Why Pennsylvania Liquor Control Is Doomed

Vinted on September 2, 2014 binned in commentary, PLCB

It has occurred to me recently that Pennsylvania’s monopoly control of the purchase, distribution, and sale of alcohol in the state is doomed.

I cannot tell you exactly when it will fall, or exactly how it will fall, but I think I can safely tell you that fall it will, and that we can safely speculate as to why it is doomed.

This occurred to me when I was being interviewed by Tricia L. Nadolny, the Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer who covers Chester County (before you poo-poo that beat, you need to understand that Chester County is one of the nation’s more affluent, has nationally ranked public school systems, and is often cited in top twenty lists of best counties to live in the U.S.). Nadolny was interested in my thoughts about the fate of Malvern lawyer Arthur Goldman’s wine collection, which was seized when he was convicted in a sting operation of selling wines (that you can’t get in PA) to friends, pretty much at cost. Intrepid wine blogger and wine PR guy Tom Wark is also quoted in the article, accurately assessing PA as the single worst state in the U.S. to live for wine lovers.

Here’s the thing: the PLCB and PA’s liquor control are ultimately doomed because enough information on alternatives now flows freely and quickly enough that any PA resident with half a brain and an Internet connection can grasp that the PLCB’s monopoly constitutes a form of repression on free commerce for people who are budding wine enthusiasts.

The logic behind that is simple, and, I think, bolstered by the Inquirer article itself, and, just as importantly, the hundred-plus comments that followed it

Now, before you dismiss the rest of this as wishful thinking on the part of a PA-based wine lover, understand that because of the large volume of wine samples I have, I purchase only as much wine as could be legally brought in as checked luggage on a flight back from visiting wine country. So this isn’t some starry-eyed take on a future PA wine utopia. And I fully understand that the first forays into privatization in PA will likely be ugly and fraught with problems, with wine consumers taking the brunt of those issues just as they do now. But any progress will ultimately be positive progress (hey, how much worse could it get in PA when those with their hands in the coffers – PLCB, state legislature, and unions – squabble this issue out while wine consumers simply suffer high prices, poor selection, and a total inability to simply buy what they want at a fair price?).

Back to Goldman: he was given the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist for his crimes. I am not advocating breaking the law, which by all accounts Goldman did by selling those impossible-to-find-in-PA wines. But I think it’s telling that the guy was barely punished for this infraction, which in the grand scheme of things is quite minor. I think that light punishment also recognizes that this sort of “underground” market for products that PA wine lovers cannot get easily or at a fair price, or even not legally – despite the fact that they could legally obtain them in neighboring states – is a function of the antiquated PA liquor laws themselves clashing head on with the free flow of information in the digital age.

What’s also telling is how vitriolic the comments are to the Goldman’s entire situation. People seem to pity the guy and feel that he was more a victim than a criminal.

Various comments to the Inquirer article voice consternation that taxpayer and police resources were expended in the sting operation on Goldman, as well as anger at the poor treatment and selection of wine/alcohol in PA when compared to almost any other state in The Union. Even those who aren’t regular wine drinkers seem to have had enough.

A few choice quotes from the comment gallery:

“Politicians…STOP WASTING TAXPAYER MONEY YOU INCOMPETENT IMBECILES!!”

“Only in Pennsylvania would this happen; everywhere else in the world people are free to buy their favorite Wine, beer, whiskey. Oh with the exception of Islamic countries and then there’s Pennsylvania.”

“Our national nightmare is finally over! God bless the men and women who spent countless man-hours stopping this terrible crime spree”

“a ring of napa wine lovers from the main line sounds dangerous. glad the police caught wind of this and acted fast!”

“#whitepeopleproblems”

“this state paid a cop to be undercover for wine sales? Oh no wonder your state never goes anywhere.”

