There has been much discussion about the change and repeal of liquor laws in Pennsylvania. The state’s archaic rules for the purchase of liquor, wine and beer have always been confusing and inconvenient to consumers. The laws for beer sales are slightly complicated, but there is a lot more freedom for specialty six pack shops and restaurants to sell a variety of beers. However, Pennsylvania has always been a difficult place for a wine lover to live. Between the overtaxing of wine and strict shipping laws, wine in PA is neither competitive nor is it open to the development of niche markets.
Although we are working toward laws that would privatize wine and liquor sales, the proposed plans will not necessarily be a dream come true for wine lovers or allow us the purchasing freedom that many other states enjoy. Here are a few points to consider before we head blindly toward just any privatization of liquor sales.
Lack of service and product knowledge
One of the issues that many consumers have with the state run wine and spirits stores is the lack of personal service. PA Wine and Spirits employees are trained by the state. Although the state has put a lot of effort into improving customer service in its stores, employees in most stores still lack specialty(or sometimes even basic) knowledge of the product they are selling. Choosing a great wine is a difficult task for consumers and it is difficult to get an educated recommendation at most of the PA Wine and Spirits Stores. The way in which the proposed changes are structured allows for limited licenses to be auctioned off for the sale of wine and liquor. This would mean that only very large companies would have the ability to sell wine and liquor. We would go from a state run monopoly to a monopoly of big chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle and Walgreens. None of these chains are known especially well for their wine expertise. Small entrepreneurs with a passion for wine still would not have a chance to live their dream or benefit from private wine sales. Wine lovers would not be able to patronize small specialty stores where the owner knows his product inside and out. The privatization of liquor sales needs to allow for an even distribution of licenses so that consumers are able to enjoy better shopping experiences.
Another issue with PA’s current state system is the taxes that are added to each bottle of wine purchased. Thanks to the Johnstown Flood Tax, markup, handling fees and sales tax we are paying more for our wine. The truth is, what PA adds in with taxes, it makes up for with buying power. The state of Pennsylvania is the largest purchaser of wine in the US. Having only one entity doing all of the purchasing for all of the wine sales that occur in the state yields for some great discounts from distributors. Even though proposed legislation would repeal the Johnstown flood tax, there would still be a tax paid to the state on every gallon of wine sold. Once wine purchases are divided up between individual companies, there would be no more bargaining edge. Essentially, wine prices may stay the same or even increase as the result of new legislation. Privatization would also mean, however, that stores holding liquor licenses would be able to purchase a larger variety of wines and liquors, rather than only from the distributors that currently sell to the state stores.
Lack of Freedom
All of the victory of privatized wine and liquor sales is for nothing if Pennsylvania residents still do not totally have a choice of where to purchase wine. Currently, wine purchased outside of the state cannot be shipped or brought into the state legally (unless it is done through the Wine and Spirits Store and from one of Pennsylvania’s approved distributors). Although legislators were reportedly working on changing these laws this spring, there has been no more said on the issue. Wine lovers still cannot enjoy wine from their favorite out of state winery or try a recommendation from a friend across the country or order a case of that wonderful wine they discovered on their trip to Napa. This law is probably one of the most difficult for a wine lover to stomach. Pennyslvania’s shipping laws need to be changed in order to allow consumers true choice in the products they want to buy, rather than forcing consumers to buy what the state makes available.
The discussions of changing liquor control laws in Pennsylvania is a start toward making it a more wine consumer friendly state. This issue has been on the table many times in the past without any changes or resolutions. There is still a long way to go before Pennsylvania truly relinquishes its control over alcohol sales and allows responsible consumers the ability to choose and purchase beverages for their own enjoyment.