Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is this great? Or is it pathetic?

A little over a week ago, on May 3rd, I walked into the Wegmans in Downingtown, PA, on my way back from the Sly Fox Goat Races. I bought some cheese, some fruit, milk, dishwasher detergent, and something else...can't remember...

Oh, right. Beer.

I went into a supermarket in Pennsylvania and bought a bottle of Brooklyn Local One (Yes, I know, I should have bought Victory, or at least a Pennsylvania beer, but I just wanted a Local One. Sue me). I got one bottle, paid for it, and walked out, thinking "Look at me, I just bought a bottle of beer in a supermarket in Pennsylvania! The new world has dawned, we are free!"

Big deal. I still don't understand why this is, or was, such a cause for alarm and celebration. It's nothing new. I bought single beers at the Ashton Market in Upper Darby over 10 years ago! The store had about 400 different beers, and I did a two-page beer newsletter for them. It was a small grocery store with a deli counter in the back that did take-out sandwiches, but it wasn't a restaurant: it was a grocery store.

Look, kudos to the PLCB (yes, I really did say that, give me a second to explain): they got this right. When Wegmans and Sheetz applied for their licenses and laid out how they were going to sell take-out beer in their stores, the PLCB approved it. Because it was legal. As they love to point out, they just enforce the Almighty Liquor Code. It wasn't the PLCB that was holding us up. It was the conservative nature of Pennsylvania politics (and retail; you notice that Wegmans is an out-of-state company), a lack of imagination, and the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association, who sued to keep those licenses from being granted.

But that is just about over, appeals exhausted (and a lot of good beer money wasted on lawyers who should have advised their clients better). Which will only mean that now you can buy beer in large grocery stores. That have spent wads of money to buy a restaurant license.

Beer is groceries. See my previous post (which applies every bit as much to beer as it does to wine and spirits): why does this stuff even need to be so heavily regulated? Lighten up. This is not about control. This is about entrenched interests, it's about business. Why not make it about the consumer -- the voter, the taxpayer -- once in a while?

Friday, May 8, 2009

"I'm Mad as Hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

My good friend and fellow whiskey-lover Sam Komlenic, who you've seen here before, has been trying to work with the State Store System. He's begged them for more American whiskey selection, made SLO orders, even made some suggestions, one of which -- restore Old Overholt to the shelves in time for this Pennsylvania brand's 200th anniversary -- they even took.

But now they've pushed him too far, taking one too many brands off the shelf (to make more room for more vodkas?), and he snapped. Sam has officially Given Up. The following is a letter he sent to the PLCB, a declaration of war. (No, I don't know what he's going to do either. Probably something as quixotic as this blog.) Well...unless they were just kidding about taking Rare Breed off the shelf. We'll see.

It's been a while since we've been in touch, but looking over the closeout list tonight, I've got a question I hope you can help me with. The PLCB has finally gotten me really worked up.

Over the last couple of years, the PLCB has been thinning out a good chunk of their bourbon selection without replacing those packages with an equal number of new (and similarly priced) items. We've discussed this before. What this comes down to for me is that we have fewer bourbons to choose from, while interest nationally and internationally has been growing. Tonight I looked at the website and noticed that Wild Turkey Rare Breed is listed as a closeout, but not at a discounted price. I'm hoping that this is a mistake, as WTRB is one of my favorite bottles for the money, and this is at the high end of my price range. You can add $50 bottles all day long and it won't make any difference to me. If indeed it is a closeout, why is it not discounted?

I'm increasingly disappointed at the decreasing American whiskey selection available in PA. I wouldn't be surprised if scotch drinkers, among others, feel the same way. Why are we being shortchanged? Why can't each discontinued package be replaced with one (or more) that might sell? Does EVERY package have to meet universal standards that can't be compromised, even one little bit, even if it means alienating a decent part of your customer base? There are a number of American whiskey distillers that don't have even one bottle available in PA, unless I want to SLO a whole case!

My local premium selection store has been totally rearranged as of late to accommodate even more vodka, a spirit which by law must be tasteless. More tasteless vodkas, and fewer tasty whiskeys. What the heck is going on?? I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with the way things are going, and I'm hoping you can help me out.

I'd way rather have more selection as an ongoing mantra for the PLCB, versus a (questionably awarded) contract to teach the employees to be more polite to their customers (Duh!), or a new marketing image to rebrand stores for which there is no competition. I've been very tolerant, even accepting, of the way the state stores have been run in the last ten years or so, but suddenly things are going to hell. Could Joe Conti, a deposed politician, and a man with no beverage, retail, or customer service experience be the source of my frustration? I honestly am beginning to think that Jonathan Newman was the main reason for my presumed satisfaction in the past, but now he's gone (thanks, Ed!), and partisan politics rule yet again, across the board. And I'm a Democrat, for crying out loud!!!

