by Sam Gugino

OK, you’ve spent a few hours scouring the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) website, You’ve found the codes of the wines you’re looking for, how much the wines cost, and what PLCB stores (aka, State Stores) carry them. Now you’re ready to pick up your wine.

Not so fast. You’re only halfway through the twilight zone of the PLCB. First, not all state stores are the same. In the past several years the PLCB has upgraded stores in areas where they think people will appreciate better wine selection and service. These so called Premium Collection (PC) stores can now be found in Chestnut Hill, Flourtown and other sections of the five county area. (Addresses and phone numbers are on the PLCB website.)

However, not all PC stores are alike (just like private enterprise!). For example, the Chestnut Hill store is smaller than Flourtown and thus, carries fewer items. Flourtown is smaller than Ardmore. The Ardmore store, incidentally, is the best PC store I’ve been to – spacious with a knowledgeable manager, even large and clean restrooms. Closer to Chestnut Hill, your best bet is Flourtown on Bethlehem Pike (see below), followed by the store in the Swede Square Shopping Center, just off Germantown Pike in Norristown.

My least favorite PC store within a 20-minute drive from my house in Chestnut Hill is in the Whitemarsh Shopping Center on Ridge Pike. While it has a good selection of wines, it has not been renovated like other PC stores. But its bigger issue is a staff that is either unwilling or unable to be helpful or whose efforts have been smothered by the PLCB bureaucracy.

Another wild card about PC stores is that they have hundreds of bottles of Chairman’s Selection wines. While these wines can often be good values, they are scattered throughout the store on the floor, usually in the cases in which they were shipped. There is no way of knowing which wines are where unless you peruse the entire selection.

Often, Chairman’s Selection wines are clustered by country or region and put near wines on shelves from the same area. But not always.

For example, on one trip to the Flourtown store, I was not able to find two Italian wines on the shelves or in Chairman’s Selection boxes on the floor near the shelved Italian wines. With codes in hand, I asked an employee where they might be. She didn’t know, and neither did anyone else in the store except one, Marianne Matt, who has often been helpful in the past and is the most knowledgeable state store employee I have come across. But she wasn’t readily available. So I had to wait.

Once Marianne arrived, she promptly showed me where the two wines were. One was next to the French wine section, about 50 feet from the Italian wines. The other was in front of the checkout counter. Despite this, the Flourtown store is one of the best in the area, at least when Marianne is there.

Unfortunately, even Marianne can be hogtied with the bureaucratic rules that come out of Harrisburg. For example, if you’re looking for a zinfandel and gazing across the shelf, checking names in alphabetical order, you will come across zinfandels that appear to be out of order. These wines are not part of the standard stock the state stores carry. You may find them one year but not another. There is no way for the average consumer to know that unless you asked as I did. I was told these special wines (which are not necessarily Chairman’s Selection wines) are on shelves with green tape on the front. But there is no sign that says “Hey, these are special, which is why they aren’t with the other zinfandels.” Or “See this green tape? It means these wines are special.”

On more than one occasion I’ve asked for a wine not on the shelves or on the Chairman’s Selection floor display only to be told, “It must be in an unopened case in the back.” When the case was brought out, it had no code. This is where you say, “It’s OK, I have the code.”

Finally, if the wine you are looking for isn’t in your local state store, one of the store employees should be able to order it from another store and have it brought to your store. Hopefully that person is someone like Marianne Matt.