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How to AVOID Selling Wine in Pennsylvania

plcb_kiosk.jpgSo 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. You'd want to make sure folks couldn't, say, turn the bottles around and read the back label or anything.

You might force people to peer through the front door of this cabinet to try to read the name of the wine they think they might want to buy, and force them to remember it until they walk down to the end of cabinet where they are forced to swipe their credit card in order to buy the bottle. That is, if they don't have to stand on line waiting to us the machine, which is, of course, the only way to buy a bottle of wine.

And then if you wanted to add insult to injury, you might make sure that people could ONLY pay by credit card, and give them a touch-screen kiosk, with a lousy user interface that forces them to browse through inscrutable categories of wine or many pages of search results to find the wine they're looking for. Then you'd provide them with really crappy information about each wine.

And finally, you'd install a breathalyzer and force everyone who wanted to buy a bottle to use the breathalyzer, and then to swipe their government issued ID just to make sure they weren't drunk AND under-age.

Think I'm joking? Welcome to Pennsylvania, and the bizarre alternate universe of the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board. You want to buy wine in grocery stores, you're going to have to convince a passive aggressive computer to open the pod bay doors, first.

This new, state-of-the-art wine sales kiosk is rolling out to more than 100 supermarkets around the state, in what to me looks like an attempt to make sure that no one ever buys wine in a Pennsylvania supermarket ever again.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for stopping underage drinking, and I support laws that prevent the sale of alcohol to visibly drunk patrons. But this system is a whole lot of evils rolled up into one. From the big brother breathalyzer that prevents you from buying a bottle if you measure 0.05 BAC (2 glasses of wine for someone who weighs 160 lbs, and .03 under the definition of "impairment" in PA -- don't share a bottle and then walk down the street to get more!) to the locking of the bottles behind plate glass and the clumsiness of a kiosk interface.

Read about this new system in all its glory. Then go join Free The Grapes or donate to the SWRA.

Comments (32)

Simona wrote:
12.21.09 at 1:43 AM

That sounds like a nightmare! Why is there such a strong aversion towards wine in US (campaign for children where wine is shown like drug, prohibition of wine tasting in wine shops in front of children, etc)? Is it the same with bier? Is it cultural, maybe in some way lied to puritanism?

1WineDude wrote:
12.21.09 at 5:27 AM

Welcome to my world. .

I've been covering this development (so has blogger Lew Bryson) for some time now, and it's just... totally sad. The best part - PA taxpayers are footing the bills for this.

12.21.09 at 6:01 AM

Yeah, I've written about this twice in my newspaper column.

The other thing about it that people need to know is there really is a Big Brother approach to this system: that breath analysis and the camera inside are beamed to some people holding down an office somewhere to maintain control over, over what--the system or the public?

This has to be among the most stupid while also sinister devices perpetrated on a complacent society.

Andrea wrote:
12.21.09 at 6:04 AM

Ah, yes. I love living in PA. You have to find a store, figure out their hours and then try to buy a bottle. Mail order? We can't do that either. It has to be the worst thing about living here.

John Ogden wrote:
12.21.09 at 7:08 AM

Wow! Quite Orwellian and counterproductive to wine sales which is ironic since the state of PA directly benefits from increasing wine sales. A very good example of why the government should not be involved in the marketing and distribution of alcohol, just the regulation. You can't do both effectively. I am sure a lot of people in PA who live near the state line just go to a neighboring state and load up on wine that is competitively priced and displayed in a way to encourage you to actually buy the product thereby circumventing the state's clumsy attempts at control and sending revenue out of the state. What is wrong with this picture?

12.21.09 at 7:31 AM

No doubt this is a Wine Sales Prevention Program.

We live in a country that is BOTH oddly puritanical AND one of easy access to the most extreme pornography and violent films etc.

God forbid some adults drink some red wine, though!


James McCann wrote:
12.21.09 at 8:02 AM


If you have already written two articles, have you asked the UNION why someone needs to be monitoring the system?

