May 26, 2005

Whine and Spirits

by peterb

Every so often, I think that I've reached some sort of plateau in terms of how much I hate the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Then I make some stupid mistake, like shopping at a Pennsylvania liquor store again, and I discover new vistas of animosity and contempt.

I drove up to Cranberry tonight to get a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, because the PLCB's web site indicated it was one of the only stores west of the Susquehanna that had any. The Cranberry store is promoted as a "Premium Collection" store by the Liquor Control Board. That means that it supposedly has a better selection, nicer atmosphere, and more knowledgeable staff than the other stores.

The Premium Collection store is better than what State Stores were like when I first arrived in Pennsylvania in the late '80s. Back then, a liquor store was basically a counter with a catalog on it, and a huge storage room. "Hi," you'd say to the cashier. "I'd like a bottle of #24601." The guy would then go into the back room for a while, leaving you alone. Ten minutes later, he'd come back out front to tell you that they were all out of #24601.

So the Premium Collection store is better than that. But since I haven't seen many advertising campaigns lately along the lines of "McDonald's! Our French Fries Don't Have Fingers In 'Em!" or "Coke! Sucks Less Than Diphtheria!", I'm going to say that's a pretty low target to be reaching for.

I found the Montenegro in short order and then remembered that sometime last year I had bought a very nice 3 point Tokaji Aszu at the same store. I looked around a bit, but couldn't find it. That's when the fun began.

I approached a clerk. "Hi," I said. "I'm looking for a certain Tokaji."

I got a blank stare in return.

"Tokaji," I said. "It's a Hungarian wine. It's spelled t-o-k-a-j-i."

"Hmmm," he said, leaning against the computer on which he could check his inventory to see whether he had any of the bloody wine, "I don't think I've heard of that. I don't think we have it."

"Oh," I said. "Well, how about Amaro Nonino?"

"Is that foreign, too?"

Now it was my turn to give him a blank stare.

"Yes," I said, very slowly. "It is, as a matter of fact, foreign."

"Well then, we don't have it."

I gaped in disbelief.

And then I gave up. I spent another 10 minutes or so searching the store, found the Tokaji I wanted, and left. Later, a friend suggested "You should have asked them if they had any Scotch. I hear that's foreign, too."

This is what is so frustrating about the PLCB: the problem is the people. I'm always hearing people phrase the problem in terms of state-owned stores versus "free enterprise." But that's not it. Ontario has state-run liquor stores that are a pleasure to shop in. The LCBO is exactly like the PLCB in every way, except it doesn't suck. The stores are beautiful. The staff are helpful, and care about the product. You can taste selected wines in some stores (for a price, of course, and in strictly limited quantities).

No, the problem isn't that we have a State liquor system, but that we have a State liquor system that employs people who could not care less about satisfying customers. I don't care that this guy doesn't know what Tokaji is. In a store with thousands of products, I don't expect every employee to know everything about every product. But when a customer asks a question, I expect the employees to give a damn. I expect them to want to try to help. Or, at a bare minimum, at least pretend to care.

Are there good employees who work for the PLCB? Sure. I've met a couple. But they are outnumbered by the thousands upon thousands of slack-jawed know-nothings whose only purpose on this earth is to make me rue the day that they ever got a job.

The PLCB, which claims that part of its mission is "to provide the best service to [their] customers," is an utter and complete failure when it comes to retail liquor sales. It's too late to save it. It should be dismantled, shut down, annihilated, and then cut up into seven parts, which should then be buried in remote parts of the State and left to rot.

The PLCB monopoly on liquor sales has to go.

Additional Resources

  • To see what a State liquor system that doesn't suck looks like, visit the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's web site.
  • The Tokaji I was referring to is the Hétszóló Tokaji Aszú 3, which I reviewed last year. The PLCB State stores are carrying it now. Even though it is foreign.
  • If you don't know what Amaro Montenegro is, consider reading about the Tea Leaves Amari tasting: part 1part 2

Posted by peterb at May 26, 2005 11:14 PM | Bookmark This

I got here and was amazed at how the state stores were poorly stocked, had zero information on any wine, and had mostly hostile employees. The SAQ and NB Liquor stores have their product intelligently laid-out, have better selection, basic information on the sales tag (sweet or dry? serve with what?) and well-written pamphlets.

The PLCB is clearly designed by a bunch of teetotallers bent on making sure no one gets too much fun out of drinking.

Posted by Benoit at May 27, 2005 12:06 AM

Did you get the last bottle of Amaro Montenegro or was there more on the shelf?

Posted by Tom Moertel at May 27, 2005 01:05 AM

I got the last bottle on the shelf. The PLCB's inventory system claims that store has 13 more units. So you should go and ask them about it, and then they'll tell you that they don't know how to work those fancy computer things, and suggest maybe you could try a nice box of wine, instead.

Posted by peterb at May 27, 2005 07:07 AM

My favorite is the really hostile employees who would rather you not purchase anything at all. Apparently they don't grasp that if there were no customers, they would have no job and no salary. When buying alcohol in most situations, I've found that buying wine and demonstrating that I know what I'm doing generally prevents stupid questions like, "Are you sure you're 21?" However, at one state store in Pittsburgh, there is a cashier who almost growls at you and won't touch anything you put in front of her, much less ring it up, until you let her scrutinize your ID for a solid two minutes.

