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Open the Pod Bay Doors! Pennsylvania Wine Kiosks Go Rogue

Just about a year ago, I wrote about the wretched solution to selling wine in grocery stores that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was foisting on its residents. You remember, right? The kiosks that locked all the wine away behind closed doors so you couldn't touch it, to say, see the back label? The horrible touch screen user interface that forced you to click and click and click. The fact that the machine wouldn't take cash, only credit cards. The video camera mounted in it that monitored you. The fact that you had to swipe your drivers license AND take a breathalyzer test just to buy a frikkin bottle of wine.


Well, apparently all that 21st Century technology has been acting a little strange lately. It's hard to pin down exactly what's going wrong, but the computer seems to have taken on a bit of a mind of its own.

The machines appear to be functioning normally, but in the rare event that you manage to actually jump through all the hoops required, they just won't give you any wine. Says someone from the Liquor Control Board in a news article about the issue: "That may be because a turnstile doesn't turn, the door doesn't unlock, the computer screen freezes up. It could be any one of those issues, but it has to do with people not getting the product." Apparently there was "too much power surging through the resistors."

Now all the kiosks have been disabled until after the New Year. Want to buy some wine in a grocery store? The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is pleased to announce their latest innovation in Liquor Control. Instead of being a royal pain in the ass to buy wine, they've gone ahead and made it impossible. Happy Holidays.

Can you say "debacle" boys and girls? Start with an asinine idea, then spend way too much money on completely unnecessary and consumer-unfriendly technology to enable it, make sure that technology is as complex as possible, and then watch it all come grinding to a halt because of some troublesome resistors?

Of course, it's all going to be OK, because the machines are still under warranty.

I can only say, "Thank frikking heavens" someone in the government actually realizes what a colossal @#%@$%^ this is and is planning to investigate. The state's Auditor General is looking into the problem.

But forget accountants for a minute. What the poor people of Pennsylvania need is a legislative revolution that privatizes alcohol sales and wipes the state-run, crony monopoly off the map. And for the first time, it seems like that might really be a possibility, according to one report I've read, the incoming Republican governor and legislature are working on a plan to do just that.

To which I can only say, "hallelujah." Christmas is a time for hope, so let's all do just that.

And here's hoping that if you live in Pennsylvania, you've got some other way to buy some wine for the holidays besides a passive aggressive computer terminal.

Comments (3)

Tranorix wrote:
12.24.10 at 6:05 AM

Living in Pennsylvania has not been particularly conducive to my wine-buying, no, but I have found a few silver linings, in the Chairman's Selection program as well as some excellent local vineyards.

Seriously though...this state...

12.24.10 at 8:26 AM

Living in PA with firsthand experience of the DMV folks who sometimes are not the most pleasant to deal with, I dream of the day of privatization. However, it's my feeling that it won't really happen.

First, the transition would be hugely complex. Do they divest both wholesale and retails sides of the business? Would they limit licenses, driving up the cost? Meaning that only big power-house wholesalers would be able to afford to move in, buy licenses and set up warehouse and distribution structures.

Would individual wine minded entrepreneurs be able to afford to bid on a retail license? Would he or she be allowed to open a new store at their desired location or be forced into dictated areas? Would they be able to deliver and take phone orders? Would they allow out-of-state shipping in or out? Would retail shops be able to sell beer, wine and spirits? Would grocery stores and convenience stores be allowed sales as well? Would the state still control pricing to any degree and/or allow quantity discounts, thereby creating large money backed warehouse retailing, a la Home Depot, where the biggest buyers get the best deals.

Obviously all these issues are in play in other states, but the transition from state monopoly control would be, in my view, very complex and contentious and take them years to hash out.

Recently at a private tasting I attended, the ex-Chairman of the PLCB, Jonathan Newman, said (and I paraphrase) that he felt the intensity of the push for privatization is at the highest level he has seen, but acknowledges that the complexities will be difficult. He would know.

Secondly, the drive to maintain the status quo by the Independent State Store Union (the state-wide union representing 730 state store managers) as evidenced by their latest press release here: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/rube-goldberg-plcb-wine-vending-machine-boondoggle-112317389.html would put high pressure on the legislators to negate the deal. Joined by prohibitionist groups such as MADD, they will be very active in their opposition, making politicians quiver in their boots, while the drive to privatize would be mainly the few legislators in favor of it. A collective push from the average consumers would be non-existent or perhaps by limited groups backed by out-of-state wholesale behemoths with their eye on the prize. I saw one comment suggesting that any new retail operations that developed should be required to employ the existing staff AND locations of existing state stores! As if.

But the biggest reason that I can think of it unlikely to move forward is simply that the state controls a huge cash cow. At will they control entirely the pricing structure from start to finish and can bump the prices whenever they wish. Not only can they use their massive buying power as the single largest buyer of wine and spirits in the country to force tremendous price concessions from the supplier side, but a few cents added per bottle at anytime gives them a big boost in profitability and revenue for the state. Yes, there are pricing pressures to some degree by surrounding states retail options, but in general that is of little concern to the PLCB as shown by current prices. In my view, why would anyone willingly give up that power of cash flow?

I could be wrong but I'm betting against it happening as much as I, as a (big) consumer of wine, would love to see it happen. I tell the story that epitomizes the vast difference between privately own wine shops and state run stores. I walked into my local state store and saw a stack of Freemark Abbey Bosche and Sycamore Vineyards Cabernet at an unbelievably low price compared to when I represented that wine for Paterno Imports. I bought it all on the spot for thousands of dollars. The grumbling store staff man who helped me load it in my car asked me, "Why do you want all this stuff?"
To this day, that fellow does not know me from Adam, even though I am a regular and (I dare say) above average customer.

In contrast, a certain out-of-state retail wine shop owner where I have shopped will call and email me when he has items that he feels might be in my taste and budget. He personally delivered a recent order and helped me stack in my basement cellar.
To me, that says it all.


Chris wrote:
12.24.10 at 9:44 AM

Thanks for bringing attention to the Kafkaesque nightmare all drink-loving Pennsylvanians endure.

In Eric Asimov's column the other day he mentions 11 great under-the-radar Chapagnes. Guess what? 1/11 is available in PA. Over the bridge in NJ? 11/11.


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