Wine School owner, demanding privatization of PA’s booze, calls out the PLCB.
For Keith Wallace, supporting Tom Corbett for governor was downright painful.
“It goes against everything I believe,” says Wallace, former winemaker and owner of the Philadelphia Wine School on Fairmount Avenue. “And I actually met him, too, after the election. He said I was influential in getting him elected, that I got him two points in Philly. I said, ‘Good, but I only supported you on one issue.’”
The issue was getting Pennsylvania out of the liquor and wine business. As owner of the Wine School, Wallace is one of the largest buyers of wine in the state—purchasing about $100,000 worth each year. He offers several training courses: for enthusiasts, “swirling, sniffing and sipping with the best of them,” and for wannabe professionals, there’s advanced certification and diploma programs, which “cover the complexities of terroir and winemaking for the greatest wine regions in the world.”
Sure, graduates of his programs can flee to California to work in the privatized wine business there, but because the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board oversees the state’s wine and liquor sales, Wallace’s school is about as far as entrepreneurial enthusiasts can go in Pennsylvania—unless they want to produce the stuff. The workers you see in our state stores are mostly commercial food workers, not wine experts.
“Basically,” says Wallace, gazing out on an icy sidewalk from the confines of his Wine School storefront, “my opposition to the PLCB is on moral and consumer-rights grounds. State monopolies in commerce are a violation of basic liberties in this country.”
Plus, he just really hates those wine kiosks.
Installed in June, the kiosks require patrons to swipe ID, credit card, blow into the machines for blood-alcohol content and smile for a video camera, which is constantly monitored by a state employee. At least one outlet referred to the machines as a “new level of serfdom” for the people of Pennsylvania. What’s more, the kiosks are owned by Simple Brands LLC of Conshohocken, a private company with ties to former Gov. Ed Rendell. Simple Brands won a no-bid contract on the kiosks (the only product it makes), and two of its four investors—Herbert Vederman and Ira Lubert—gave about a half-million dollars combined to Rendell’s campaign.
The Patriot News of Harrisburg found that the PLCB spent $173,000 for customer courtesy training (which reportedly taught cashiers how to say “please” and “thank you”) and contracted the training out to a Pittsburgh firm run by the husband of a top PLCB manager. “I don’t know if you’ve been in one of these stores recently,” Wallace says, “but that’s bullshit.” And more criticism goes straight to Auditor General Jack Wagner, who’s so far found no conflicts of interest in PLCB goings-on. He’s currently looking into whether the kiosks are “delivering the customer convenience and additional revenue to the commonwealth that the Liquor Control Board touted.”
In addition to shady politics, says Wallace, the existence of the machines shows that rather than appeal to the people of Pennsylvania through a change in law, the PLCB has created strange loopholes that allow patrons to buy wine from a public-private partnership vending machine in a vestibule rather than from a human—which benefits donors without having to expend bureaucratic energy.
“The PLCB is admitting to themselves they can’t serve the customer properly and, I mean, have you seen these things? No underage kids fucking buy wine,” Wallace says. “When I was underage the only wine I ever bought was Mad Dog 20/20. Kids are going to buy beer and hard alcohol because it’s going to get them fucked up. Not wine. Even the cheap shit’s expensive.”
Wallace decided he’d become vocal about his disappointment with the PLCB after being asked to comment for a story about the wine kiosks in June. “The [kiosk] process is cumbersome and assumes the worst in Pennsylvania’s wine consumers—that we are a bunch of conniving underage drunks,” he wrote in an e-mail to the AP. “Liquor board members are clearly detached from reality if they think these machines offer any value to the consumer.” A month later, Wallace sent out his monthly Wine School e-newsletter, this one titled “Politics and Wine. ARGGGH!!” He wrote: “Since it is an election year in PA, I figure it was time to go beyond talking. I wanted to see if there was any chance at all at reforming the PLCB. So, for the last few weeks I’ve been talking with some folks down in Harrisburg. I am really excited: we have a once-in-a-decade shot at reforming the PLCB. In those conversations, I have gained assurances that Gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett will make reforming the PLCB an element of his administration.”
But little of substance has happened since our new leader announced his pro-privatization stance.
In Harrisburg, several lawmakers seem to be attacking the issue from a few angles. The most recent poll on the issue, conducted by Quinnipiac University in December, shows 66 percent of Pennsylvanians in favor of privatizing liquor stores and sales, though state lawmakers readily admit the potential auction of the state’s 629 state stores, 129 new retail licenses and 100 existing wholesale licenses won’t make it into the budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. “That’s because there’s no way to cleanly, easily deal with this,” Wallace says.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai is looking to have legislation that would sell off the stores by Memorial Day. “[My legislation] would auction off licenses to private companies to sell wine and spirits. That would bring in $2 billion to the state of Pennsylvania, up front, to help us solve our fiscal crises. And it would continue to bring in tax revenue to the tune of $500 million, annually,” Turzai said in a video posted to his YouTube page.
Republican State Sen. John Pippy recently said that the Law and Justice Committee, which he heads, is going to look at “everything” to “modernize Pennsylvania liquor law.” On Monday, the committee began informational hearings Pippy claims will lay the groundwork for legislation. Specifically, said Pippy, “the House will be originating the bill” that hopes to end the state government’s monopoly on wine and liquor sales, likely through an auction process. The state House Liquor Control Committee has also approved legislation that would allow bars more happy-hour flexibility, though Pennsylvania state police are against such a bill.
Wallace says that whatever happens, the eventual legislation should put small businesses on equal footing with larger ones. “The … privatization I favor is one that is dominated by small independent wine and spirits stores—ones which hire Pennsylvania citizens and are owned by Pennsylvania citizens.”
Which would actually give Wallace’s students the ability run these independent stores, since they’ve got knowledge and expertise from the Wine School, the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania.
But eliminating an agency is harder than it sounds, mostly because, well, it’s a state agency. And one that’s got tremendous clout and wherewithal. But Wallace, who’s moving his business to a new spot in Rittenhouse this spring, is hopeful. “When it comes down to it,” he says, “I’m not hinged on the politics. I don’t care who’s in power. I care about what happens to the consumer and that there’s an open economy. There shouldn’t be dirty politics and back-room deals here. There should just be wine commerce.”