Privatization Prudence

plcb store
photo via Fine Wine & Good Spirits Facebook Page

The following is a guest post from Luis Loayza, an Allentown-based beverage consultant and co-founder of the West End Gastro Club.

One of my favorite all-time wine purchases is Val de Llach “Embruix” (which i bought in 2008), not merely because it’s lusty juice from a sexy region of Spain (Priorat), but because I paid an unfathomable $10 for the bottle, and there is simply no more satisfying wine experience than enjoying a bottle from a great producer, region and/or vintage that was just about stolen. The Embruix was not the only great deal at that store; I practically spent a month’s paycheck, pushing carts filled with Cedar Knoll Napa Cabs, Cobos Bramare Malbecs, Drouhin Premiere Cru Beaunes, Michael and David’s Petite Petits (to mention just a few) and shamelessly hiding bottles from other potential customers so I could find them after my next payday. I didn’t pay more than $15 per bottle (except for the Bramare, which at $20 was damn delicious loot!)

So where is this majestic, boutique shoppe with great selections and crazy bargains, you ask? Right here in good ol’ Pennsylvania. This is why – and you can point your finger and call me what you will – the wino in me just can’t condone privatization.

Let me repeat myself: “The wino in me…” because the beer bimbo is fine with it, as long as we don’t forget our little community distributors. Hypocrite? Moi? Not quite. The state, you see, does not purchase beer. It only controls the licensing. However, it actually does buy the wine (and liquor), which has made Pennsylvania the second largest wine purchaser in the WORLD (behind Ontario’s LCBO, in case you were wondering). It is this buying power that helps provide tremendous savings and bargains through the Chairman’s Selection program and Luxury Specialties.

Today, for example, you can get a Terlato Block 9 Syrah for $15, a Starmont Napa Cabernet for $18, Tudor Anderson Valley Pinot Noir for $20, and, if you’re lucky, big boys like Clarendon Hills Grenache for around $30. Even the Bramare are back, although not at $20…(yet).

How could this be? Pennsylvania buys in bulk, either from distributors, negociants, or wineries at a fraction of the price, which then translates the savings to us. This does, in some cases, also benefit the small producer. Think of someone like Oliverhill or Palmaz, who need to competitively market and sell their small batch wines to maintain their operation. If a giant like PA offers to buy an entire vintage, even at a price barely above cost, that winery need not worry about marketing budgets or having to hustle for sales, and can focus on harvesting their upcoming vintage instead. Consequently, mom and pop viticulturists are saved, and we get a helluva tasty wine for an incredibly low price.

Lower prices encourage the adventurous among us to be more inquisitive about trying fantastic wines from unknown regions such as Long Island and Georgia, or obscure varietals like Roussane, Lagrein, Sagrantino di Montefalco, Bonarda, Godello, etc., that otherwise we would never have considered. Yeah, it sucks that we sometimes can’t find that same rare wine again, especially at such an enticing price, but aren’t we better off for having expanded our palates?

Say what you want about the deals in Jersey or Delaware. One of the first things I do in these states is check out their stores, and I’ve yet to encounter savings that compare to PA’s best. Mainstream wines might sell for a buck or two less, sure, and there certainly are some good stores if you know where to look. But for every Total Wine or Moore Brothers, there are 10 forgettable stores stuffed with critter Shiraz and White Zinfandel magnums, lacking any of the diversity we find here at home.

It is a bummer we can’t purchase online from the store of our choice, or that we can’t get that one brand we really love. But let’s face it, not everything is available everywhere. Many Westerners can’t get Founders Beer or Pappy Van Winkle Rye, nor can they always find beloved brewery gems in PA such as Pliny the Younger or Heady Topper. Hell, it bites that we can’t get Carolina BBQ done right in PA either! But it’s all the sweeter when we detour miles off I-95, down some old country road, just to taste that smoky, vinegary deliciousness. That is the allure of certain wines as well, compelling us to seek and travel toward these fantastic destinations and triumphantly get ourselves a most-coveted taste.

So, go ahead, rant in the comments section about the inconvenience of having to shop here or there, and the woes of things not being available at your corner gas stations or shopping markets. Also consider this: Privatization, especially the deeply flawed bills that are bandied about on our House and Senate floors, may actually raise the prices of many of the great, approachable wines we enjoy today, not to mention lower the availability of boutique bottles (especially for those of you who, like me, don’t live in Philly or its wealthy ‘burbs). Your newly opened, struggling-to-survive mom and pop stores (or, more likely, your mega-warehouses that’ll initially own the market) will have to stock up on Franzia and megapurple-infused reds just to keep the books black.

For all this talk of convenience, let us not forget how convenient it is to save money while scoring a killer deal. Or to find some amazing wine that you wouldn’t have normally tried, but which is destined to become a new favorite.

To steal a quote from a friend and wine educator on privatization: “I am morally for it, but I would not be able to afford it.”

Drink judiciously.

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