“The current PLCB liquor laws treat people like children. Want a bottle of wine? Order it over the internet, the out of state dealer ships to your local state store (dealer has license with Pennsylvania) where you pick it up and will have to show your drivers license to prove that you are not under the age of 21 (even though you may be in your 70’s!) plus pay the Johnstown flood tax and other taxes levied on wine of your choice. Smart people simply buy what is offered and if daring enough, go across the fence to buy your stash and stay longer over the fence before coming home in another route. Do we want to be treated as children by the State of Pennsylvania?”

“Unbelievable that tax dollars are being spent on investigations involving antiquated liquor laws that were enacted just after prohibition. Seriously, drug deals on every corner in parts of Philly but the cops are busy busting a main line attorney selling wine that you can’t get in the state.”

“If I were a Chester County taxpayer I would be screaming bloody murder. If my police don’t have something better to do with their time than this, then let’s have some layoffs and cut my taxes, please!”

“Police and prosecutors should be embarrassed that they waste time and money on cases like this. Of course they are probably proud that they “won” and would love to make a big show of dumping his wine. It is time for PA to get rid of the LCB and let state government focus on things that matter.”

“There are actual serious crimes happening in this state but we are too busy hunting down a guy selling something that’s legal to do most everywhere else.”

“I just feel like that wine is going to come and get me. I hope the police and LCB stay safe, I hear the wine is seriously “connected” if you know what I mean. Just send the wine to the electric chair and get this over with so our streets will be safe again. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!!”

And those aren’t even the comments getting into it over the fact that Goldman’s seized wine stash might get destroyed, rather than being returned to him or auctioned off for charity.

I think – no, I know – that the PLCB is doomed, because once people in the U.S. start to view something as oppressive (and in PA, that has to be increasingly how this stuff is viewed), that thing is ultimately f*cked. It’s just a matter of time. And it surely doesn’t help the PLCB’s cause that there is evidence suggesting that it’s not a profitable entity if you take out the taxes it collects on alcohol sales, almost al of which would be collected anyway under a privatized system.

In PA, I hope many people lift a glass of (contraband) wine high in the air, and toast

Cheers!

36

 

 

    Comments

  • winingarchaeologist


    I think – and hope – that you are correct. Not least among the reasons, though, is the growing popularization of wine. While the comments you showed include the obligatory "#whitepeopleprolems", the purchase of wine and spirits is becoming less of an issue that only affects the elite and one that increasingly affects, well, everyone. Since beer has been available in many more locations and in greater variety – though still with purchasing constraints – I don't think the majority of the population gave enough care about the PLCB monopoly. Now that more people are drinking and exploring wine on a daily or weekly basis, it hits home.

    • 1WineDude


      winingarchaeologist – Great points.

  • The Drunken Cyclist


    From your fingers to God's ears, my friend…

    • 1WineDude


      DC – let's hope!

  • pawineguy


    I hear the call for me to crawl out from under my rock and actually comment on a post again. As someone who's been to the meetings, discussed legislative wording, been at the fund raisers where very significant dollars were raised for campaigns, etc… I wish I shared your optimism. If the governor loses re-election, this issue is dead for a minimum of 4 years. These past 3 years or so have been an unprecedented opportunity to finally end this monstrosity, but in the end, it never really got very close to passing. Total Democrat defections to vote in favor = 0. And so my only criticism of this post, besides not agreeing with your optimism, is that if you are serious about this issue you need to start pointing fingers at the people who are stopping this from moving forward.

    What the internal polling showed about this issue is that while yes, you can get some pretty good chatter when a big article is written, there is what is known as an enthusiasm or passion gap. While polling leans heavily in favor of privatization, too few voters are actually passionate about the subject, and thus there is virtually zero pressure on State Reps and Senators to vote in favor.

    The often vilified wholesalers spent serious money in the last election cycles to try to move this forward, but again, in a swing state where one party is 100% against an issue, getting anything done is a near impossibility, even when the other party is 95% or better on board. Those three thousand union members have total veto power.

    And yes, you are right in terms of the dollars… they come almost completely from the taxes collected, otherwise it remains only marginally profitable.

