Monday, December 28, 2009

Pocono Record has it right...

Oh, yeah, brother: preach it:

...the wine kiosks smack more than a little of Big Brother. Without a live person monitoring wine purchases, consumers will face some pretty intrusive procedures before they can walk out of the supermarket with a bottle of cabernet to go with their steak au poivre.
The editorialist at the Pocono Record puts their finger right on the wine kiosk problem. When you buy a bottle of wine at a private store in New Jersey/New York/Delaware/Maryland/etc., that's all you buy: a bottle of wine, and you walk away. When you buy a bottle of wine from one of these Wine-O-Mats, you buy a lot more: you buy a breathalyzer test, you buy an ID scan linked to what you bought (and how much you bought), you buy the knowledge of how much wine you buy over a year, and -- at least, according to the head of the PLCB's employees' union -- you buy an etched code on the bottle that links it to you...and all of that goes on your permanent record.

Is that what you want from your government? Big Brother literally looking out at you from some ridiculous wine-vending machine, sniffing your breath and taking your picture just so you can get a bottle of Yellow Tail (because I'm sure there will be Yellow Tail in these things, they've got a whole section of their own in the stores)? I mean, I'm not a huge fan of the Patriot Act, but at least I can understand why the government might want to listen on phone lines to pick up terrorist activity...why the hell do they want to keep a record of which bottle of wine I bought? What damned business is it of theirs?

It might be time to throw some bottles of wine in the Philadelphia harbor...

Monday, December 21, 2009

"How to Avoid Selling Wine in Pennsylvania"

Nicely done piece on the "wine kiosks" at Vinography; go have a look.

Here's how it starts:

So if you had a bunch of grocery stores, and those grocery stores sold wine, but you didn't really want people to buy any wine, what would you do?

One of the things you might consider doing would be to lock all the wine away in cabinets, so that people couldn't touch the bottles.
And it goes on in that vein, brilliantly. Seriously, folks, as the commenters to the post say: why aren't Pennsylvanians more insulted by this?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

17% expansion in number of State Stores in 2010!

The PLCB is planning to expand the number of State Stores from 620-ish to over 700 in 2010!

Holy crap! Really?

No, not really. It's that stupid wine kiosk idea again, and it's almost here, despite its obvious stupidity and iffy ethical status of the contract (not that "iffy ethics" should surprise anyone in this context). And according to the PLCB...each one is a Store.
"What we are proposing is a wine kiosk. This counts as a wine and spirits store. It will be within the store. There will be 100 of them around the state. They will have some of our most popular wines," said Nick Hays, PLCB spokesman.
So...what about all the worry that "more outlets means more problem drinking"? Well, once again, that only applies to a projected increase in privatized stores, not when it's the good old PLCB. Are you surprised?

Wine kiosks. God help us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Conti & Stapleton on PCN again...

Sorry I missed this one: Joe "CEO" Conti and PLCB chairman PJ Stapleton were on PCN's call-in show again on Monday (thanks to the readers who sent me the link!). Check it here for now; go to the PCN Call-in. I'm listening to it now.

Bill to Abolish State Liquor Stores to be Introduced in January!

Holy crap! Can you believe it? Just saw this today, and my head exploded.
Lawmakers are introducing a new measure aimed at getting the state out of the booze business.

Senate Democrat Tim Sheldon is proposing the state privatize liquor sales. "Immediately, you would save the $53 million or so that it costs to operate state run liquor stores with state employees. This is a luxury that we can't afford in our state."
Sheldon said the system can be set up just like in other states that allow liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores.
The liquor control board would continue its enforcement efforts. "It could be done in a very safe, controlled way using the private sector outlets. The taxation would still be collected by the state, the regulation would be made by the state," said Sheldon.
The proposal will get its first vetting when lawmakers return to Olympia in January.
 Wait, what? Olympia? Oh, bummer. This is about privatizing the state liquor stores in Washington. Damn.

Doesn't Pennsylvania have one legislator like Tim Sheldon? No, instead, what we get are guys like Representative Neal Goodman (D-123, Schuylkill County, pictured to the left), who recently said in the Pottsville Republican-Herald when asked about the prospect for beer sales in grocery/convenience stores and gas stations: "This is something the LCB (Liquor Control Board) would have to drive. I don't think this would be something legislatively-driven. This is a debate I'm willing to have ... but it really needs to be thought out thoroughly." That's why I really worry about the caliber of legislator in this state. This is not something the LCB "would have to drive." The PLCB has already done a lot towards allowing this kind of thing; they've granted licenses in a surprisingly liberal manner to Wegmans, Giant Eagle, Sheetz, and others. This is one area where I've got nothing but praise for the PLCB. They've been ready for years, and they're pretty clear about it:
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said groceries and convenience stores could have offered beer decades ago.

"The market changed. The law has not," said Nick Hays, a spokesman for the PLCB."The Pennsylvania liquor code does not address whether supermarkets may or may not sell alcohol. It doesn't permit them; it doesn't not permit them."
Hays is right: it's the code. Which, Representative Goodman's limited knowledge -- or deliberate obfuscation -- to the contrary, is something that has to be changed by the Legislature.

There's no need to bury it in a committee for thinking it out thoroughly, either (like they did with that "sixpack law" we were supposed to get two years ago). We've thought it out thoroughly, time and time again, and then nothing gets done. Which has nothing to do with the "thought out thoroughly" part, except the bits that deal with the political calculus. Your legislators want to please you, but mostly they don't want to piss off industry groups like the tavern owners or the beer wholesalers. The whole purpose of this blog is to change that equation.
Readers...if you're an interested citizen, write your legislator. It's easy, go do it (type your ZIP code in the box, and you'll get e-mail contact to Da Gov and your state legislators). If you're a reporter, please, please, please, take my ideas, take my passion, steal it with no attribution, but use it. Hammer at this ridiculous system, at the convoluted crap of The Almighty Liquor Code, at the entrenched stalinist edifice of the State Store System, at the arrogant monopolist attitude of Joe "CEO" Conti, at the wasteful and questionable spending on the Courtesy Contract and the Great Table Leaf Re-Branding.
Because the time is as ripe as it has ever been. Yuengling COO Dave Casinelli nailed it recently: "Ultimately, the consumers will speak," he said. "There's a groundswell out there. Both sides are kind of a stand-off right now." Damn straight. Why should Washington have all the fun?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

First courtesy training, now this

The PLCB, fresh from blowing millions of your tax dollars out of their butts* with the Courtesy Contract and the Great Table Leaf Re-Branding, is now going to spend even more PA police officers how to use Facebook.