Larry Chandler wrote:
12.21.09 at 8:25 AM

It's Pennsylvania. But actually this is progress. Currently the wine shops are all state owned and the better wine stores are just like wine stores anywhere except the sales "help", if not totally clueless are well, totally clueless. Years ago all the wine stores sold wine the way all goods were sold in Stalinist Russia: resentfully and lazily. It's better today. Glad I don't live there now though.

Aaron wrote:
12.21.09 at 8:45 AM

Pathetic. But not surprising for the state of Pennsylvania where the government believes that none of their citizens has the capcity to behave like an adult.

Contrast that with Missouri - which most people would believe would be more strict with alcohol. We allow shipping, wine and liquor can be sold in grocery stores and there are many stores that only sell wine. Some of them actually have kiosks where you can scan the wine and obtain information about how the wine has been rated by the "experts." (while I cannot stomach buying based on experts, there is no denying a huge number buy based on ratings).

In spite of this, we seem to have no more trouble with alcohol than anywhere else. There are no reports of kids buying Lafite or even mad dog through the mails and the wine stores are not infested with drunken winos....imagine.

The people of Pennsylvania need to vote out those elected officials that insist on treating them like children.

Larry Chandler wrote:
12.21.09 at 8:57 AM

The people of Pennsylvania generally aren't as worked up about it as we might think or hope. Wine is available, even good wine. Just not outside the state store system, at least legally. They may not like it, but they accept it. It will be hard to change especially as the state adds an 18% additional tax to each purchase and they state won't want to give up that revenue.

This venture of selling wines in supermarkets is a baby step towards opening up the system. It's being done in a very heavy-handed and unfriendly way, but maybe it will itself be liberalized over time.

Look how long it took for the Communist Iron Curtain to come down. Now the only Communist states left are North Korea, Cuba, and Pennsylvania.

12.21.09 at 10:11 AM

Richard, Puritans drank alcohol. Ours is a Clavinist problem.

James, which Union are you talking about? It's obvious, to me, why the monitoring.

Larry, that's what I mean about a complacent culture. People always think "it can't happen here," until it does.

In any case, PA remains the second largest tourist provider to the Finger Lakes wine region, as you can't get most of the wines in PA. I suppose that's good for the Finger Lakes, which happens to not be in PA but in NY!

12.21.09 at 10:12 AM

Sorry, Richard--that's Calvinist...

OhioWineGuy wrote:
12.21.09 at 11:07 AM

As a former PA resident, it was always a pain to buy even beer. Had to buy it from a bar or distributor selling cases. The liquor stores were not convenient or plentiful. I moved to Ohio many years ago and I could buy beer in many stores, wine stores exist and flourish and I live within an hour of a half dozen wineries. The state still controls liquor slaes, but it is licensed to retailers. It is sad going back to PA and going back to the gestapo style sales model. Maybe it's because PA is the second largest state with a population over 60?

James McCann wrote:
12.21.09 at 11:21 AM


Service Employees International... why do you think they are monitoring?

And yes, the LCB is totally anti-consumer, but it is probably the only state that guarantees an out of state winery or supplier the opportunity to fill orders through their stores without finding a wholesaler or getting the wine "placed" in the store.

12.21.09 at 11:35 AM


My understanding, from talking with small winery owners, the order filling that you speak of comes neither without cost nor hurdles.

I haven't spoken with the Service Employees Intl. My personal opinion regarding the "monitoring" is so that PA and law enforcement can cover a few bases in one transaction.

How long would it take for the monitor to radio the nearest patrol car to get over to the kiosk where someone who just failed the breath test is getting into a car? Whether or not that person is driving the car, or whether or not the breath test was accurate.

These kinds of insinuations of authority usually start with a benign explanation, at least historically they have, but often end up in quite a different place. What better way is there to quash alcohol access than to cast the Big Brother net of fear?

1WineDude wrote:
12.21.09 at 1:51 PM

Larry - I'm a PA resident, and I'm not accepting of the PLCB system at all. I'm the guy who writes the congress, etc...

Larry Chandler wrote:
12.21.09 at 1:57 PM

Wine Dude, I read your stuff, so yeah. But most people don't care. You're into wine. I have friends in Philly who are into wine and this drives them nuts. (I send them lots of wine from California BTW, so you can get wine in.)