    • 1WineDude


      pawineguy – So who should we be calling out here? Could be interesting to start naming names. I'm totally cool with firing all incumbents in the next elections (that hate-the-group-but-like-the-local-rep is an issue that isn't specific to PA, unfortunately).

      • The Drunken Cyclist


        While I do not have the behind closed doors info that pawineguy has, I do share his skepticism (despite my brief comment above). If Corbett and his cronies could not get this passed, who can? Certainly not the (apparent) soon-to-be governor Wolfe. And with many larger retailers and flash sites now shipping to the Commonwealth, only the "serious" wine drinker (i.e., those that would like to have smaller, even teeny producers ship to the state) is left out.

        And what is the size of that population?

        • 1WineDude


          DC – I don't disagree. It's just that I don't see the situation continuing in perpetuity. Information and demand flows too freely now. At some point, it will not be sustainable, even in PA.

          • The Drunken Cyclist


            Joe, I don't disagree with you either, but you are approaching the situation logically. Nothing about wine in PA is logical, however.

            • 1WineDude


              DC – Oh, I disagree. There is plenty of logic for those with their hands in the coffers. The illogical part is that the consumers get the shortest end of that stick, but the asinine motivations behind the decisions impacting them are all money-logic!

              • The Drunken Cyclist


                I guess it depends on who you mean. The State, I feel, would make a lot more money if they opened up. Distributors/wholesalers would move more product as a result. Consumers would benefit. The only people, potentially, who might "lose" are those poor union workers who know next to bupkiss about wine, but we Dems want to protect for some asinine reason (wouldn't an equivalent number [or more] jobs be created?].

                Other than them, who stands to lose money?

        • pawineguy


          Yes, because the adult population that are "non-drinkers" hovers around 30% in this country. So you're starting with that fairly large group who's interest is zero.

      • pawineguy


        Well, I hate to break it down this way, because this tends to elicit very emotional responses, but in the legislature it breaks down entirely on D vs R lines. And because the Rs couldn't hold all of their votes, it failed. The hero in all of this was Mike Turzai, who gave it a great effort, without much political pressure from the Governor to back him up. The hope was that some of the recent scandals within the PLCB would lead voters to become disgusted and finally push their reps for privatization, but the reality is that it's very low on the priority list for most voters.

        It should also be noted that besides the unions, the usual groups like MADD put pressure on legislators to retain the current system.

        • 1WineDude


          PA – I guess the question is, could another noisy minority (say, wine lovers in PA! :-) create enough friction to get votes to turn…

          • pawineguy


            The answer is decidedly no. This past push included significant industry donations, a Republican majority and campaign promises. And it wasn't just the wine and spirit wholesalers, there were wine educators involved and the beer wholesalers. The reality is that most in the wine industry refuse to call out the Dems and the Unions, even though it's not exactly a secret that they are the road block here.

            • Thomas Pellechia


              PA:

              If the majority of wholesalers supported the privacy move, do you know what's behind Democrat recalcitrance?

              is there some other money source the Dems are protecting? (I always assume it has to do with money.)

              • pawineguy


                No, ironically there's not a big money issue here, it's union jobs and the 100% support that the unions give to the Democrat party. (So, I guess you could relate the union $$ during election cycles to the topic)

              • Thomas Pellechia


                PA:

                Aha. So, it's generally the state store employees that are causing the blockage. I can easily relate that to union money. Makes more sense now.

                Maybe as part of the deal, the state employees should gain a free license and location and then compete with the entrepreneurs that open their private shops. I must be crazy to suggest such a thing!

  • Nate


    I agree, it will probably change along with most state laws regulating interstate alcohol commerce but it may years before it happens. The internet has only been around for a blip in time and as it grows even larger the laws will change to get a bigger piece of that pie.

  • Tom Wark


    Joe:

    I'm among those that don't believe you will see privatization in PA for quite some time. However, I think you'll see real, useful direct to consumer shipping legislation passed within 12 months, and likely within 6 months.

