Pa. wine lovers lament Prohibition-era laws
By Mike Wereschagin
PITTSBURGH — For wine lovers like John Mahood, Pennsylvania's Prohibition-era liquor laws aren't so much obeyed as endured.
When he organizes an event for his wine-tasting group, Grapenuts, he can't charge people for the wine they drink. When he wants to grab a bottle to bring home, he has to be careful which Wine and Spirits Shop he visits to avoid the sparse selection in tiny state stores. When he subscribes to a wine club, he has to give his wife's parents' address in North Carolina, where it's legal to receive wine in the mail — and hope they don't drink it before his next visit.
“Being in Pennsylvania so long, you just get used to the frustration," said Mahood, 48, of Shadyside, owner of the Garfield marketing firm Imagebox.
State control of wine sales, bans on direct shipping from wineries and retailers to consumers, and the inability of grocery stores to sell wine combine to earn Pennsylvania a failing grade in the American Wine Consumer Coalition's national report on state wine laws.
The report, released on Aug. 6, ranks Pennsylvania 48 out of 50 states and Washington. Only Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah fared worse. The report rates states on six criteria, selected through a survey of 1,000 wine enthusiasts: shipping from wineries and retailers to consumers; government control of wine sales; Sunday wine sales; BYOB laws; and whether wine can be sold in grocery stores.
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board leaders declined to comment because they had not reviewed the study, a spokeswoman said. The board reported record revenue and profit on Aug. 4. It took in $2.2 billion in fiscal 2012-13, turning a $128.4 million profit.
Gov. Tom Corbett and leaders of the General Assembly failed to coalesce around any of the proposals introduced this year to privatize the state-owned wine and liquor distribution system, despite opinion polls showing broad public support.
“We don't have any expectation that privatization is going to move in the fall," said Tom Wark, executive director of the nonprofit wine consumer coalition, a Washington-based group that advocates consumer-friendly wine laws.
The Liquor Control Board's efforts to fulfill consumer demands have met with mixed success. Its former CEO, Joe Conti, resigned in February.
The board came under criticism because of the expensive failure of automated wine kiosks in grocery stores and a Tribune-Review investigation into the marketing of the board's in-house wine brands.
But wine selection at large state stores is varied enough to satisfy connoisseurs like Mahood.
“I'm normally pretty happy with the selection at the better state stores," said Mahood, who frequents the large store near Whole Foods Market in Shadyside.
Mahood's group wine tastings draw as many as 200 people, with educational events bringing in about 50 people and dinners attracting about 75, he said. But the state's tightly controlled liquor laws prevent him from selling wine to those who show up, forcing him to make deals with restaurants to sell discounted wine for the events or simply give it away.
“It's kind of a workaround. If our organization was trying to be profitable, we just couldn't do it in this state," Mahood said.
Wark said he's optimistic the Legislature will legalize direct shipping to consumers this year. One bill passed by the state House this year would allow direct shipping from domestic wineries. Wark wants that expanded to include retailers, so consumers can order foreign wines.
But even without that expansion, the domestic shipping bill — as well as just about any effort to update state law — would be an improvement to a system that's so antiquated, it still charges the 18 percent Johnstown Flood Tax, Wark said. The tax was levied to help Johnstown rebuild from a 1936 flood.
“That's the weirdest tax I've ever heard of," Wark said.
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