But most people really don't care. Most don't even drink wine. And the state stores have most of what they want. It's hard to get the public interested in this.

This doesn't mean you should stop fighting. But you will have a big fight on your hands. I didn't mean to say it's not worth a battle, just that it will be a very tough battle.

Dean Tudor wrote:
12.21.09 at 2:30 PM

But no matter how you put it, the PA system is still better than the Canadian one of monopolies. The LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) is affectionately known here as the KGBO. The current government of Ontario is considering selling it and reaping profits. Just watch them screw it all up, in the name of consumerism.

nicolas tjian wrote:
12.21.09 at 9:50 PM

Just to play devil's advocate, most developed nations have more stringent laws concerning allowable blood alcohol levels while operating a vehicle. In fact several have zero tolerance.


Alder wrote:
12.21.09 at 10:05 PM


Yes, of course that is true. But despite my reference to drunk driving, the point of the breathalyzer is not to prevent drunk driving, it's to prevent selling alcohol to people who have already been drinking. If ever bar in Philadelphia (or God forbid, sports venue) required passing a breathalyzer test before pouring another beer, the entire economy of the state would collapse.

Elizabeth wrote:
12.22.09 at 5:08 AM

Wow, I am new to NJ and noticed how strict pouring rules are at bars, and wine bars...I love your blog...

Robert Denby wrote:
12.22.09 at 7:28 AM

As a PA resident I am both bemused and appalled by these "Heath Robinson" contraptions.Will they soon install scratch and sniff test pads for the 'featured' wines?Heaven forbid how many more of our tax dollars would go into that brain taxing process.More seriously,apart from exposing the risible lip-service this device pays to 'serving the community',I would like to kick the tires on the origins of the machines themselves. Can anyone elighten me? My intution leads me immediately to thoughts of KGB and commonwealth politics as usual.I hope some one can help dispel them.

James McCann wrote:
12.22.09 at 8:32 AM

This is a very old story... son of one of the governor's friends has the contract. They will only test a few machines at first. Not supposed to cost the state anything... the company will make money back from sales / advertising, not from selling the machines to the state.

Justin wrote:
12.22.09 at 9:12 AM

If you think this will cut down on DUI, then I got a bridge to sell you.

Joel Burt wrote:
12.22.09 at 4:14 PM

Is the PSLCB trying to deter sales from supermarkets so that customers buy from the state run store where they collect a retail margin? Looks like a case of one hand giveth, but the other hand taketh. These bureaus that have to both regulate and promote are a really bad idea; add to that a monopoly and a profit motive and you are left with a recipe for underhandedness.

James McCann wrote:
12.22.09 at 4:22 PM


Wine is sold only in state stores. The misguided kiosk idea was to add additional outlets, not to take away from anything existing.

PA wine hostage wrote:
12.23.09 at 7:01 AM

If you look at the original article one of the points are: " Patrons slide a driver’s license into the machine to prove they are at least 21." However, some states like neighboring Maryland don't have a magnetic strip that can be read and so those visitors will not be able to purchase wine from these machines. So now you'll have an adult being denied a legal product by a state government. How is that legal?

Starcrash wrote:
12.23.09 at 10:11 AM

As a PA resident this is just a chapter in the long story of the idiocy of the PLCB. I will continue to drive to Trader Joe's in Ohio a couple times a year to purchase multiple cases of wine.

John Cesano wrote:
12.27.09 at 11:13 AM

I know when I sold wine around the country that many people I talked to in PA bought their wines on trips out of state. Some ridiculous percentage of fine wine consumed in PA was purchased outside of PA. There is an enormous wine and bottle shop in NJ, located quite close to PA, and most of their business is with residents of PA. My dinner wine choices when I work in Pittsburg or Philadelphia are fewer and more expensive than any other major cities. PA hates wine and their own residents who attempt to consume it, forcing many to become criminals and make liquor runs into neighboring states...a trunk full of wine from out of state is criminal in PA too.

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