HARRISBURG - Chalk it up to modernization. Or perhaps to the fact that the forces of privatization are hard on the heels of the state liquor board.
Either way, the Liquor Control Board has quietly opened the door, so to speak, to a new way to get your wine and spirits: home delivery.
With no fanfare, the LCB last week rolled out the pilot program to the public. Now customers can select from a limited number of products and, for a fee, order alcohol online and have it shipped directly to them in three to five days.
Until now, you could only order from the LCB's online catalog and have the purchase shipped to your nearest state liquor store for pickup.
You still won't be able to have the LCB home-deliver a run-of-the-mill Riesling or thousands of other items available on the shelves of State Stores. Nor can you order directly from most vintners or spirits producers.
But you can click-and-send a pedigreed Pinot Noir - Aardvark Carneros, for instance, which costs $34.99, because it is listed among the 1,500 to 2,000 specialty products on the LCB website.
There's also a $14 shipping fee.
The fee covers up to three bottles, with an extra dollar added for each additional bottle you order. That compares to the $7 charge if you have a bottle shipped to an LCB store for pickup.
The new policy was quietly revealed online last week, LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec said. She said that while such a change had been discussed for years, the LCB launched it without a splash because it was a pilot program and the shipping infrastructure was still being put in place.
LCB online home-delivery sales are booming, Witalec said. A special free shipping deal the day after Thanksgiving weekend ("cyber Monday") was responsible for $37,000 in sales totaling 663 bottles, or double the normal volume.
The biggest holdup, she said, was devising a way to prevent teenagers from skirting liquor laws by ordering home delivery online. She said workers at United Parcel Service, with which the LCB has partnered, will require a signature and photo identification upon delivery.
The online ordering change comes amid heated debate over whether the state should privatize its liquor sales - a cause that has risen, fallen and risen anew over decades, and most recently has been championed by Gov. Corbett and state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai.
Two days of hearings on privatization are being held by the House Liquor Control Committee in Philadelphia. Among those scheduled to testify Wednesday was Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat, who said at a news conference that his analysis showed privatization would lead to higher prices and diminished revenues.
Wagner said cash flowing into state coffers would fall well short of the $470 million in liquor revenues that the LCB transfers to the state's general fund every year.
But Steve Miskin, spokesman for Turzai, pointed to a study the Corbett administration had commissioned that found that selling the liquor stores could generate $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion up front and more than $400 million in annual revenue.
Opponents of state-run stores seized on the silent rollout of the home-delivery system as evidence that the LCB needs to be dissolved.
"The LCB proves once again it can't manage a business," said Miskin, whose boss, Turzai, is the lead sponsor of a privatization bill. "It's a major policy change, one consumers have been asking about for years, and they keep it a secret?"
Witalec said the home-delivery pilot program would be reevaluated in a few months to determine whether and how to move forward.
The last pilot program embarked upon by the LCB was automated wine vending machines in supermarkets. The failed yearlong experiment with self-serve kiosks ended unceremoniously in September when the last 21 machines were pulled off-line, a self-inflicted public relations blow to the embattled agency.
The LCB does allow, on a very limited basis, direct shipping from wineries if properly licensed. Expansion of this program - to include specialty wine clubs, for instance - would require an act of the legislature. Bills on that topic are pending in the Assembly.