Posted by Julie Watt at May 27, 2005 09:10 AM

When I used to shop at the state store in Squirrel Hill, there was one cashier who'd make EVERYBODY sign the little "we think you're lying about being 21" form. College kids. Businessmen. Bald old guys. Grandmothers. It didn't matter; she apparently thought we were all punk kids breaking the law, so the line got to grind to a halt while she accused everyone in it of being a criminal.

To be fair, the manager of that store was actually kind of helpful, but if you weren't being served by him the entire experience was miserable.

Posted by Nat at May 27, 2005 10:13 AM

Having been the victim of identy theft before, I have been advised to write "See Photo ID" on the back of my credit cards. I went to the PLCB store in Oakland to purchase wine with my credit card. They said they couldn't take my credit card because it hadn't been signed. I told them to check my photo ID, my signature, and they could confirm that the card was mine. Instead, the clerk suggested that if I wrote real small, maybe I could sign the card after "See Photo ID"---completely missing the point.

A call to the PLCB complaint line suggested that in the future, I should simply pay with cash...


Posted by DbF at May 27, 2005 04:54 PM

After the Amari tasting, I went to the specialty State Store near the South Hills Village Mall. I ordered two bottles of Montenegro and volia! six weeks later it showed up.

I should order the Nonino now for Thanksgiving....

Posted by Steve at May 27, 2005 10:55 PM

The PCLB is one of the many small and yet infuriating reasons why Pittsburgh will continue to be largely the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead. That being said, I found that the Waterworks and Monroeville PCLB stores had a reasonably wide variety and friendly staff.

Posted by Dr. Click at May 28, 2005 03:06 PM

This is a very interesting but sad story from my perspective. I help buy wine for the busiest Whole Foods wine shop in the DC and one of the busiest in the country doncha know. I still like to routinely have long conversations with customers. We like to hear the details of their meal or their general tastes so we can choose exactly the right match.( It's really fun unless god forbid they're serving artichokes or something.) If you came up to me and asked for a Basque wine called Txakolí I could hand it to you. We carry a Tokaji and we're just a freeking grocery store.
I had a point, but I can't remember what it was... um, We rule? We're annoying, pretentious bastards? All I know is, If Pennsylvania would drag it's sorry ass out of the dark ages and I could sell wine from your friendly East Liberty Whole foods I'd move back in a second. And Pete, You could have all the Tokaji you wanted.:-) Ever tried a Greek Xinomavro?

Posted by Elise at May 31, 2005 08:29 PM

Probably too late, but why not?
A tip regarding not signing the back of a credit card: I have had the exact same problem, and it was at the exact same location (Oakland.) I have noticed recently that PLCB stores are putting up signs alerting customers that credit cards that are not signed are not valid. (Lo and behold, if you check the find print above/under the strip, it reads 'not valid unless signed.')

I have now signed all of my cards, and written right over it in bold permanent marker (red Sharpie is my favorite) ASK FOR ID. It works at the liquor store, and occasionally clerks at other stores actually ask to see my license!

Posted by Sabrina L at June 1, 2005 01:47 PM

Sorry, after re-reading the post on credit cards, I realize that I should have clarified more.

You commented that the clerk suggested signing your name after the big SEE PHOTO ID, and that he was completely missing the point. I understand that you don't want to 'reveal' your signature so that it could be imitated. (I assume this is the reason you don't want to sign it.) But any practical person knows that the gum-chewing, hair twisting, pimply teen that is checking you out everywhere you go doesn't compare signatures. So even if they BOTHER to look at the signature panel, and even if you have signed it, if it says ASK FOR ID, they should ask for your ID. In fact, the poor clerks who have absent-midedly glanced at the back of my credit card have generally done a double-take, squinted, looked up, and embarassedly asked me to see my ID. But they don't ignore it.

I don't pretend that this system is perfect. My only goal is to scare a thief out of attempting to use my card, for fear of being asked to see ID that is clearly not them.

Hope this helps!

Posted by Sabrina L at June 1, 2005 02:00 PM

big hint on wine in PGH : the Wines & Spirits in One Oxford Center (Smithfield St entrance) has an excellent selection, descriptive cards, and knowledgable employees. the one in Shadyside behind Blockbuster (Baum, east of the Liberty intersection?) is less satisfactory on some fronts, but is the next best in the city proper.

Posted by bradley z at June 8, 2005 08:40 PM

We have had several interesting experiences with the Pittsburgh Waterworks PCLB:

1. "Do you have any sparkling reds?"
-PCLB:"what are they?"
-Me:"a red wine that sparkles"
"Try the champagne isle"
"This is not champagne. It was recently mentioned in Food and Wine and the NYTimes...the hot new wine"
Blank stare
"Who makes it?"
"I don't know, I was interested in trying several out... I recently sampled a nice selection in Springfield, Missouri"
"We don't have it"
"Can you order some"
"We cannot, unless you know who makes it"

2. Telephone call: "Do you have PAMA- a pomagranate liquor?"
"Who makes it"
"I don't know, but that is the brand name"
"No, we don't have it"
"Do other store have it?"
"Is it possible that it is on the shelf and not in your system? (ie.: go and look)"
"no, we don't have it if it is not in our system?"

Basically: I agree with the above: the system is not worth saving. In these examples, and others, the store did not even offer to ORDER these for us. It left us very dissappointed in the state store system

Adam and SO.

Posted by Adam at January 3, 2006 09:20 PM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January