by Len Lear
It is no secret to anyone who buys wine or liquor in Pennsylvania that the State Store system, run by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), has been getting a tidal wave of bad press for years. For example, Isaiah Thompson wrote in the City Guide 2013/2014, published by the Philadelphia City Paper, “Pennsylvania has some of the crotchetiest liquor laws in the country since … well, always … For now, you, my thirsty friend, remain but a vassal to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and its Orwellian rules for how, when and to what degree of hardship you can purchase alcohol.”
In my own opinion, some of this criticism is outdated and unfair. For example, there are now Sunday hours for wine sales and regular wine tastings, and most stores are open until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. And even though some prices are unquestionably higher than in nearby states because Pennsylvania has a monopoly system and the nearby states have a competitive, free-market system, Pennsylvania also has the “Chairman’s Select” program, which offers many fine wines for less than they can be purchased in nearby states.
That is because, as Jonathan Newman, the former chairman who created the Chairman’s Select system, explained to me in an interview several years ago, “Pennsylvania is the largest buyer of wines in the world, and we are now using that great buying power to purchase huge quantities of wines at major discounts and passing those savings along to consumers.”
Yes, the PLCB’s system is still antiquated in some ways and filled with civil service employees, many of whom know little or nothing about wine, and many stores like the one at the top of the Hill are still in the not-consumer-friendly Stone Age, but there are glimmers of hope throughout the system.
For years I was so fed up with the PLCB system that I did almost all of my wine purchasing (I drink wine almost every night of the year) at the awesome Canal Wine Store on Route 38 in Pennsauken, New Jersey, where friendly employees are actually able to answer questions about wine.
But ever since a co-worker at the Local raved to me about the State Store at 1440 Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown (in the mini-shopping center with Pizza Hut, Walgreens, etc.) almost three years ago, I have done all of my wine purchasing in Flourtown and have definitely become a convert. I actually found smiles on some employees’ faces (a shock to anyone who’s used to the Chestnut Hill store) and some employees who can actually answer questions about wine.
The main culprit in this stunning development is Marianne Matt, 62, of Whitemarsh “just past Flourtown,” who started in the store 10 years ago as a part-timer behind a cash register. Now the store’s “wine specialist,” she is extremely knowledgeable and truly lives up to her title. She is consumer-friendly and can often be found out among the shelves discussing her own favorite selections (she is always doing new wine tastings), placing notes with her own evaluations on displays and making suggestions to customers.
Marianne, who is short, slender, has a bubbly personality and looks much younger than her biological age, is the first to admit she did not exactly grow up with the intention of making a career in wine, although “when I became 21, the first thing I did was try some French wine.” Marianne was born in West Philly but moved to Delaware County, where she attended Sharon Hill High School, and later, Drexel University, for a degree in fashion design.
Marianne worked in the fashion industry until 2005, but from 1993 to 2001 she also moonlighted as a bartender two nights a week at the West Grove American Legion Hall. (She also had her own bridal business, which she ran out of her own house from 1988 to 2004.)
In order to earn the title “wine specialist” almost two years ago, Marianne took a 10-month “Certified Specialist Course” that covers wines from all over the world as well as a 10-month online study program, a six-week “Spirits” course covering liquors and lots of tasting and experimenting with wine, followed by a test with 100 questions. (During the tastings, tasters swirl the wine around in their mouths and then spit it out; otherwise, they’d have to have liver specialists in their stores doing medical testing.)
“A lot of clerks are now taking these courses,” said Marianne. “They do have a great educational system now in place in Pennsylvania, and they now require us to put out a newsletter, which talks about some of the wines we’re featuring and the results of our tastings.” There are currently about 80 certified wine specialists in the entire State Store system.
Regarding the two-hour tastings in the Flourtown store for customers, which are usually Friday night and Saturday afternoon, “I choose the wines, which must be under $40. I might do two whites and two reds. They might be all from Italy on a given week, for example. The time of the year influences the selections. In the summer we try lighter wines. Sometimes we get a big crowd, but if it’s slow, I’ll write my notes (the ones placed next to the displays in the store).”
Marianne’s newsletter, which comes out weekly, currently has 80 subscribers. Anyone wishing to receive it should turn in his/her email address at the store in Flourtown.
In her spare time, Marianne is taking classical voice lessons from a retired Chestnut Hill opera singer. “After I had a deviated septum,” Marianne explained, “I found out that I had a four-octave voice range, and I figured I should use it. I have been taking lessons for one year now. I’m a high soprano. (Not high from wine.) I’m not ready to sing in public yet, but I hope to do that when I retire …
“Some people think I have tasted all the wines in the store, but that would be impossible, of course. I taste about 25 to 30 at an event for wine specialists, which are about three times a year. We also have meetings once a month, and I taste wines then, too. I also taste when we order. And we have cheese to go with the wine.”
Marianne has also gone to Oregon and Washington state to visit wineries. Her favorite red wines are Bordeaux from France and Barolos and Montepulcianos from Italy. Her favorite white is Pinot Gris with seafood, and it will not surprise you to know that when it comes to restaurants, she much prefers BYOBs.
“I’ve built up a pretty good knowledge of wineries,” said Marianne, “and as a result, I am definitely able to bring some undiscovered gems into the store. I enjoy bringing winery people into the store also. I don’t tell the French guys that Italians are my favorites.”
Not only are customers fond of Marianne, but so are people in the wine industry. According to Ali Duloc, a spokesperson for the Karamoor Winery in Fort Washington, Marianne “does a great job and is very loyal to us! We have had many tastings at her store, and we have been highly successful there. She has a great following of people in her wine club. She is very knowledgeable, and we are really thankful for her support of our venture over here. That store has a great wine selection, and it is because of her.”
Marianne, who was married for eight years but is now divorced, has no two-legged children, but she does have seven rescue cats, the oldest of which is 21. (The cat is of legal age to drink wine now.) She lives in an old farmhouse with roommates who have three dogs. “We are at our limit now for pets,” she said.
Another huge asset up until recently at the Flourtown store was Tom Landers, Marianne’s assistant, who was also extremely knowledgeable about wines, always had a smile on his face and loved talking to customers about wine. Tom was also recently made a wine specialist and was transferred to the Blue Bell store. “I miss Tom so much,” said Marianne. “He is a great guy, and he definitely deserved his promotion.”
Despite the negative perception many consumers have about the State Store system, Marianne insisted, “We are here to assist the customer. That is our main purpose. When people tell me what they are looking for, I always try to find the perfect wine for the occasion at the best price, and I always offer more than one choice. It amazes me how much really good wine is made these days.”
For more information, call 215-753-2454.