code does not allow selling beer in supermarkets (the current fight over supermarket six-pack sales is not really that; it's over whether supermarkets or convenience stores that have restaurant spaces can get a license. I don't see the issue: it's a restaurant that happens to be in a grocery store. Restaurants are eligible to apply for a liquor license. What's the issue?), it limits the retail sale of liquor to State Stores, and limits wine sales to State Stores and Pennsylvania wineries.

But the PLCB wants to get those supermarket wine sales (it doesn't care about beer sales, because it doesn't sell beer). What to do? Someone got a brainstorm: re-define "State Store" to include off-site, remotely-monitored (wait till you hear that explanation), automated self-service wine kiosks. The PLCB wine robots will hold 500 bottles of wine, and the Board wants these automated stands to have measures in place so that no sales will be made to underage or intoxicated people.

How will they do that? Glad you asked. What I understand is that they want you to register to use the kiosks, providing biometric information, like a scan of your fingerprints. Then each kiosk will be remotely monitored -- a person at a remote site will use video and audio links to check you out and make sure you're not drunk before you buy. Because there are a lot of drunks who want to buy bottles of wine in supermarkets, apparently.

Most ludicrous of all, "because the kiosks will be in public settings, 'the PLCB is seeking a solution that prevents the viewing of wines in the wine kiosks by minors.'" (that's from Steve Twedt's article on this in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Because we'd hate for a kid to see a bottle of wine. And get scared. Or excited. Or aroused. Or, God forbid, educated.

Privately-run, no beer solution, no liquor possibility, a limited selection of "popular choice" wines, and an unfair advantage -- AGAIN -- to the state monopoly. What's okay for them -- by their interpretation -- is one thing. And once again, we're all going to be so happy that we get this smidgen of service, that we'll forget what a ridiculous system this is.

The PLCB should be abolished because the PA Liquor Code engenders ridiculous and bizarre ideas like this. Wine vending kiosks are actually advanced retail technology; does anyone think an agency that can't even bring itself to recommend a particular wine or vintage will be able to handle it?

Do you want to buy wine in the supermarket? Do you want to buy wine from merchants who carry the wine you want to buy, when you want to buy it, and who will be only too happy to assist you to pick a great wine to meet your needs, your liking, your budget? Well, my friends, if you do, the answer is not automated kiosks teleoperated by some computer geek hundreds of miles away, recording your fingerprints and every single bottle of wine you purchase...

It's privatization, doing away with the archaic State Store System and allowing liquor stores to open, do business, and flourish or fail on their merits. If one of them has the bright idea of an automated wine kiosk, great, let them run it. But to have the State do it? Are you kidding?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"PLCB Bashing"

That was the subject line of the following e-mail I just received from a PLCB employee.

The PLCB has provided me with one of the few decent paying jobs in the area for 8 years now. I love my job, I take it very seriously. As far as your comment about the stores not carrying expensive scotch... Store 3516 in Clarks Summit where I work carries Johnny Walker Blue Label and several other scotch whiskies well over the $130.00 mark you stated. Some that are $300.00 I believe.

I'm sick of people like you badmouthing the PLCB. I don't like a lot of their policies either, but think of the families like mine who are very thankful to have a decent paying job so they can put food on the table. Our area is a dead zone for jobs, with more and more companies looking to move work overseas or hire illegal Mexicans at $4.00 per hour. Those are the problems we should be focused on as Pennsylvanians and Americans, not saving a few dollars on alcohol.

My response:

First, the information on high-priced whiskies at State Stores is from the PLCB's website. The Macallan 18 was the highest-priced single malt Scotch whisky carried as a regular item; I missed the higher-priced Johnnie Walker Blue in the blends. My mistake; I apologize for that, and I've corrected it in the post with thanks to you -- unnamed, as I'm not clear what your name is. But according to that site, the Blue is the highest-priced regularly stocked Scotch whisky, at $199.99; there are no other regularly stocked Scotch whiskies between that price and the Macallan 18's.