It's not that simple -- it never is -- but it's close. As you probably know, underaged drinkers are often dumb enough to post their drunking (intentional misspelling) pix on social networking sites. Hell, everyone knows it, and has known it, as this story about it from 2006 shows. The Bensalem PD is already using it for their own horny purposes. But that's not going to stop the PLCB from spending more bux to jump on this.

Here's the syllabus for the 8 hour course:
According to Leslie Coombe, director of the Liquor Control Board's Bureau of Alcohol Education, the Navigating Cyberspace training will cover:

•Social networking sites and how young people use them;
•What distinguishes social networking sites from one another;
•How to navigate social networking sites; and
•How to develop information from social networking sites into evidence.
So that would be:
  • Facebook, MySpace, craigslist, Twitter -- Farmville; pix of chix and crappy music; all beer u can drunkk $5 dude; LOL RT LOL!
  • Your mom's on FB too, MySpace looks like a cat threw it up, craigslist is about the bux, Twitter s shrt lol.
  • Create a false identity. Login. Start friending/following like mad; lie when necessary. Click on links. Txt. Google site for "beers" "crunk" and "funnel". Call it a day, go get a beer.
  • Lie to some kid about who you are, get an invite to a party. Show up with the squad, arrest all the kids you can catch, bust the owners of the house, too.
  • And one more thing: Entrapment Is Something That Happens to Other Cops.
Hey, officer, just kidding about that last one, really. But I'd love to see what the folks at the Chambersburg Public Opinion would have done with this one. We're sending police officers to school for a day to learn how to Facebook? Are you kidding? My mechanic told me his small-town PD has a cyber-enforcement unit. Cops are up to speed already, and if they aren't, a one-day course ain't gonna do it. God, this reminds me of the narc convention in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

I did say it wasn't quite as simple as the others, and here's another reason. The money comes from a grant...from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, the "business association" of control states' liquor monopolies. Where does their money come from? To tell the truth, I don't know (I do now; see below). Google has, for now, failed me. But I do have a call in to them, asking that very question, and I'm hoping for an answer (because I'm writing a piece about this, too). But if NABCA is funded by the control states' booze agencies...guess what that means? Give you a hint: those aren't monkeys flying out of your butt.

Update: I did get back with the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, and it turns out that they get only a small amount of money from the states, less than a third of their operating budget. Most of their funds come from selling reports to investment analysis firms, the booze industry, and importers/wholesalers; they have solid, gilt-edged data from the states (it's every sale from every store in the state, as opposed to the patchwork reports from private-sale states), and it's valuable. Good idea, actually. fear, the PLCB's wasting someone else's money this time. Whew.

*Paraphrasing a great line from one of my fave movies, "The Iron Giant," where Gen. Rogard says "You realize how much hardware I brought out here? You just blew millions of Uncle Sam's dollars out of your butt!" I know just how he feels...and yeah, Joe "CEO" Conti, it was our tax dollars, because if you hadn't wasted it on this project, it would have gone into the general fund, where it would have become fungible revenue. PLCB revenue wasted is the same as taxes to cover the hole.

Friday, December 4, 2009

You gotta see this

Just go here and look at the picture and caption. Well worth your time, but be prepared to laugh out loud. Gotta love irony.

First, Do No Harm

Can you see those beer neons? Victory, Smithwick's, and a very rare Weyerbacher neon? I apologize for the quality of the iPhone shot, but it's all I had with me.

Why'd I take this picture? Because you're looking at a gas station that's selling beer in bottles, cans, and Pennsylvania. It's the Interstate Market, just south of I-78 at Easton, and very much on the PA side of the Delaware River. And right under the big sign advertising the fuel prices was a sign that read "On tap today: Sierra Nevada."

I felt very much "out of control." How was this possible? More to the point, why does the MBDA have its panties in a terrible knot over Sheetz stores selling beer while not a word of protest accompanies this madness of selling beer right where people buy gasoline! Amazing. Cynically, I suggest it's because this one store represents no real threat to business, and the MBDA's cries over exposing children and driving dangers are simply bullshit, covering their real concern: Sheetz can offer bottleshop convenience in a lot of places. I would suggest that the MBDA would be much better off spending their time and money lobbying for a sixpack sale law for distributors.

Anyway, things were strangely peaceful. I didn't see one person sucking on a bottle of irresistably nearby and cold beer while they gassed up their car. No one peeled out of the place waving an open bottle out the window. There weren't raving crowds inside the store demanding beer, cold beer, open bottles of it right now!!!

No, what there was...was some people having lunch (sit-down tables), and some people buying sodas, and five nice taps and empty growlers waiting to be filled. Peaceful. Restrained.

Where's the threat? What's the big deal about selling beer at gas stations?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

God Almighty only asked for ten...

Saw this over at City Paper; Drew Lazor's on the job. Ultimo Coffee/Brew bistro has opened their doors -- back in May -- but while their coffee has been nothing short of frackin' amazing (See? Was it really that hard?), there's still no beer in their big, beautiful coolers. How come? That would be the PLCB.

See, much as apparently almost everyone in the area (and this one fella, out here in Bucks) would love for that great beer to show up, one guy is holding things up by saying he doesn't want their license approved. According to The Almighty Liquor Code (Section 4-402), if anyone within 500 feet of the place objects within 15 days of the application, there has to be a hearing. Now, said 'one guy' apparently lives over 600 feet away, but remember the prologue of The Almighty Liquor Code:

This act shall be deemed an exercise of the police power of the Commonwealth 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.
So there you are. Although, as alluded to in the post title, God required Abraham to find 10 righteous men in Sodom; the PLCB is willing to hold things up for just one? And where does it say that setting up the hearing has to take six months?