Bad night online. I'm sorry if I seem really agitated, but I am. You've been a good resource for me in the past, and have been a big help. I don't want to seem like I'm taking this out on you. I'm not. I'm taking it out on your employer. They're clueless, and getting worse by the day. My only regret is that I'm as far away from another state as anyone in PA. Otherwise I'd be doing what everyone else with access must be doing, and probably in increasing numbers, buying my booze where somebody gives a damn about my business and my interests.

I hope the Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a mistake, because if it's not, it's my last straw.

Thanks as always for your time,


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pennsylvania: Playground or Prison?

The PLCB recently held a 'wine festival' in Pittsburgh (and Hershey and Philly). Blog reader David Mahler had this to say about it, a little rant he sent along (thanks, David!):

Pennsylvanians attending a wine festival are like prison inmates going to a fashion show. The prisoners can hoot and holler all they want as the spring collection parades down the runway, but stripes are stripes, and when the lights go out a prisoner, whether of criminal type or the Pennsylvania wine consumer type, knows there is only one authority.

Pittsburgh Wine Festival participants sniffed, sipped, and spit or swilled the objects of their desire April 30th at Heinz Field. Reportedly, nearly 3,000 festival attendees confronted wines from over one hundred and fifty wineries in a curious show of interest, considering that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was, along with Comcast, a “presenter” of the brief annual event.

$125 would have bought you two hours of “Grand Tasting” sampling time (twice that money designated you a VIP and gave you four hours), and whatever pleased your palate was yours for purchasing at the PLCB's onsite store.

Two hours? What can you expect to discover in two hours? I call this a slurp to judgement: make a quick decision (the clock is ticking) and fork over your money.

Among other facets of the festival, the rubes-will-fall-for-this-one Chairman’s Selection wines normally featured in State Stores were marked down 10% from their usual prices. Prison analogy continued: “The suggested sentence for your crime is ten years. But we’re only gonna keep you here for eight!” Where does the Chairman come up with his “Quoted at” price? More importantly, is a bargain really a bargain when there is nothing to compare it to?

That's the last prison lingo of this writing: pardon me. I easily digress when working into a lather caused by the State store system. Back to the festival.

Whoops. Can’t go back to the festival, since I didn’t attend.

Was I turned off by the official press release that said “Rare cult wines will also be available for purchase?” Faddish devotion to hard to find wines? Not for me, though I admit I am committed to buying a decent bottle of table wine, imported by a savvy wine importer, and sold by a knowledgeable retailer who believes in return customers who are motivated by quality, value, and service, and not simply because there is no other choice.

We’re a sheltered bunch, we Pennsylvania wine-drinking residents who are forced to buy through the monopoly that is the PLCB. At least the PLCB hopes we are sheltered. If we’re not, then we’re apt to know that in states other than Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming, one need not put up with pretense at a festival to enjoy a world’s worth of wine options.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thank you, Beaver County Times

It's sad that the only media outlet that pointed out the real problem with the "ethics" of the recently-awarded PLCB 'courtesy contract' was the Beaver County Times. Take a look: they nailed it. In a nutshell? The Auditor General had no choice but to say that the contract was "legal." And there's no doubt that the contract presented -- at least -- the appearance of a conflict of interest; it was awarded to a company run by the husband of one of three PLCB Regional Directors. As the editorialist says, "While legal, the contract speaks volumes about a political environment that parses what’s legal and what’s right with great care."

What's really sad is, given how obviously wrong it was, how arrogantly the PLCB strutted their innocence after the Auditor General's reluctant statement of legality. Chairman PJ Stapleton had this to say in a letter to Wagner (that he also released to the press, he was so damned proud of it): "We are gratified by your conclusion that we affirmatively and properly dealt with potential conflicts of interest when they arose. "

I don't really remember Wagner saying that. And the only way the PLCB "dealt" with the potential conflicts of interest was by requesting an audit -- which they knew would pass on legality, clearly the only thing they cared about -- after there was a hue and cry about that potential conflict of interest in the press and the governor questioned the contract. That's "affirmative and proper"...in Pennsylvania.

He goes on about how smart they were to award the contract even after realizing there was a potential conflict of interest:

"The rejection of such a qualified proposal for a service deemed to be necessary and without substantial legal justification would expose the PLCB to litigation. Further, when a properly conducted RFP process produces a qualified bidder at substantially lower cost to the Commonwealth (and I'd still like to know more about why the winning bid was so much lower than the other bids), we are duty bound to regard that as a positive development to be availed, rather than cause for scrapping the process and starting over... Thus, while our two agencies agree as to the goal sought, it appears we have differing perspectives on this particular matter, differences we feel obliged to respectfully note."