    • 1WineDude


      Tom – even that seems fast to me! Bottom line, I think, is that we are all agreeing that there is a fundamental clash between the PLCB system and a) free enterprise and capitalism, b) the push for more personalization and selection and ease of use that is inevitable with the free flow of information online, and c) the fact that such controlled systems tend to get marginalized in modern environments that have a) and b). Which to me means it’s still doomed. :)

    • pawineguy


      Tom,

      With all due respect there is no factual evidence for that type of optimism. Even if HB121 passes, which it has no prayer to… it is a flawed bill which takes away all of the convenience of internet ordering and would be ignored by most private wine buyers. Until everyone swallows their partisan pride and calls out the Dems for continuing to block this type of legislation then what's the point??

      • The Drunken Cyclist


        I agree–there is just no impetus to do so. Turzai tried, but I am not sure the Governor would have been much help. Let's face it, Corbett is not all that bright and a terrible politician. When Turzai started his push, Corbett was already damaged goods at best….

  • EVO


    I have to side with the skeptics here Joe. As ugly as it is from the complexity of the whole damaged system to the polarized legislation, I don't see it happening.
    EVO

    • 1WineDude


      EVO – Do you mean *ever*?

  • Mark Cochard


    Dude did you seethe unions commercial that Tom
    linked to on his site with the 2 Moms at the playground
    talking about children dying daily in NC after
    privatization. With this propaganda permitted on PA airwaves, there
    still along way to go in the peoples republic of PA

    • 1WineDude


      Mark – ohhhh, man, that commercial was hilariously bad. It's already been vilified several times online (and with good reason).

      • Thomas Pellechia


        Vilified, perhaps Joe, but those kinds of campaigns can do damage within a culture of ignorance coupled with moral certitude?

        • 1WineDude


          Thomas – have you *seen* that thing? Or the poor press it received in newspapers, radio, and online? I don’t think anyone with a modicum of intelligence is buying that spot.

          • Thomas Pellechia


            I saw it.

            You overestimate…the general public ain't got no modicum ;)

  • Stuart


    this is an issue that doesn't just affect wine drinkers – it also affects craft beer fans and breweries. I live in Alabama and we have way better wine and beer laws than you do in PA.

    How can you change these asinine laws? Grassroots pressure. Look at groups like Pop The Cap in NC or Free The Hops in AL for how a successful grassroots outpouring can hammer a legislature to change stupid laws like this.

    • 1WineDude


      Stuart – indeed. I mean, I love beer, but having to buy it by the case? WTF???

      • Stuart


        the entire alcohol system in PA just reeks of patronage and rent-seeking by embedded, selfish, powers.

        It's a lot easier to gripe about the situation rather than trying to change it. It took us 8 years, more money than I care to contemplate, and more man-hours than I want to attempt to calculate, to change Alabama from one of the worst beer states to one of the top third of beer states in the country. It *can* be done, it just takes time, money, and tireless effort. Good luck to anyone who wants to take that on in PA, but feel free to contact me via Free the Hops if there's anything we can do to help :)

        • 1WineDude


          Thanks, Stuart. How I wish you were wrong… But we both know you’re not!

  • MyrddinGwin


    Dude, I just read this on Decanter magazine's website. It might be mildly interesting to you, or at worst, almost relevant to this conversation: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/587669/us-

    Sadly, I think the destruction would probably not involve anyone actually drinking the wine, let alone throwing a massive party where everyone in the state gets free wine.

    • 1WineDude


      MG – I was interviewed about that for one of the Philly area papers. Basically, it's a total waste. :-(

The Fine Print

This site is licensed under Creative Commons. Content may be used for non-commercial use only; no modifications allowed; attribution required in the form of a statement "originally published by 1WineDude" with a link back to the original posting.

Play nice! Code of Ethics and Privacy.

Contact: joe (at) 1winedude (dot) com

Google+

Labels

Vintage

Find

Sign up, lushes!

Enter your email address to subscribe and get all the good stuff via email.

Join 40,568 other subscribers

Gravityscan Badge