The hearing will finally take place on December 11, and the 'one guy' (no relation to Berwick Brewing, née One Guy Brewing, of course) will get an opportunity to stand up and state just why it is that they object to the license. Assuming they show up...I'd love to hear what their beef is, and I'd really like to see if it's worth one person having held up a the business of a person who has demonstrably improved the Newbold neighborhood. Or if it's just hot air. Not that I'm pre-judging, or anything.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Didja Forget About the Courtesy Contract?

Do you remember how pissed off everyone was about the PLCB's "courtesy training contract?" Back in March, it came out that the agency was going to spend $173,820 on training State Store System clerks "how to greet someone, where to stand, and how to read a customer's cues." When that hit the fan, the PLCB tried to distance themselves from it by denying it was about manners: "A $173,000 contract on teaching manners – as has been widely reported – would be ridiculous," said PLCB Chairman PJ Stapleton. Yet the RFP for the training stated the following as the very first objective for the training:

1. Improve basic customer service skills, such as greeting customers appropriately, servicing customers, and completing sales with professionalism and courtesy."
"Greeting customers appropriately" and "completing sales with...courtesy" don't involve manners? Let's not be coy: bullshit, PJ. "Basic customer service skills" are good manners.

But that's old news...and that's the whole point of this post. We all got terribly upset -- rightfully so -- and more so when we found out that the contract had been awarded to the husband of one of the PLCB's regional managers. We were outraged, and an audit was called for, which exonerated the agency on legal grounds, but found that the agency had exercised poor judgment in awarding the contract to the husband of a manager and that "training to improve employee courtesy, manners and product knowledge wasn't a worthwhile expense." HA! So there, PLCB!

...and then we forgot about it, leaving them off the hook, again.

Well, not my man Eric Heyl at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Eric's a columnist there, calls me for comment (a classic at the end of that one) from time-to-time when he has a booze story. For some reason, the Pittsburgh newspapers are hotter on exposing the PLCB's idiocy that the Philly papers are, and Heyl wields a blowtorch in his latest column, titled "Excuse me, but your discourtesy is showing."

Heyl brought back the courtesy contract. It went ahead, you know: training started in April, and Heyl, a taxpayer, wanted to know if what we'd bought (although the agency states that it's not tax money, it's their revenue that paid for the training, I can only assume they're being facetious in this claim: if they hadn't spent it, it would have gone into the general fund, so I fail to see a meaningful difference) was having any effect. As he put it:

The controversy was dying a lingering death in relative anonymity when I decided to nurse the poor thing back to health. I did so by using the LCB's own statistics to attempt to measure the manner-polishing program's effectiveness since it began in April.
See, the PLCB actually keeps track of customer service complaints, and Heyl got those numbers. What triggered the desire to improve customer service, the training? 84 customer service complaints between April and October of 2008...out of 27.2 million transactions. As Heyl said, "No wonder Solutions 21 was hired. Agency officials had to be embarrassed over that deluge of dissatisfaction." Indeed.

So, what did we buy, how has the training addressed this burning issue? "Between April and October 2009, the LCB received 103 complaints in 29.7 million transactions." Yeah. It got worse: one complaint for every 288,000 transactions, as opposed to one in every 324,000 before the training. The training was ridiculous, unnecessary, and it was ineffective. Nice trifecta.

Heyl asked Joe "CEO" Conti about this, bless his soul (all emphases added):

"Eighty to 100 complaints is really so anecdotal that I don't know that we'd use those as a barometer" of the program's success, he said[...] (But 84 complaints was enough to trigger a training contract at $173,00?)
The LCB can renew the Solutions 21 contract annually for the next five years. While the agency hopes to eventually perform the training in-house, Conti would not commit to that happening as soon as next year.
"At this point, I can't give you a firm yes or no as to whether we will need an extension (for Solutions 21)," he said.

How about you, boys and girls? Can you give "CEO" Conti a firm yes or no as to whether we need any more of Solutions 21's "training?" Well, don't bother, because he won't listen. Tell your state Senator! Tell your Representative! Tell them something like this (I just did):
The PLCB hired Solutions 21 to teach basic sales manners to their clerks in April. The Auditor General found that the agency had exercised poor judgment in awarding the contract to the husband of a PLCB manager, and that such training was in general not a worthwhile expense. Not only that, it hasn't worked: the PLCB's own statistics show that customer service complaints have gone up since the training started. PLCB CEO Joe Conti recently said that Solutions 21's contract may be extended. Please consider advising Mr. Conti that this would be an unwise use of funds that would otherwise go to the General Fund.
Get mad. Get active. After all, as Arlo said, "If you want to end war and stuff, you got to sing loud."

Friday, November 6, 2009

"More proof: State should exit liquor business"

That's a quote from the Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial page. They're citing a study from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Analysis (full text of the study is here, and it's worth a read), a libertarian-leaning PA think tank, that found...well, essentially found what I was saying here, and then backed it up with facts and citations. They found that Pennsylvania's "control" of liquor and wine sales had no social benefit for the state.

Here's what the summary of the study says (all emphasis (except as noted) added by me, cuz that's what I do):
...arguments might be made for state control as a means of achieving some desired social outcome. In Pennsylvania's case, advocates claim that the social goals of reducing alcohol consumption, underage drinking, and alcohol-related traffic deaths justify controlling wholesale and retail alcohol markets.
Evidence from 48 states over time shows no link between market controls and these social goals [their emphasis]. Divestiture of Pennsylvania's state liquor stores would represent a financial windfall to the state, while posing no threat to public safety, as it would not result in the social ills many opponents of privatization fear.

Now. If all that's true, and it certainly would seem to be -- they've compared it the best way possible, looking at other states with similar and different regulations -- why do we keep the State Store System? It's not about protecting you from yourself. It's about the money -- oh, sorry, I mean the revenue. (Because the State doesn't take your money, they enhance the revenue flow.) And we already knew that. So if we're going to make the same (or better) in taxes under privatization, and there's no horrible effects of drinking too much under privatization lurking, and privatization could make the state a huge windfall and create a lot of jobs...what the hell are we waiting for?

