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!”
“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