I had reason yesterday afternoon to go into our local Soviet Socialist Keystone State Wine Shop — in Pennsylvania, you’ll recall, you can only buy wine and spirits at a state-run store — looking for a bottle of dry Riesling. The store manager whom I’d asked for help (because I don’t know Rieslings) sold me a bottle of sweet wine he insisted was dry. It was undrinkable, and ruined an event I’d planned for last evening. Details of what happened below the jump, if you care to subject yourself to a yuppie whine. But there’s a serious point here about economics and the law. The state’s legal monopoly over the sale of wine creates a situation in which sales clerks don’t have to know jack-squat about the products they sell. There is no competition to make them give better service to the customer. I had a bad experience yesterday that’s going to result in me going back there today to ask for a refund; I’m still steamed over a ruined social event because the manager, whom I’d asked for advice, sold me the wrong wine.

And I am finished shopping there, period. I’ll just drive out of state to buy my wine — you know, to a state where there’s a better selection and it’s reasonable to expect a wine store clerk to know basic facts about the things he sells, because hey, if he doesn’t, and he fails his customers, the market will incentivize him to improve.
I have no way of knowing, but it makes sense to me that Pennsylvania probably sells less wine than it otherwise might — and therefore takes in less revenue — because of this stupid scheme. Who benefits from it? For me, it’s not even about the price; it’s about the service. Details for those who care, after the jump.

So here’s what happened. A friend was coming over to for a drink last evening, and he said he’d like to drink some dry Riesling. I don’t drink much Riesling, so I wasn’t confident in my ability to find a particularly dry one. At least I know that Alsace makes some nice dry Rieslings. I stood over in the small German wine section, looking at the whites. I’ve had Trimbach before, which is pleasant and dry, but I wanted to ask the manager for guidance.

The polite and eager to please man led me out of the German section and over to the American wine section, then pointed out two domestic Rieslings. Huh? Boy, that’s uncharted territory for me. I told him I wanted a rather dry one. I made that crystal clear. He said that the Columbia Winery Cellarmaster’s Riesling was the drier of the two. OK, I guess I’ll take a chance on that.
Opened it last night with my friend and took a sip. It was the sweetest white wine I’ve tasted since the last time I had dessert wine, and the sweetest white non-dessert wine I’ve had since my last bottle of Blue Nun my freshman year of college. I really don’t like sweet wine at all, and this was undrinkable to me. My friend agreed, comparing it to Welch’s grape juice. What does this wine store manager (!) drink if he thinks this is dry? Benadryl? I went to the vineyard’s website to look up this wine, on the chance that as Rieslings go, this might count as dry, or at least semi-dry. What do you think the first two words used by the winery to describe this product are? “Sweet wine.”
I don’t think he had any idea what was in that bottle. I think he was making it up. It confirmed the bias I’d had about this store being a place where you’re completely on your own, because the advice from the clerks is unreliable. And his store being closed by the time we opened it, leaving us high and dry, he ruined my drink with my friend. To be fair to the wine itself, it might have been quite good as sweet Rieslings go. But I wouldn’t know because I really, really don’t like sweet wine. Which is why I asked the manager to sell me a dry one.
I’m going to take the opened bottle back today, with a printout of the page from the winery calling its Riesling “sweet,” and ask for my money back. And after that, I’m done with those people. Not another sou of mine will the State of Pennsylvania get for wine, unless I’ve got a dinner party happening and no time to drive out of state to get wine. I miss being able to walk into a normal wine shop and rely on the clerk to steer me to decent bottles in my price range, like you can in nearly ever other state in the country. It may be unfair to judge the entire Pennsylvania state chain by this one shop, but that’s just tough. I’ve been burned by them now, and I’m not going back. I’d rather drink tap water.
It has been recommended to me by friends here that I head out to Total Wine, just over the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, for all my oenophile needs. You have to be careful and not drive straight back into PA, they say, because the PA police watch Keystone staters sometimes. But there are ways to be sly. I’ve Googlemapped a route, and it’s less than 40 minutes from my front door. I’m headed there at the first opportunity. Come and get me, coppers.
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