As the editorial concludes: "It is no longer 1933. It is time for the state to get out of the liquor control business."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Score One for the PLCB

Credit where it's due: the PLCB has done A Good Thing. PhillyMag food columnist and research editor Victor Fiorillo reported a few months ago that he'd been served what he thought was bogus Maker's Mark at Oscar's, a popular Center City dive-ish bar. He ordered another, surreptitiously poured it into a container, and left the bar with it. He sent it to the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and filed a complaint. Two weeks later, the BLCE sent an agent to Oscar's, who checked the whole place -- the Maker's, the other booze, and the taplines (they weren't being cleaned properly) -- and took samples for analysis: six bottles of confiscated liquor.

The results are in: Oscar's put shite whiskey in a Maker's bottle. The BLCE found that the sample from Oscar's did not match a true sample; they found the same with a bottle of Ketel One. What's gonna happen? Fiorillo sez, "According to [the officer], her office’s legal department will now determine whether to issue a citation, after which a fine, suspension, or other penalty could be imposed." Excellent!

So. I slagged the PLCB last year for not giving a damn about consumer protection. God knows I've slagged PhillyMag for their booze coverage. I say thank you for a job well done to both today. This is exactly the kind of thing a state booze bureaucracy should be doing: protecting me from bad, mislabeled, fraudulent booze. I realize they're probably doing it because of taxes, but you know, it all works out. Cheers to Fiorillo for following through on this. And damn Oscar's for pulling the old switcheroo: that's about the worst crap a bar can pull. Don't know what the PLCB is going to do, but I'm dropping Oscar's from PA Breweries 4th Edition. It ain't much, but it's what I can do.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"...bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal..."

Well, I got my response. I recently wrote to the PLCB to ask them how a private citizen, who happened to be in another state and saw a nice bottle of wine for sale, and wanted to bring that bottle home to Pennsylvania, could do their duty to the Commonwealth, fill out a form, pay the taxes, or so on. How could we do the right thing in order to bring this into the State and be square, in other words?

After two weeks -- a relatively short time, considering it came from the PLCB's chief legal counsel -- I got my response this morning. I'd publish it here, only it came by e-mail in the form of a PDF image, which has so far resisted four different attempts to convert it to text. No problem; I've successfully uploaded it to Scribd, and you can see it below.

Please note, before we go any further, that they took pains to note that the State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement enforces the liquor laws, and the PLCB issues legal opinions that are binding on licensees only. "Since you are not a Board licensee, the following is offered for your guidance and information only." Ah. Kinda like the fine print on the video poker machines that Pennsylvania seems completely unable to stamp out. Okay. With that said, let's see what their opinion is.

The third paragraph puts it pretty damned simply: "The general rule is that bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal, with limited exceptions." You have to be "the Board, a manufacturer, or the holder of a sacramental wine license or of an importer license" to transport or possess any liquor or wine within the Commonwealth that has not been purchased from the State Store System or a state winery. "Accordingly, you cannot simply cross the border into a neighboring state, purchase a bottle of wine and return to Pennsylvania, as both the importation and possession of such wine would be illegal."

However...turns out that you can bring in up to one gallon free of tax and mark-up...from outside the United States. So, New Zealand is okay; New Jersey, no way. And if the Board requests it, you have to produce evidence of such travel, the receipt proving you actually bought the stuff there (and not, for example, in New Jersey), and "an affidavit indicating that the purchaser was allowed to bring the liquor in duty-free" (no instructions on who would issue such an affadavit...). And before you think this completely painless, "The Board assesses a service charge for this importation." Of course they do.

You can receive wine and liquor from outside the Commonwealth as a gift, "so long as the proper paperwork is submitted to and cleared by the Board." And you pay the service charges and mark-up, and by the way, you have to pay the taxes to the Department of Revenue, so you have to talk to them, too.

Feeling like Kafka yet? Remember that you do have the ability to purchase wine from outside the Commonwealth! You may purchase it online! And then have it shipped to one of the State Store System's stores (of your choosing!). There are a few conditions, of course: the wine cannot be one listed on the Board's Internet catalog; you'll have to sign an affidavit that you are 21 and purchasing the wine for your own "use;" and you can't get more than 9 liters in a month. Oh, and there's a shipping charge, a handling charge, the 18% Johnstown Flood Emergency Tax, and 6% sales tax (plus an additional 1% in Philadelphia or 2% in Allegheny County). Bet they get a lot of traffic on that one.

In short, they conclude, "...there is no proper protocol for crossing the border to purchase wine in another state and then bring it back to Pennsylvania." And that's pretty much it.

(The letter was copied to the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, to the Senior Director of the Office of Regulatory Affairs, the Director and Assistant Director of the Bureau of Licensing, and the Press Secretary. I'm not intimidated, I refuse to be.)

The beautiful thing is, they don't have to provide a proper protocol, or the reasoning for why that is not allowed. That's the responsibility of the Legislature, by way of The Almighty Liquor Code. Why is it that way? Because the State Store System and the PLCB were set up to be a total monopoly -- it's the Pennsylvania Liquore CONTROL Board, after all -- and you can't have a monopoly that leaks around the edges.

Oh, it does, of course; people bring booze into the State every day. You know it, I know it, the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, everyone knows it -- except the PLCB, apparently, as Joe "CEO" Conti continues to hold that this is a very minor problem. Sure it is. Which is why there are all those big liquor stores so close to the border in Delaware and Maryland, and why the out-of-state liquor stores run full-page ads in the Inquirer.

I am deeply offended by the very idea of this monopoly. I drive to visit my in-laws in New York and Virginia several times a year. I'm an American. What right does the State of Pennsylvania have to tell me where I can or cannot buy a bottle of liquor? If it's all about the taxes, why not make it easy for me to pay the damned things? No, instead, we're told that "bringing any alcoholic beverage into Pennsylvania is illegal." That's asinine!

Let me make this perfectly clear. I deeply appreciate the time that the lawyers at the PLCB took to write this response. I do; I have no doubt they know who I am and why I wanted to know, this site gets hits from the PLCB multiple times a week, but they responded, and they didn't mince words. I don't hold the PLCB or the BLCE responsible for this ridiculous situation.

