If you’re like most Americans, you’ll be as startled as I was by the crazypants liquor-buying system in Pennsylvania. The Keystone State, like a handful of other states, maintains a government monopoly on the sale of wine and spirits, and has ridiculous rules on the sale of beer. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on alcohol rules in PA:
To purchase beer a person must go to a restaurant, bar, or distributor. Beer distributors sell mainly cases and kegs of beer while six and twelve packs, along with individual beers such as 40 ounce or 24 ounce beers, are sold at bars and restaurants. A person is only allowed to purchase 194 ounces of beer at a time in this manner. If you take the 194 ounces to your vehicle and re-enter the business, you can buy 194 more ounces, and continue doing so so long as you only take out 194 ounces of beer from the store at a time. For larger quantities one must go to a beverage distributor which sells beer only by the case or keg. Beverage distributors (which also sell soft drinks) may sell beer and malt liquor, but not wine or hard liquor. Unlike the Wine and Spirits shops, people under 21 may enter most beverage distributors without an adult, but rules vary from store to store.
I pootled over to my local state wine and spirits shop the other night to have a look. What a difference from Texas. Completely charmless and uninteresting, almost Soviet in its bare-bones functionality. The selection was decent, I must admit, but it wasn’t as good as the lamest private liquor store I’d patronize in Dallas. If you want a bottle of Champagne in my neighborhood, you are pretty much out of luck. I kept thinking that I must be missing something, that the Champagne selection couldn’t be that sparse. But no, that was it. Take it or leave it, comrade.I detected exactly one employee on duty, and he was behind the counter checking people out, so he wasn’t able to come talk to me about my selection. As a relative neophyte on wine matters, I’ve come to rely on relationships established with friendly and knowledgeable wine store clerks, who steer me to things they figure I’ll like, in my price range. I’ve been able to explore wines I wouldn’t think to pick out on my own, and have made some good discoveries that way. Those days are over, I guess. In any case, I could be making a prejudicial, groundless judgment, but the state employee on duty at my local the other night didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he knew the difference between a Bordeaux and a Barolo. I may be wrong, but so what if he did? He was bound to the cash register, and wouldn’t be able to help me if I asked him.I keep being told, “Just do what everybody else does and drive to Jersey to buy wine.” It’s illegal to cross state lines with the stuff, but the po-po have more important things to worry about. So I guess I’ll do that, but this is incredibly, monumentally stupid. And it makes me mad that I won’t be able to enjoy the fantastic reds of California’s Dobra Zemlja vineyards, which a bibulous clerical connoisseur shipped to me in Texas once upon a happy time. I asked a Texas expatriate living in PA to explain the liquor laws here, in terms of who benefits from this idiotic system. He writes:
From what I can discern, the PLCB [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board] was established at the end of Prohibition. You’ve got a lot of temperance-believin’ Protestants (think Methodists, Baptists, Reformed, etc. ca. 1933 not 2010) in the state, so they undoubtedly wanted to take control of the devil’s urine. These old temperance types are gone now (for the most part), but the legacy lives on.The new defender is a collection of entrenched interests. The workers at the W&S stores are all union (UFCW, part of the AFL-CIO). The beer distributors have a lock on their business. The restaurants likewise. None of them have to compete with REAL liquor stores where the selection is good and the people knowlegeable or with grocery stores, which are price competitive and have longer hours and convenience. The PLCB’s stranglehold is maintained by the scare tactic that releasing that control will result in more teenage drinking. (Well, we see how effective the PLCB is right here in State College, home of Penn State, #1 Party School according to voters last year. I won’t bore you with the myriad episodes of “Dumb Drunk College Student Follies”.)
At Reason.com, they’ve got a four-minute video piece explaining how states could see a lot more revenue if they’d scrap these government monopoly laws on the liquor business. Bob McConnell, the new GOP governor of Virginia, appears to say he’s all for ending Virginia’s state monopoly. More power to him, and to other free-market reformers. Down with Sancerre Socialism!