There's one thing that almost all booze swilling Philadelphians seem to agree on: they all hate the archaic liquor laws and monopolistic system of alcohol distribution administered by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). Articles, editorials, blogs, forum posts, and more have nothing but curses and condemnation for the vile agency and its hated rules and retail monopoly. Hatred runs so deep that even when the agency tries to do something right (like remodeling the stores or improving customer service) they get slammed. Anyone who tries to defend the PLCB gets called a shill, because, so the thinking goes, no rational person could defend such a dreadfully awful regime without having some kind of vested interest at stake.
Well, we do like a challenge. Can we convince you that the PA state monopoly system actually benefits Philadelphia wine drinkers? We know, it's a long shot. (Remember we're talking wine only here, not beer or spirits.) We dare you to follow these tips and strategies and see if you don't stop shaking your fists with rage at the PLCB and instead become a convert and frequent shopper of the Wine and Spirits Stores of PA!
1. Buy Chairman's Selection Wine
The easiest shortcut and biggest no-brainer to buying wine in the PA State Stores (Wine and Spirits Stores) is to buy the wines in the Chairman's Selection program. The program was started in 2000 by Jonathan Newman, who used the State's position as one of the largest buyers of alcohol in the country to negotiate better prices for consumers. Newman has since left, but the Chairman's Selection program remains and still offers deep discounts on quality wine. The prices are often lower than anywhere in the country. Even if you decide to "go out of control" and buy some or even most of your wine from non-PA sources, there will still be some PA deals that no outside source will be able to match. If you have to buy wine in PA, the best chance for getting something good at a decent price is to buy one of the Chairman's Selections. Even if you don't have to buy wine in PA, keep an eye on the Chairman's Selection program anyway for the possibility of getting some great deals.
2. Shop at Premium Collection Stores
All PA Wine and Spirits Stores are not created equal. The stores designated "Premium Collection" have a much larger selection than the other stores and until recently were the only stores where Chairman's Selection wines could be purchased. In Center City Philadelphia there are three Premium Collection stores: 1913 Chestnut, 1218 Chestnut, and 326 S 5th. Of these, 1218 Chestnut is the largest and has the most selection, but is also a bit chaotic and unorganized. There are also Premium Collection stores in Chestnut Hill and Franklin Mills, and the Premium Collection store at Columbus Ave in South Philly is being remodeled as a Fine Wine and Good Spirits Store. Get to know and shop in the Premium Collection stores.
3. Use PAWineTalk
After Chairman's Selection and Premium Collection stores, the next thing you can do to make wine buying through the Wine and Spirits stores easier is to use PAWineTalk. PAWineTalk is "an independent forum to share information and opinions on wines available for sale in the state of Pennsylvania." This site can help you decide which Chairman's Selection wine to buy since it includes customer ratings. Participating in the community by commenting on and rating the wines you buy helps everyone and can help develop your palate. Also extremely helpful is the Wine Availability Map that helps you track down which stores have which wines.4. Use the PLCB Web Site
Are there any advantages at all to having the State have a monopoly on retail liquor sales? Many people say no. We've already pointed to one (see #1), and another might be the ease of searching the entire state's wine inventory through a web site. You cannot do this for New Jersey. In PA it can be done through the PLCB Product Search page. Every wine in the system has a code number that can be used to identify the wine. When you search by code number you can find out which stores have the wine you are looking for and how many bottles they have (or are supposed to have). This can be a big time saver if you are trying to track down a particular wine. Also use the tools on the Fine Wine and Good Spirits web site, which is also part of PLCB.
5. Buy the Monthly In-Store Sale
If you don't want to buy the Chairman's Selection wine and you are concerned about cost, at least buy the monthly in-store sale. A list of wine that is on sale every month can be found at the Fine Wine and Good Spirits web site or identified in the stores by the yellow cards on the shelves. The sale prices are usually $1-$4 cheaper than the regular PLCB price. These prices are comparable to NJ prices, and occasionally they are even better.
Use Wine-Searcher and CellarTracker
The Chairman's Selection wine offers often say things like "quoted at $24.99...your price $11.99." To get a reality check and outside source confirmation on what the PLCB is selling and how much it sells for elsewhere, use Wine-Searcher to compare PLCB prices with prices around the country. CellarTracker premium also includes the prices that people actually paid for wines as well as customer reviews and ratings of wines.
7. Act Fast, Buy Now, Drink Later
You can't expect to be lounging around your villa in the South of Philly, get a sudden urge for say, "the rare white Burgundies of Puligny-Montrachet," and then expect to amble down to your local State Store and buy a bottle. It's just not going to work. The best wine in the Premium Collection Stores changes all the time. In our opinion, this is actually a good thing. You have to pay attention to what they are offering and when you see a good deal or a rare wine you have to jump on it. The good wines disappear very quickly. You must be willing to buy now and store the wine to drink at a later time.
8. Pay Attention to
Temperature and Light in Storage and Serving
Wine is supposed to be stored in a cool (55 degrees), dark place. If the temperature in the PLCB store gets up over 70 degrees (in the winter some of the stores can get very warm) or the wine you want is near a sunlit window, this could damage the wine. Likewise when you take the wine home store it in a dark basement if you have one or buy a wine fridge and keep the wine at 55. It makes a difference in how the wine tastes.
9. Don't Expect the State Store Employees to be Robert
Parker and Jancis Robinson
If you are going to shop in the PA Wine and Spirit stores you need to educate yourself about the basics of wine and wine pairing. Pick up and read a book about wine, do your research on the web, taste a lot of different wines. You can't expect the state store employees to be expert sommeliers. By the way, this is true for privatized stores in other states as well. When you know a specific wine you want, however, and you have looked it up beforehand on the PLCB web site, and you are having trouble finding it in the store, we've had PLCB employees turn the store upside down for us trying to find it.
10. Cultivate Friends and Family in Other States
If you don't already know, It is against the law for PA residents to buy alcohol in another state and bring it back into PA. Yes, this is completely insane. If there's one reform we'd like to see, it would be changing this law. We'd also like to see interstate shipping of wine allowed into PA as well. Luckily, there are many legal and illegal ways around this law. As far as we know, it is legal for PA residents to go to another state and drink the wine there. So when your friends move to NJ, stay in contact with them and visit as often as possible. You can also go to NJ BYOBs. Furthermore, lets face it, this law is not priority #1 for law enforcement. As long as you are not routinely going over the border and bootlegging back a pickup truck full of cases of wine, beer, and hooch and selling it to your neighbors, chances are slim on you getting busted for smuggling a few bottles of wine back. The fact is, particularly for Philadelphians, the so-called state monopoly isn't a real monopoly. There are ways of going "out of control." Doing so probably even puts a little pressure on the PLCB to improve their operation. And contrary to what some say, the Wine and Spirits stores have changed for the better over the years.
These are our Philly Wine Rules. We've used them to find and enjoy some great wine. We hope you do too.