On wine tours in the past few years around the world, I’m often asked if I’d like to buy wine to bring home with me. For most people, this is an easy question. For me, I just give the winemaker a sad puppy dog look and reply “Pennsylvania” and immediately they know and instantly feel sorry for me. Living in Pennsylvania means that the state government buys and controls the wine – they won’t let me ship any wine to my house either (can’t sign up for a wine club, can’t ship that delicious wine I tasted on vacation, etc) You’re thinking this is insane, right? You’d be right but woe is the poor wine lover in Pennsylvania. But the state doesn’t just control the wine but the liquor and beer too!
The Commonwealth (because we are technically not a state although we say “State of PA” often) of Pennsylvania controls all alcohol, yes, all of it via the Liquor Control Board (LCB). The LCB regulates happy hour rules/prices, charges a fortune for liquor licenses (which is why Philly has over 200 BYOBs) and is the largest purchaser of wine (which keeps prices pretty low based on bulk buying) . If you ever see me (or other people) gawking at the ease of buying liquor in the corner store, supermarket or Costco you can guess we are from Pennsylvania. There is no Two Buck Chuck at Trader’s Joes, no wine at Costco (let me repeat, I go to Costco and there is no wine!) and forget the supermarket (that would be too easy to have it all in one place although some markets can now sell beer.). To make it even more complicated:
Wine & Liquor
- Wine and Liquor is only available at the Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits Store – staffed by government employees and owned by the state. The stores are few and far between, not consistent in the products and a few are closed on Sundays. Football Sunday needs advanced planning.
- There are a few specialty deemed premium wine stores that have a better wine selection – it has definitely gotten better over the years but the choices are still limited
Beer take-away depends on the size
- Six Packs are only available at restaurants, bars and licensed package shops. A recent state amendment has expanded to supermarkets. You can only buy two 6 packs at a time (or go out to your car and come back in) or one 12 pack. Individual bottles and cans can be sold for takeout.
- A case of beer or a keg is only available at a beer distributor – you can’t get six packs here. Beer Distributors sell beer, soda and water by the case.
When I have parties, I need to go to at least three stores to set up the bar – beer distributor, wine & liquor store and the supermarket for ice. If I’m like the typical resident, I will break the law and drive to a neighboring state (New Jersey or Delaware) to find wine nirvana at Moore Brothers (they have bespoke options) or Total Wine (a superstore)- there’s a reason the larger liquor stores are just over the state line or bridge – check out the license plates in the parking lot, pretty sure there is a high concentration of Pennsylvania plates.
So maybe you don’t feel my pain thinking “I’m sure not all the wine is bad” and you would be correct, there are definitely good options if you look and are willing to pay a premium for a bottle. Let me give you a recent example that will make any wine lover shudder – returning from Australia (Yarra Valley visit), I visited the downtown location of the Wine & Spirits Shop and walked to the “Australia” aisle. My gasp was audible – the entire aisle was full of Yellow Tail and that was all. I had to ask for help and was directed to a small shelf in the premium area for Australia options. Ok, yes, I know I’m being a bit of a wine snob but there are so many great Australian options from the Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley and Margaret River and my options were limited to maybe ten bottles (I didn’t count as I was in a bit of shock).
In the past few years, I’ve biked the vineyards of Chile for Carmenere, visited the many wine regions of Australia, marveled at the beauty of the two regions of South Africa’s vineyards and many others over the years. It is wrong to want to relive those wonderful wines here at home? Sadly, the politics, state union jobs and money continue to make this a huge issue – there are many screaming to sell the licenses to private companies to give residents more choice and convenience as well as additional revenue to the state. Others lament the loss of union jobs, control and the high cost of the licenses (out of reach of small business owners), higher prices and rise of societal problems. The saga of privatizing has gone on for years and no end is in sight so residents will continue to be law breakers in search of good choices such as the local attorney charged with selling high end wine (97 pages of wine not available in Pennsylvania!).
Now, when I travel, wine tasting means so much more, it means I need to savor the wine since I won’t be able to ship it home. I take pictures of the wine, the bottles, the names to remember in case I ever see those bottles again. I drink the local wine on the plane for me, it’s a treat. I buy the wine kiosk card on the Celebrity cruise to sample the wines I’ve heard of but we don’t have in Pennsylvania.
Luckily, the rise of wine bars like Tria and the explosion of craft brewers (see Philly Beer Week) in the Philadelphia area are helping one glass/growler at a time making memorable meals, now if I could only buy that bottle when I travel and ship it home (without being a criminal!)