As for your job, and "bashing" and "badmouthing," and illegal Mexicans... I did say in a comment on the blog, "The hardest part about writing this, getting people to see the problems with the PLCB, is thinking about the effect it could have on people's livelihoods if I were somehow successful." It was something I thought about a lot before starting the blog. I realize that's not much comfort to you, but it is an issue for me. I'll be addressing it in the future.

Are you concerned that you couldn't find a job in a private liquor store if the PLCB system was put out to pasture, or open one yourself? I assume you've got experience. One of the possibilities for solving the problem of putting so many people out of work is using the proceeds from selling the inventory and other assets of the PLCB to offer low/no interest loans to current employees to set themselves up in business. Not as safe a job as your current one, perhaps, but you wouldn't be saddled with the PLCB policies you say you don't like, either. But the PLCB is not a jobs program, and it shouldn't be.

I'm not "bashing" it or "badmouthing" the PLCB, simple-mindedly ranting and raving. I'm presenting reasons why our current system is not ideal, or even a good idea. Take out the PLCB employees and the anti-alcohol forces, and I doubt you could summon 10% support for the PLCB among Pennsylvania citizens.

Is it as important as immigration? Probably not. Is immigration as important as health-care? As important as the environment? As crime? As illegal drug control? As our future energy supply? I don't know. But just because one issue is more important than another doesn't mean the less-important one shouldn't be discussed.

The issue of the jobs currently provided by the PLCB is the thorniest in all of this, and of much more importance than any trumped up "alcohol chaos" that may result from privatization. As this e-mail makes very clear, these are real people, with families to feed. Finding a solution to that issue is the most important part of the puzzle that is the abolition of the PLCB. Ideas are welcome; what do you think of the one I floated above?

There's just one thing I'd like to know. The fellow says he's sick of "people like you badmouthing the PLCB." Who are the "people like you"? What sets them apart? And how do I meet more of them and get their e-mail addresses?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Bit of Honesty

You know...when I was researching the latest Reason, the one on the Emergency Tax, I took a look to see what expensive whiskies the State Stores carry. The most expensive single malt Scotch whisky regularly carried was The Macallan 18 Year Old, at $129.99 (the Stores also carry Johnny Walker Blue, a blend, at $199.99; tip of the hat to a State Store employee who pointed that out, and my apologies). Ha! I thought to myself, anything more expensive is a special order because the State knows its mark-up and tax will make it worthwhile for people to go out-state to buy it!

So I went looking for prices on the Macallan 18, to shame the State on the price of their booze...and didn't I find that Total Wine in Delaware has it for $149.99, and that's also the price that my go-to out-of-state booze source (not that they're allowed to ship to PA, because that would be illegal by PA State law...), Binny's of Chicago, shows on their site.

I guess that means there's only one thing to do...

Reason #1 for keeping the PLCB:

The hugeness of the PLCB monopoly means its buying power can get us a few deals.

Wonder if there are any other such reasons? If there are, and I agree with 'em, I will post them. It's only fair.

Reason #4 -- the 18% Emergency Tax

I remember the first time I visited Johnstown. I was driving in from Pittsburgh, and it had been raining heavily. The sky was still gray and threatening, and local streams and creeks were swollen, brim-full. I mentioned this to a Johnstown resident, and his dead-serious response was, "You might not want to talk about that. We're kind of touchy about that."

Say the name, "Johnstown," and people think "flood." The flood they're thinking of was in 1889, a catastrophe caused by a dam failure, but there were other floods in Johnstown, in 1894, 1907, 1924, and 1977. The biggest flood after the 1889 event, though, was the "St. Patrick's Day Flood" in 1936. Damage was extensive, and the State responded with clean-up and recovery aid. The expenditures were covered by a quickly-imposed Emergency Tax of 10% on all wine and liquor sold in the State Stores.

You may have heard that we're still paying this Emergency Tax. Well, that's not really true; we're no longer paying a 10% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax. Don't be silly; that was over 70 years ago! No, we're paying an 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax for an "emergency" that ended 71 years ago, because the State raised the tax to 15% in 1963 and then again to 18% in 1968. That's some emergency.