Yeah, they have "differing perspectives," all right. The Auditor General clearly said that while what the PLCB did stayed within the letter of the law, it presented grave problems of potential conflict of interest. The PLCB clearly said...they didn't give a damn, it was all about the money.

I just wish that the PLCB would act this arrogant and "I'm a monopoly, I'll do what I want to" when it comes to doing a bunch of pointless "make nice" stuff like changing the names of the stores and "creating a brand." That would save us some serious coin. And I'm sure it would be "legal."

But then, it appears we have differing perspectives on this particular matter.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reason #16: Scary Booze!!!

In Quakertonia, all gasoline and diesel fuel sales are made by the state's Fuel Control Board; kerosene and propane are sold by private businesses (fuel distributors can only sell 55 gallon drums of kerosene and 500 lb. tanks of propane; grill stores can sell 20 lb. grill tanks and five gallon cans of kerosene. No one knows why). Every town of 3,000 people gets a Fuel Shop; the price is the same in every town -- high -- diesel is only available in special stations on the highways, and the sales clerks are only allowed to sell fuel to licensed drivers. Fuel sales are "controlled" by the state because gasoline is highly flammable and the vapors are explosive (and carcinogenic), and because uncontrolled gasoline sales could lead to people driving all over the place (which apparently has no ill effects in neighboring, "uncontrolled" states) and because the taxes are a huge source of revenue.

In New Cornwall, all cigarette and cigar sales are made by the state's Tobacco Control Board; pipe and chewing tobacco are sold by private businesses (leaf shops sell Prince Albert in the can (hee hee!) and 20-packs of Skoal; gas stations can sell bags of Red Man and single cans of Copenhagen. No one knows why). Every town of 3,000 people gets a Smoke Shop; the prices are the same in every town -- high -- cigars are only available in stores in big cities, and the sales clerks are only allowed to sell smokes to 16 year olds and up. Tobacco sales are "controlled" by the state because tobacco is a health hazard (which apparently is no worse in neighboring, "uncontrolled" states than in New Cornwall) and because the taxes are a huge source of revenue.

In Minnewaska, all prescription drugs -- no, wait -- all guns are sold by -- no, hang on, how about all the cars, yeah, the state sells all the cars and you're not allowed to buy cars in another state... and coffee, too. And power tools. And energy drinks. And horny goat weed.

You get the picture. Why is wine and spirits the only retail business the State is in? What makes booze so special?

Reason #16:

There is no convincing reason that wine and spirits should be "controlled" more than anything else.

The basis for "control" is, first of all, over 75 years out of date. It goes back to the idea that drinking, any amount of drinking, was dangerous for anyone, not just alcoholics. More to the point, control of alcohol was more about morals than it was about anything else. Here's what The Almighty Liquor Code says about why the PLCB was founded:
for the protection of the public welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the Commonwealth and to prohibit forever the open saloon, and all of the provisions of this act shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of this purpose.
You know what? Back in those days there were all kinds of laws about morality. Depending on the state or town, you could be busted for selling a condom (now they sell 'em in vending machines), stores didn't open on Sundays (even the State Stores are open on Sundays now), you couldn't sell porno through the mail (they give it away on the Internet...), you couldn't even swear on TV. All that went away, and lots of other things from that same kind of thinking, but Pennsylvanians still have to put up with the State selling them booze, and protecting their health, peace, and morals.

Come on! I can buy a can of diesel fuel at the Sunoco station, a bag of fertilizer at the Agway, and The Anarchist Cookbook off Amazon. I can buy a gun (we get constant wrong numbers for a local gunshop), I can buy everything I need to cook up crystal meth (or so they tell me), I can buy a tank of propane, I can buy cigarettes, I can buy an aluminum baseball bat, I have bought long kitchen knives. Compared to this stuff, what is so damned dangerous about a bottle of merlot that the state has to control my access to it?

The entire idea of control is pointless. We do not have border controls; New Jersey's got stores full of whiskey and wine right over there and they don't control me. We can buy a case of 11% beer at the privately-owned distributor. We can go to a bar and drink whatever they have. The only thing "control" does...is make buying booze a pain in the ass.

The PLCB should be abolished because the idea that sales of wine and spirits need to be "controlled" makes no sense when compared to other products: guns, explosives, drugs, tobacco, cars, airplanes, knives, power tools... The State collects taxes on wine and spirits, but it collects taxes on beer, too: through the distributors. The State makes its mark-up on wine and spirits; why not have the State sell everything, then, from groceries to fishing rods? It makes no sense, and if it weren't for the blanket interpretation of the 21st Amendment that states can do whatever they want with alcohol, it would be gone.

Let's get rid of this dinosaur. Is it just about the money? Then make it about the money. Sell it -- make money -- auction off booze store licenses -- make money -- and PA stores will be selling all that booze that the superstores over the border are selling now -- and making money.

There's no real reason not to do it.