Why wine lovers don't love Pa. State Stores

State Store officials select labels from an array of about 2,600 wines, and the number of bottles in a given store ranges from 900 to 2,600, according to the Liquor Control Board. Premium stores have more options. (File Photograph)

A 1999 white from Domaine Weinbach, a winery in France's Alsace region. A Kosta Browne pinot noir. A Syrah from the Ojai Vineyard.

All nectar for wine connoisseurs. All unavailable for purchase in Pennsylvania.

And all, along with 2,444 other high-end bottles, found in the wine cellar of Arthur Goldman, the Main Line lawyer who was accused last year of running a black-market wine-selling operation. (His lawyer contends Goldman was simply sharing wine among friends. The case was settled last year, and Goldman was admitted into an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program.)

Goldman's case indicates that the state selection isn't good, said Tom Wark, founder of the American Wine Consumers Coalition. "For people who care about wine . . . they will tell you almost uniformly in Pennsylvania that it's a terrible selection."

The illegal buying of out-of-state wine highlights what many connoisseurs perceive as a serious dearth of fine wine at State Stores.

Choice, right behind price, is one of the things that most often drives Pennsylvania wine lovers to (illegally) buy at liquor stores in Delaware and New Jersey, said Jonathan Newman, CEO of Newman Wine and a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB).

"If people feel . . . they can get opportunities outside the state, then the commonwealth turns those people into bootleggers, because the PLCB often doesn't deliver," Newman said.

With a few exceptions, it is usually illegal for residents to bring liquor or wine into Pennsylvania, and unlicensed out-of-state wineries cannot ship directly to customers. So the wine Pennsylvanians drink is generally dictated by what the state puts on the shelves.

The PLCB says it has a varied and changing selection based on careful demographic and sales research about what people at each of their stores buy.

In regular stores, wines are chosen from an array of about 2,600 wines, and the number of bottles in a given store ranges from 900 to 2,600, according to the PLCB.

"We're always looking for new product across all categories," said Dale Horst, PLCB director of marketing and merchandising.

Twice a year, new wines are added and some are dropped from the selection. In addition, the state buys more than 13,000 luxury wines, which are sold at its 80 premium stores, Horst said. It also sells online-exclusive wines and offers others through its Wine Club and Chairman's Selection programs.

Residents can special order wine through the State Stores, though it must be shipped to a store and gets slapped with a shipping charge, handling fee, sales tax, and Pennsylvania's 18 percent liquor tax.

The PLCB will try to get "any item in the world" for a special order, Horst stressed - something he thinks consumers may not know. In the last fiscal year, more than 7.5 million bottles were specially ordered, according to the board.

"We are challenged with communicating how much selection we offer," Horst said.

There are 18 out-of-state wineries licensed to ship directly to customers in Pennsylvania. Fifty-nine direct wine shippers can accept online orders and ship to PLCB stores for customer pickup, the board said.

But some wine lovers say all that isn't enough.

"You visit a winery in California, and you go home, and you want to have that wine on your dinner table," Newman said.

Horst said many brokers represent small wineries. Because a wine could be going to 200 or 600 stores in the commonwealth, wineries wanting to sell to the PLCB often need to be able to produce that volume, he said.

"Typically, the big guys are far better equipped to do it than the small guys," said Dennis Carroll, CEO of Wine Hooligans, which owns five wineries between Sonoma and Paso Robles, Calif. "It's rather daunting for a small guy."

Under current law, a Californian could give wine to a friend in Pennsylvania. But the would-be drinker must fill out an application and pay taxes and a service charge to get a certificate of approval from the board. (Importing beer as a gift, however, is completely forbidden, according to state code.)

And a Pennsylvanian returning to the commonwealth from abroad is limited to one gallon of souvenir liquor. That's about five bottles of wine. The traveler must be able to provide proof of a foreign trip, a foreign receipt for the alcohol, and an affidavit showing the traveler was allowed to bring the liquor into the state duty-free, according to the board. For more than one gallon, the traveler must file documents and pay taxes and fees.

At Arista Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., about 6,000 cases of wine are produced each year. Of those, between 10 percent and 15 percent are sold to other states, said owner Mark McWilliams. The rest are shipped to private clients. For a boutique winery like his, doing business with the commonwealth just doesn't make sense, McWilliams said.

"I already have a limited amount of wine to begin with," he said. "It's just not worth my time or effort to go through the processes required by the state to try to sell to Pennsylvania when I can just as easily sell to New York or Chicago."

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205@McDanielJustine