I blame The Almighty Liquor Code and the Pennsylvania Legislature. For 75 years we have been under the patronizing thumb of this monopoly. We have no choice except theirs, we have no options but theirs, we have no way to change it or make it better. This is not the fault of the PLCB. Rather, the PLCB and all it stands for -- monopoly, conflict of interest, political patronage, lack of choice, lack of response -- is the fault of the continuing refusal of the Pennsylvania Legislature to lift this Stalinist, paternalistic, antiquated system from our shoulders. It's 2009: could we be allowed to buy a bottle of wine wherever we want? Is that so much to ask? Or do you vant to see our papers?

Read the full text of the PLCB's response on Scribd here

Friday, October 9, 2009

Following the Proper Protocol

People have asked, here and on Facebook, regarding those two folks who got busted in Sayre for bringing booze into PA...what IS the proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into the state? Good question. So I asked the PLCB:
Good morning,
My friends and I have been discussing a news item from the Towanda Daily Review about two Pennsylvanians who were recently cited by the LCB for "purchasing alcoholic beverages out of state, and not following proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into Pennsylvania."
We all live near the New Jersey or Delaware borders, and we were wondering: what IS the proper protocol? If we should find ourselves in a liquor store in New Jersey and see a bottle of wine that would be good with dinner, and bought it, and wanted to be legal and square with the Commonwealth, what should we do? Is there a form we can fill out to pay the taxes due? Or do we have to register our intent beforehand?
As you can imagine, there's quite a bit of this chain of thought going on in border areas. We'd like a solid answer so we can do the right thing.
-- Lew Bryson

When I get an answer...I'll share it here.

Update: "Please be advised that your inquiry has been assigned to a staff attorney for research and response." Okay. I'm waiting...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yes, They Will Bust You For It

Got this from the Towanda Daily Review.
Two charged by PLCB
Two people from Sayre were cited by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board recently on a charge of improperly bringing alcoholic beverages into the state. According to information provided by the PLCB, David Cole, 29, and Brenda Williams, 42, were cited for purchasing alcoholic beverages out of state, and not following proper protocol for bringing alcoholic beverages into Pennsylvania. Conviction for such a summary offense, according to the PLCB, is a $25 fine, plus the cost of prosecution.

You gotta figure this was an egregious offense. $25 plus costs? That was worth it. It's such a ridiculous offense: Sayre sits right on the NY border. This is like prosecuting someone in Bethlehem for buying beer in Allentown.

What really irks me is that the PLCB will do nothing, nothing at all, if someone sells me a bottle of corked wine or skunked beer. But let me buy one bottle of rotgut wine in New Jersey, and it's a summary offense.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nothing doing

Got this today.

I'm Joy from
I would like to know if by any chance you would be interested in getting paid to publish reviews of products and websites on your blog
If you are interested please let us know the amount of money you want in order to publish a review by clicking the following link:
As soon as you do that we'll start sending you paid review proposals from our customers.
The Team"

No, thanks. I review the PLCB solely for the cathartic effect.

Divesting the PLCB: how and why

Two years ago the Reason Foundation presented a study to the PA Legislature on how and why we should privatize the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. It's online here, and you should really go take a look. It lays out several options -- full divestiture (my personal favorite), retail only (the State continues as the sole wholesaler), a slow transition, a pilot project approach, local divestiture (bad idea; more confusion is not what we need), and a public/private partnership (private company managing state stores? I'll pass on that) -- and does the pros and cons on each.

Feel free to send this to your state legislators with your advice.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Different State, Same Love

Massachusetts has a booze-selling system I'd actually like to see PA emulate: the "package store." The packie sells all booze types, and is privately-owned; the number of stores one entity/person can own is limited (to three, I think). The state's wholesalers are also private, although there is some contention about monopolistic practices there that's worrisome. The system worked fine: local stores supplied local wants and needs, and there are stores that specialize in cheap bulk goods, and stores that specialize in the high end. Everyone's happy.

Except the state's legislators, it would appear. They recently jacked the tax on booze up by 6.25%, despite the clear likelihood that people along the state's heavily populated border with New Hampshire would simply slip over the line, losing the state tax revenues and losing the packies up there a lot of business.

Well, isn't that just exactly what happened last weekend, when someone caught Massachusetts representative Michael Rodrigues at a New Hampshire liquor store, loading booze into his car, clearly licensed with a "House 29" Mass plate. The Boston Herald reported the story with an understandable amount of restrained glee.
The witness, who requested anonymity, claimed he approached Rodrigues, noted his State House plate, and asked if he was on personal or official business. Rodrigues, who was loading booze into his car, snapped “mind your own business,” the witness said.

Beautiful. (Rodrigues, by the way, in an interview about the incident, blamed the fuss about it on “Republican demagoguery. Unfortunately, I think that’s why the Republican Party is in such bad shape in Massachusetts,” Rodrigues is quoted as saying. “The electorate here is smart enough to figure out what they’re up to.” Really?) The Herald also noted that police have cracked down on cross-border booze purchases. Too bad they didn't catch Rodrigues.

What's this have to do with the PLCB? Nothing. Nothing except to point out that different state taxes and policies on booze lead directly to smuggling -- because that's what this guy was doing, albeit on a small scale -- and we shouldn't be surprised at all by the number of PA plates that show up in the parking lots at Canal's and Total Wine. Wonder if any PA legislators ever...nah, they wouldn't do that. After all, the selection's so much better in PA. Joe "CEO" Conti says so, and he oughta know.

Friday, August 7, 2009

In Washington State: close LCB offices, open more stores!

And in other states, part 2:

The Kitsap, WA Sun is reporting that the Washington State Liquor Control Board will be closing four offices in a cost-cutting measure in the midst of their state's budget crisis, and opening more stores and expanding operations at others to increase sales. Yeah, baby, that's control. Judging from the comments posted so far, the WSLCB isn't any more popular with the citizenry than the PLCB is.

This is a new thought for how to kill your state liquor control agency: starve it to death. After all, abolishing the PLCB doesn't have to happen all at once. I'd be happy to see it die a slow and lingering death over a year or long as it starts now.

The Look Stays, for now

The poll's closed, and with over 2/3 of you saying you either like the new look or don't care, we're sticking with it for a while. Until I get sick of it. Onwards!