Reason #4:

The Ridiculous 72-Year Old Emergency Tax

You may find this hard to believe, so here's the proof, right off "e-TIDES" (PA's Electronic Tax Information and Data Exchange System). You'll see at the bottom of the page that the cite is "Emergency Liquor Sales Tax Act, Act of June 9, 1936." The emergency has been over for 70 years, and of course, the money hasn't gone to the citizens of Johnstown (or...the contractors hired to help the citizens of Johnstown) for many, many years: it goes to the General Fund. It's just money the State is taking from you every time you buy booze.

The Emergency Tax is an amazing thing, kind of the creamy center of a towering cake of taxes Pennsylvanians pay when they buy booze. First, there's the actual cost of the packaged beverage. The federal excise tax is added at the producer/importer level. Then the fun starts. The State imposes its set mark-up (for "profit", which in the case of so-called "control states" is really an additional tax, since it all goes to the State) of 30%. Now put that luscious Emergency Tax in there, adding 18% of the cost, the federal excise tax, and the 30% mark-up onto your bill. Think that's rapacious? Wait, there's more! That's right, folks, now you get to add the 6% State sales tax (7% in Philadelphia County)!

Let's look at that. Say you get a bottle of 100 proof bottled-in-bond bourbon. Cost from producer: $10. Federal excise tax of just about $2.50 (it's a set amount per gallon of 100 proof liquor; that's why we bought bottled-in-bond):$12.50. The State's mark-up of 30% is $3.75: $16.25. Now add the 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax of $2.93 (note that it's more than the federal tax): $19.18. Top it all off with the 6% sales tax you pay on computers, cars, books, pets, toilet paper (whoops -- turns out PA doesn't tax toilet paper; make that kleenex...which, believe it or not, was what I had there originally, and for some reason, changed it)-- $1.15 -- and you get a grand total of $20.33. That is more than twice the cost of the whiskey.

Please note three things. First, there may be some additional charges in there that I've missed: the PLCB's site does not make it easy to get a total breakdown of charges. If I get better data, I'll add it. Second, this is what's called a "regressive tax." As a flat percentage, it hits poorer people harder by taking a proportionally larger part of their income. (Thanks to Grey Lodge Pub owner Mike Scotese for pointing that out.)

Finally, I hope you noticed that the Emergency Tax taxes the tax: you're paying 18% of both the federal excise tax and the State's "mark-up". Of course, the State sales tax then does that too, taxing the Emergency tax, and effectively taxing the federal tax and the State's mark-up twice. It's sweet, what you can do in business when you write the rules.

Is the Emergency Tax higher than other states' booze taxes? It's actually hard to compare state liquor taxes. Many of them (but not all) are imposed on gallons at a set rate, rather than a percentage, so the tax load is actually lower on high-end booze. Not the case in Pennsylvania, where you're expected to pay 18% on $500 bottles of single malt (and that nifty 30% "mark-up," don't forget that).

The Pennsylvania Tourism & Lodging Association has an official position supporting repeal of the Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax. They point out that the tax, along with the State's monopoly pricing and minimal bulk discounts, puts Pennsylvania restaurants and bars at a distinct price disadvantage.

I can't realistically expect that the state will repeal the Johnstown Flood Tax and leave us with no excise tax on liquor and wine at all. What I would like to see is something more in line with other states. Something like this:

The PLCB should be abolished so that the current compound tax situation of an artificially imposed state "mark-up" of 30% -- a de facto tax -- plus the ludicrously outdated "Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax" could be replaced by a tax system more in line with neighboring states.

Collecting those taxes could be a lot easier, too...but we've got plenty of Reasons to address that. For now, let's zero in on admitting that the Johnstown Flood over. The emergency is a state legislature with a drinking tax problem.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Does anyone at the PLCB know what the word "monopoly" means?

