by Sam Gugino
Like some creature that survives a nuclear holocaust, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) has endured despite the Herculean efforts of three Republican governors and several Republican controlled legislatures. Wine lovers like me, who have tried to deal with this antiquated system over the years, have had their share of frustrations and horror stories.
Yes, there have been improvements since that Soviet-style system of days gone by, when those bleak, stores with sea foam green painted walls had no self-service, accepted no credit cards and closed on Sundays. The wine selection was what one might have expected in an Albanian village tavern in the 1950s.
But despite the improvements, state stores (which is what we all call them, despite the PLCB’s efforts to the contrary) pretty much operate like any other state-run agency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. The net effect is like putting a tutu on a hippo. It’s still a hippo.
Unfortunately, since the state stores will probably outlive all of us, we all might as well try to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s how.
First, get familiar with the PLCB website, www.lcbapps.lcb.state.pa.us. Go to the Product Search Page. The website will help you find out if the wine is available in Pennsylvania, how much it costs, and what store(s), if any, have it. It will also give you the wine’s code, which is important (and why I list the codes in my recommendations after every restaurant review).
Even when (or if) you are comfortable with the website, there are plenty of glitches. For example, some wines in the stores are not on the web site and vice versa.
Also, newer vintages often show up in stores before they do on the website. However, if you can’t find a newer vintage on the website or in the stores, state store employees can’t tell you when new vintages might arrive because everything is controlled by those wine-loving bureaucrats in Harrisburg.
Once you are on the Product Search Page, scroll down to Wine Type under Specific Type. The drop down menu will give you a list of wine varieties. Some on the list are fairly small or narrow, like Pennsylvania Chardonnay. Others are broader (sometimes too broad) like Red Imported Wines from Italy (38 pages, 907 wines). Some are so obscure no wines are listed at all, like French Colombard from California.
If you have specific information about the wine, you can put it in the Keyword section at the top of the Search box. For example, say you’re looking for Alsatian Rieslings, which doesn’t have a category of its own. If you selected White Imported French, you’d get 13 pages and 319 wines. But if you also put Riesling in the Keyword section, 15 Alsatian Rieslings will pop up. (For some reason just putting Alsace Riesling or Alsatian Riesling in the Keyword section doesn’t work.)
Below Wine Type is Cost Range, which allows you to narrow your search by price. Under that you can further narrow your selection with Search for a Department or Search for a Promotional Category. I’ve never found the Promotional Category useful. In Searching for Department there are three categories: Regular, Luxury and SLO.
Regular refers to wines the PLCB normally carries. Luxury, despite the name, doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. It means a wine that isn’t part of the standard stock that stores carry. Checking Luxury, however, gets you both Regular and Luxury categories.
SLO (for “special liquor order”) are for wines that do not appear on store shelves but are carried by the PLCB. They have to be ordered, usually by the case. Restaurants typically use SLO wines.
After hitting the Search button, you’ll get a list of wines that fit the profile you’ve created. This list can be rearranged alphabetically or by vintage or price.
Click on the code of a specific wine. This will take you to a location search, which can be done by city or county. For most readers of this column, the best search is by county and that almost always means Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. When you select a county, you’ll get a list of state stores in that county that carry the wine. For each store, you’ll find an address, phone number and the number of bottles of the wine the store carries. In my next column, I’ll discuss how to take your search into the store.
Sam Gugino is a longtime food and wine critic who has written for Wine Spectator Magazine and The Daily News among other publications. His column Wine and Dine is published in the Local every other week.