In New York: State Liquor Authority told to "Shape up!"

And in other states, part 1:

New York's Senate just confirmed Dennis Rosen as the new State Liquor Authority chairman, and in the process, Rosen was warned that he was expeceted to "shape up the agency." The job (which pays $120,800) is responsible for licensing and enforcement. Senators noted -- correctly! -- that the SLA's performance must improve "because it is so critical to the state's economy." The senators were distressed that liquor license applications were taking months to be processed: up to four months in Buffalo, as much as 11 months in NYC. Ridiculous! Anti-business!

Corrupt, too. "The Inspector General's Office raided the Harlem office of the SLA this spring. Law enforcement officials claimed officers there were taking illegal payments from outsiders to expedite applications."There is no one agency that has caused more pain or caused more loss of jobs than the State Liquor Authority," said Sen. George Maziarz, R-Niagara County. He has called for aboloshing [sic] the SLA. Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, said the SLA may be impossible to fix. [Wow, does that sound familiar?]

(Digested from the Albany Times Union)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Looking Forward

The general procedure around here is to find something the PLCB -- or the Legislature -- is screwing up (or The Almighty Liquor Code has already screwed up), point it out and explain why it's a problem, say The PLCB Should Be Abolished, and end with a few tart comments on how that could be accomplished. But the continuing hue and cry over the courtesy contract, the budget-driven renewed interest in selling off the State Store System, and the latest on the wine 'kiosk' bidding leads me to believe it may be time to talk about something else: what do we do if we win?

Think about it. What if all the people who are currently writing disgusted comments about the PLCB on various newspaper websites -- which is the political equivalent of snapping your fingers to keep away tigers -- turned around and started writing those disgusted comments in e-mails to their state representatives? (Which you can, by the way: start here.) What if campaign money suddenly started rolling in from donors who were in favor of privatization, folks like supermarkets, and beer distributors, and wine and liquor wholesalers? What if the Legislature finally paid attention to the economists and policy wonks who have been telling them for years that the state would be better off financially with privatization? What if...the Legislature voted to Abolish the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board?

First things first: I do not want to see a "win" diluted to the privatization of the existing State Stores, with no additional stores "allowed," and the State continuing as the wholesaler. From where I stand, this would be a very minor victory. Think about it: no grocery store sales, no more stores in low-coverage areas, no additional stores (leaving the state in an 'under-served' status), and the State still decides what goes on the shelves. No half-measures! And no damned case law, either.

I've already laid out a simplified plan for divestiture. "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." Done.

But you want to know what amazes me? The Legislature's already got a plan. It was developed in 1987, and you can look at it here. Just click on the "Next" button at the top to see more. It's like reading some mirror-world where the State actually got its booze-selling head out of its ass and did things right, including putting licensing and taxing in the Department of Revenue and enforcement with the State Police, and putting the employees to work for the Dept. of General Services disposing of the assets.

They're definitely watching out for the employees, too. "The plan shall provide a schedule whereby all employes [sic] of the Board not transferred to the Department of Revenue, the State Police or the Department of General Services shall be made available as soon as possible for transfer to fill existing vacancies in other State agencies and to augment the activities of other State agencies." And "The Council shall develop plans to be approved by the Secretary of Administration for the transfer to other State agencies of all employes of the Board not transferred to the Department of Revenue, the State Police or the Department of General Services. Within the limits of available Commonwealth resources, the plan shall provide for the placement of all employes of the Board and shall not result in the furlough or reduction in pay for any employes of the Board."

I realize this means that the Governor would have to find another plum patronage position for Joe "ex-CEO" Conti, but this is a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Actually, we wouldn't have to. I think jobs like his would definitely be outside "the limits of available Commonwealth resources."

It's already done. It just needs tweaking and details. Tweaking, because it looks like they intend to keep the artificial division of beer stores and wine and liquor stores: not needed, stupid. I like the limit of three licenses per owner/corporation; it works well in Massachusetts. I don't like that owners of beer distributors are prohibited from owning a liquor store; put it all in one store. I actually wouldn't mind privately-owned booze-only stores, "package stores." Me, I don't need to buy my booze at grocery stores, as long as I don't have to buy it from the State. Details are needed, and this acknowledges that.

What we would need, though, is private citizen, non-lawyer representation on the Board that finally hammers this out. This is NOT something to be done behind closed doors; there's too much money involved. I want to see this fair, and I want to see it without all the licenses winding up in the hands of legislators' friends, and I want to see it so that it benefits the Commonwealth and all its citizens, not just a small influential group. Given the recent rotten history of the PLCB, I don't think that's an unreasonable request.

I'll have some ideas for you on how to take the fight to Harrisburg, and your local paper, and your local radio/TV stations. The iron's hot; time to strike.

Monday, August 3, 2009

HELP! Could you send me that link again?

The thoughtful reader came through immediately: thanks, Tony, I'm hooked up and ready to roll. Look for some forward-looking plans on what to do if we win!

Last year, a very thoughtful reader sent me a link to a 22-year-old plan the legislature cooked up to privatize the State Store System; it was parked off on the Web, unlinked. I had an e-mail reader failure four months ago, and when I went to look for the message in question this morning, it was gone, one of the mails that got wiped out.

If that reader is out there, could you send it again? If anyone knows what this is, and can find it, could you send me a link? I'd like to get that back. Thanks!

Why wine people don't care about the PLCB

I was chatting with a wine wholesaler the other day -- just talking about the booze biz -- and I thought of the blog and asked him: wine people would be natural allies for this fight, do you know any in the area who might be interested in doing some writing for the blog on wine issues? (Because, I'll be honest: I like to drink the stuff sometimes (had a real nice NZ sauvignon blanc last night), but I don't know enough about it to write about it.)

And the guy says, "The wine people in this part of the state (Philadelphia area) don’t care about the wine in the state stores. They don’t buy any wine here." And while that's probably somewhat of an exaggeration -- I'm sure they pick things up occasionally -- given the huge wine stores right across the border, and the constant ads in the Philly media for them, he's probably right.

One more budget crisis-related reason to privatize retail booze sales in Pennsylvania: bring all that money back into the state. Is it because this is all so simple that people don't get it?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Conti Speaks!

