It's the law: Wine to be sold in Pa. grocery stores

Eric Norris stocks shelves and organizes the wine bottles at a state liquor store in Ardmore. Soon, Pennsylvania wine lovers will be able to shop for their favorite bottles at grocery stores.

HARRISBURG - For the first time since before Prohibition, Pennsylvanians will be able to buy wine at grocery stores.

Barely a day after it sped through the House and unexpectedly landed on his desk, Gov. Wolf on Wednesday signed a law to let hundreds of restaurants, hotels, and grocery stores sell wine.

The bill takes effect in 60 days, though it might take months for consumers to see the impact.

Besides granting by-the-bottle wine licenses for stores that already sell beer, the measure takes steps to loosen the state's oft-criticized control of the alcohol market.

It permits direct shipments of wine to homes, and removes restrictions on when State Stores can open on Sundays and holidays. It also gives the Liquor Control Board flexibility in pricing, and provides licenses allowing casinos to sell alcohol around the clock.

"For the last 80-some years we have not been able to do this, so this truly is historic," Wolf said in an afternoon signing ceremony.

He was flanked by Republican and Democratic legislators, each reflecting differing views of the bill. Both sides want to change the system, but House Republicans have pushed to completely end the state's business in wine and liquor sales, while Democrats want to improve and preserve the state-run liquor stores.

"This enhances the system," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny.) "It dramatically improves consumer convenience, and it preserves the jobs."

House Speaker Mike Turzai, (R. Allegheny), who has championed disbanding the government's alcohol business, said the new law "will accelerate public demand for full privatization."

When and how the law will impact the State Store system is not clear.

A key voice in the debate predicted it could mark the beginning of the end for the system.

"If there's not changes to this in the next few years ... I think it will lead to liquor-store closings, and eventually the end of the LCB," said Wendell Young IV, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents about 3,500 State Store workers.

In a statement, the LCB pledged to cooperate with implementing the changes, and said it would move as quickly as possible in licensing for wine permits, direct wine shipping, and casino licenses.

The LCB operates more than 600 wine and spirits stores, and consumers can also purchase bottles at wineries or through a state website.

The law expands the roster of potential wine vendors to include about 10,000 holders of restaurant licenses - including more than 300 grocery and convenience stores now allowed to sell beer - and about 1,200 holders of hotel licenses, according to Elizabeth Brassell, an LCB spokeswoman.

Any of those businesses could seek a permit allowing them to sell up to four bottles of wine per customer for off-premises consumption until 11 at night.

Alex Baloga, vice president of external relations for the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents grocery and convenience stores, said most of the stores now selling beer are also interested in selling wine.

"The customer has been asking for this for decades and decades, and now to be able to do it is a big deal," Baloga said.

Officials said they did not know when grocery stores could begin to offer wine. This week, a Republican spokesman said the system could be up and running by November.

On Wednesday, the governor said he believes both the board and businesses will be inclined "to move fairly quickly."

klangley@post-gazette.com 717-787-2141 @karen_langley