Great story in today's Harrisburg Patriot-News about the PLCB's latest bizarre "Stalinism with a happy face" idea. The PLCB is spending $3.6 million (I hope I don't have to remind you where they got it...) to get guidance on public image, advertising, and store layout. They've contracted with Landor Associates, a San Francisco-based "branding" firm that advises Microsoft, Pepsi, and Levi's, according to the story.

The PLCB is coming off a record year: $1.7 billion in sales, up 7.2% from the previous year. More to the point, the PLCB is a monopoly. They don't need a public image, they're the only damned game in town. If they want you to buy more booze, they're directly contradicting their other main mission: controlling how much booze you buy. And finally, I don't care if Ed Rendell told PLCB chairman Stapleton "Run this place like a business, not a government bureaucracy," it's not a business, it is a government bureaucracy.

That's the whole problem. We don't need the State to be selling liquor and wine, telling us what we can buy and can't buy, where we can buy it, when we can buy it. The State doesn't tell us where to buy gasoline, or jewelry, or guns, or cans of tuna. Prohibition is over, and it's not coming back. The State Store system doesn't make sense for any of the original reasons given for its creation.

So stop spending our money to make this ridiculous proposition more palatable. Spend the money on a plan for a smooth transition to privatization.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reason #3 -- Where's the Beer?

It's always a struggle when I try to explain Pennsylvania's booze-selling "system" to folks from outside the state. We don't have the 3.2 beer dichotomy some states have, or the ridiculous beer taxes they have in the South (your beer taxes are flippin' ridiculous, and you should tell your state legislature to lower, good luck), or a useless keg registration law. What we have are the State Stores, where you have to go if you want to buy wine and liquor (except for buying direct at Pennsylvania wineries), and that's weird enough.

But when I tell them that you have to go to a different store to buy beer, a privately-owned store called a "distributor," and buy it by the case; or go to a bar and buy it by the six-pack (but only two six-packs at a time)... They look at me like I'm nuts.

Hey, guys, it's not me: it's the Pennsylvania Liquor Code that's crazy.

Reason #3:

Beer, wine, and spirits cannot be sold in the same store.

Why don't the State Stores sell beer? It's not that I want them to. I just don't understand why they don't. Of course, I don't understand why beer distributors can't sell wine.

I can guess. I suspect it's because the State didn't want to be in the business of keeping anything refrigerated, which even they must realize has to be done with unpasteurized draft beer. It might have had something to do with the sheer bulk of beer: $500 worth of beer takes up a lot more room than $500 worth of liquor or wine.

Whatever it is, it's as screwy as every other part of the PLCB and the Liquor Code. (Why do we call it "Liquor Code" and Pennsylvania "Liquor" Control Board, anyway? Wine and beer are great, but they're not "liquor." Boobs. Philistines. Know-nothings. But we knew that.) It's arbitrary, it makes no sense. Perfect!

Tell you the truth, I'd like to see a system of privately-owned "package stores," selling all kinds of booze (any way you want it: cases, singles, kegs, cold, warm, whatever), snacks, maybe a deli, booze paraphernalia (glassware, towels, books, magazines, etc.), and maybe lottery tickets and smokes. If that was as common as a drugstore, I wouldn't care if it wasn't in the supermarket. I'd really rather see booze as a specialty store...but I'm just one guy. I think we can all agree that it would make a lot more sense to have wine, beer, and spirits sales all under one roof, whatever that privately-owned and operated roof might be.

This reason really bugs me because it's arbitrary, because there's no reason given. It also has lead to beer being the red-headed stepchild. For example, the State Stores took credit cards for wine and liquor sales for years before beer distributors were allowed to. The vaunted Chairman, John Newman of Sainted Memory, did wonderful things for wine-buyers in the State: beer got the back of his hand, except for Sunday sales at distributors.

The PLCB should be abolished and the Liquor Code rewritten to put all the booze -- spirits, wine, and beer -- where it belongs: in one place, for sale in any quantity, by private businesses.

This one's pretty simple. Which makes it all the more frustrating.