Interesting interview with Joe "CEO" Conti on the new Grub Street Philadelphia site. Kirsten Henri asked him about the "wine boutique" concept, and gets some answers that just leave you slack-jawed. For instance, the boutiques are "picked" by putting ads in local newspapers, and waiting for replies, a charmingly innocent way of making sure you get the response you want while remaining "courtesy contract legal." And a great exchange here:

Conti: ...we weren't looking to partner with restaurants, we were looking to partner with high-end gourmet food stores.

Henri: Maybe it's confusing because your first partner, Jose Garces, is known for being a restaurateur, not a grocer. [Score!]

Conti: Jose basically was doing this market in the Western Union building. When he heard we were placing boutiques, he called us.
Clearly Garces reads the real estate ads in the local papers; what, in the "Monopoly Opportunities for Advantage Available" section?

But this is my favorite:
Henri: Are you surprised some restaurateurs are bent out of shape?

Conti: How can I be diplomatic here? [I assume this means, "How can I insult your intelligence and get away with it?"] I'm from a restaurant family. I like to tease I'm a bartender by birth. My father was president of the National Restaurant Association. [This, BTW, is essentially Conti's self-stated qualification for his current position: heredity.] Yes, I was surprised. It's a very old-fashioned, parochial view of the restaurant market. Decades ago we realized the hospitality industry survives best when there are a number of options for the consumer.
Didja see that last line? "...the hospitality industry survives best when there are a number of options for the consumer." Guess that doesn't apply to retail wine and spirits sales!

These ridiculous ideas only point up how ill-suited state-owned monopoly booze sales are to modern commerce. These "boutiques" are clearly an unfair advantage to stores that are selected on the basis of personal choice by unelected, unregulated bureaucrats. The wine kiosks are a bumbling circumvention of supermarket sales.

Stop making it so hard! Privatization would fix all of this, increase jobs, continue the collection of taxes, and put an end to the embarrassing parade of corrup -- er, "the appearance of a possible conflict of interest." The Legislature needs to put an end to this farce, and now would be a great time.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Didja Ever Doubt It?

Remember this?
Next call: is there any patronage on the wine kiosk contract, anything that might benefit anyone related to someone at the PLCB, or the Governor's Office? (Does this guy know something?) Conti ducks it by saying it followed the same track as the courtesy contract, a track that he already questioned the effectiveness of, but said it was legal. you heard it here: Conti is implying that there is no questionable connection between the PLCB or the Governor's office and Simple Brands LP, James Lesser president, of Bala Cynwyd, the only bidder on the contract, according to news stories on this project.

Now read this. Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate, WTAE, breaks the story: there is a Rendell-Simple Brands connection. "Two of the main investors with Simple Brands have given Rendell nearly a half-million dollars in campaign contributions." And Joe "CEO" Conti is right in there pitching it.
[WTAE reporter Paul] Van Osdol: "Any concerns about the perception that might be created from something like this?"
Conti: "As I said, of course, we're concerned about the perception. We understand the nature of your question and we understand why you're here today, but we think we -- in an abundance of caution -- went through a very fair and open bidding process."
Van Osdol: "Was it really fair if there was only one company that responded, and that company was the one that made the original proposal?"
Conti: "It was a very fair and open bidding process."

Sound familiar? Sound just like the "courtesy contract" the PLCB awarded to the company owned by the husband of a PLCB regional manager?

What does it take? How long are we going to continue to put up with this crap? We're told one of the reasons that privatization is a bad idea is because private businesses often defraud the government. Hello? Obviously that argument's a wash.

The kiosk idea is a dopey one -- stick your whole arm into a machine to buy a $15 bottle of wine? -- and the kiosk contract stinks like roadkill in August. It's time --past time to write your legislator and demand that privatization of liquor and wine sales in Pennsylvania be put on the legislative calendar immediately -- or at least, as soon as they've managed to pass a damned budget. The system is antiquated, the system is stupid, the system is corrupt...but worst of all, the system does not serve the citizens of the Commonwealth. The PLCB Should Be Abolished.

"Unless and until there is a general hue and cry, it is very unlikely there will be a privatization initiative that succeeds." -- John E. Jones III, former PLCB chairman.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another wine machine, another state

I don't have much to say, just go read this. It's about a different kind of wine machine that's being harrassed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Amazing.

Please note that the Oregon OLCC is every bit as hard-nosed over picayune crap as the PLCB...but this is ridiculous. Please also note that the PLCB wants THEIR machine, which no one else does, while everyone likes the Enomatic machine except the it because it wasn't their idea?

Monopolies suck. Period.

VOTE in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Poll!

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a poll up today about the PLCB's initiatives on automated wine kiosks and "boutique" wine stores (and I'll be blogging about the "progress" on both of those shortly). Here's the question:
Should the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board implement its plan to sell wine through small boutique stores and machine dispensers?

I'd like to encourage all of you to go vote NO... and here's why. It may sound like this is a good thing: more stores, more ways to buy booze, and wine in supermarkets. But look: this is just another way to make the state booze monopoly palatable enough that you'll keep saying "Well, it's not that bad." It is that bad. We are not children, to have the State tell us that we can't handle selling wine, let alone buying it. This is a retail monopoly of a legal food product. Don't encourage them to expand their franchise! Besides, the "boutique stores" which are actually inside cafes are blatantly unfair to the other businesses who won't get them. Exactly the problem with a monopoly: you don't get the choice, they do.

This is wrong in so many ways. Go vote NO, now.

Update: 73% NO! Thank you, Pennsylvania!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chairman's Selection? Or Chairman's Dumping Ground?

The PLCB sent out a press release yesterday, heralding the "Biggest Chairman's Selection(TM) Sale of 2009"! In case you don't know by now, the idea of the "Chairman's Selection" originated back when Jonathan Newman was the PLCB Chairman. He came up with the amazingly original idea of using the state monopoly's enormous buying power to secure large lots of great wines at a discounted price, passing the savings on to customers. The program was a big success, as it delivered wine value to Pennsylvanians for the first time since Repeal. Since Newman left, the program has been criticized for losing its way, selling wines of questionable quality at suspicious discounts.

Well, fear not: the PLCB has come clean! Here's what they say about this new sale:
Incredible Savings at Pa Wine & Spirits Stores
Clearance will make room for new wine selections
The biggest Chairman's Selection(TM) sale of the year begins at Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits Stores on Wednesday, July 1, to make room for new Chairman's Selections(TM) wines arriving this summer.
Because this is an inventory-reduction sale, not every reduced-price selection will be available in every store. "The inventory of sale wines will vary greatly by store, and they'll only be available while current supplies last," Short said. "Once these are gone, we are rolling out exciting new Chairman's Selections(TM) for summer and fall."
Specific sale wines can be transferred upon request from one store to another, but a shipping fee will be charged for this service.
Yup. The Chairman's Selection has been reduced to a fire sale. Slash the prices, call 'em "special values," and get 'em off the floor, because you need room for new stuff. The curtain has been ripped aside, and the PLCB revealed for what it is: a government monopoly that doesn't know or give a damn about the products it sells -- or the profits -- just about how to move product and keep the cashflow turning.

Jonathan Newman would be appalled, only he's got a private wine business now...and you can't get his wines in PA. Anyone surprised by that? I mean, what could they call them? The Ex-Chairman's Selection?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Great talk about selling the State Store System

Very good piece in the Patriot News about selling off the State Store System. The only person they could find in favor of keeping it was State Store System clerks' union (UFCW Local 1776) president Wendell W. Young IV, pathetically flapping his hands with the same stale arguments the union has used for years:

  1. We won't really make that much money by selling the system (yeah, or by selling licenses to the biggest non-private liquor and wine sales market in the country; sure, pal. Ever seen pictures of the Oklahoma Land Run?)

  2. We get $80 million in profits from the system every year (we could take the $1.7 billion estimated as the sale price of the system and put it in a bank at 4% and make $70 million a year forever doing nothing)

  3. Tax collection in other states isn't that great because private businesses defraud the government (they're corrupt? What, like that LCE officer that was shaking down bars in eastern PA? Great argument!)

  4. The State Store System clerks have only sold to minors twice in the past seven years (that's GREAT news: even underage PA drinkers are smart enough to shop somewhere else...)
There are no good reasons...or even excuses not to sell the State Store System.

"Yee-ha, boys, let's go get us a likker store!"

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" 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" 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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

PA AG Says PLCB exercised "poor judgment"

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner has released his report on the audit of the PLCB's "courtesy contract," a $173,820 training contract that was granted to Solutions 21, a Pittsburgh-based company run by the husband of the PLCB's Western Region manager.

Auditor General Jack Wagner said today that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board did not violate state law but that it did exercise poor judgment in awarding a $173,820 employee training contract to the husband of a PLCB regional manager, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"In awarding a contract to the spouse of one of its regional managers, the PLCB should have anticipated the reasonable public questioning that would result over a potential conflict of interest, regardless of whether that conflict was an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict," Wagner said.

That's right, Chuck Ardo: far from accusing the PLCB of curing cancer, those of us who questioned this contract were actually engaging in "reasonable public questioning." That's from the state auditor general, Chuck, so you can take that to the bank. Wagner wasn't just talking about the awarding of the contract either, according a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Mr. Wagner said training to improve employee courtesy, manners and product knowledge wasn't a worthwhile expense. At the least, he said, it should have been done in-house.
So it was a dopey idea, and we were right about that. But the important thing is that state ethics laws were not broken!

Investigators found no evidence that the Western regional director used the authority of her employment or confidential information to assist her husband's business in obtaining the contract, Wagner said.
How did they determine this? Well, the regional director, Susanne Hobart, told them that the business was started before she married her husband, that she doesn't have any financial interest in the company, and "that she was aware her husband's company was going to submit a proposal in response to the RFP issued by the PLCB but she and her husband had agreed not to discuss it." How about that! They agreed, in the sanctity of their own home, not to discuss it.

What's the Auditor General say about that?

Wagner said his department's review of Solutions 21's corporate documents and the Western regional director's statements of financial interest found no evidence to contradict her statements. The report notes that the investigators' ability to determine the substance of communications between a married couple is obviously limited.
So what we have here is a contract let by the PLCB, to a company run by the husband of a high-level PLCB manager (who has no financial interest in the company, but...she's married to the guy, so you gotta figure she's got a financial interest in that), and that's legal because she told the auditor general that she and her husband had agreed not to discuss the RFP. Great! Good ethics laws we have, and I feel good about that!

Then it turns out that there were other irregularities in the evaluation process -- score-shaving, and one contract proposing to employ a PLCB employee as their on-site representative -- that taken all together raised some real red flags.

"Although this contract was awarded according to the letter of the law, there are several incidents that occurred that raise serious concerns and put the PLCB's procurement procedures in question," Wagner said.
Wagner then "made five recommendations to improve the PLCB's management controls, procurement policy and operational procedures, and three recommendations related to the prevention of conflicts of interest." These fall into the category of increasing paperwork and CYA activities, and some things that sound a lot like the office equivalent of the "courtesy" training:

  • Exercise good judgment when awarding contracts to avoid even perceived conflicts of interest.
  • Ensure that management and employees understand and comply with laws and policies pertaining to conflicts of interest.
  • Require the members of future evaluation committees to properly document changes on their individual scoring sheets (like arbitrarily changing scores?).
Ummm... Duh.

How's the PLCB feel about this? Vindicated, sadly enough, and -- as you might expect -- truculent. Joe "CEO" Conti and PJ Stapleton said that they had received legal advice that if they had rejected the bid from Solutions 21, the PLCB might have been sued. For rejecting a bid from a company owned by the husband of one of their managers. “You could certainly characterize it might have been more difficult to reject bids for that reason,” said Conti. Yes, I suppose you could. Rejecting bids for ethical reasons must be a real bitch, at least for some agencies.

As you might guess, I have a much simpler and much more satisfying proposal than Wagner's for solving this kind of continuing problem. Abolish the PLCB. Get the state out of the retail liquor and wine business, where it has no place. Privatize the sale of spirits and wine. Join the 21st Century. And leave this kind of embarrassment behind.

Let's have a little more "reasonable public questioning" about that, eh?