Philadelphia Inquirer: Not all are toasting changes uncorked by LCB

Posted by Keith Wallace

The story was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 3, 2008.  The article is reprinted solely for educational purposes.  It is intended to offer insight into the history of wine education in Philadelphia, and our place within that context.  Links to the original article and author are given below. 

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Not all are toasting changes uncorked by LCB

Author: Craig LaBan

It is a case of vintage revenge. Wine merchants in Delaware and South Jersey are now clearing shelf space for their old nemesis: Jonathan Newman, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The “xChairman Selections,” as one shop calls them, are the discounted wines that Newman’s new company will introduce in Pennsylvania border states this month.

Newman had risen to the unlikely status of folk hero among Pennsylvania wine lovers, partly because of his celebrated Chairman’s Selection specials. But one year ago, he resigned in protest after Gov. Rendell’s controversial appointment of Joe Conti as chief executive officer of the LCB.

While Newman’s entry into the private sector is intriguing the sip-and-swirl crowd, it also casts a spotlight back on the LCB. The $1.69 billion-a-year agency has been the subject of skepticism and upheaval since Newman left.

Has the LCB reverted to the grim monopoly of dull, overpriced wines, as so many feared when Newman left? Are the Chairman’s Selections doomed to disappear or suffer benign neglect? Or is the LCB in the midst of a revolutionary housecleaning update, as its new leadership suggests?
That depends, of course, on whom you ask.

“We are really in a major renaissance here,” Conti said, referring to the past year’s overhaul of the LCB’s infrastructure and retail systems.
Melissa Monosoff, a respected sommelier in the Philadelphia area, began her part-time duties in Harrisburg last week as the LCB’s consulting sommelier. “This is not back to the future. It’s about going to the future,” said Monosoff, a former Fountain sommelier who will also work at the soon-to-open Maia in Villanova. “So far, I’m really impressed.”

Yet the view from the aisles of the LCB’s 623 stores isn’t always so rosy, as complaints on the quality of recent Chairman’s Selections mount and customer service – always a challenge – continues to suffer.

In January, Center City lost one of its most knowledgeable and customer-oriented clerks in Cory Rice. Rice came on six years ago in the excitement brought on by Newman. But early this year, Rice left his job as wine buyer at 19th and Chestnut Streets after clashes with coworkers over what he saw as a growing disregard for fine wine.

“They were cooking my wines!” said Rice, who arrived one December morning to find the heat turned up to nearly 80 degrees, a damaging temperature for wines. And it wasn’t the first time.

“I’ve had my fill of the PLCB,” he said. “The enthusiasm [for wine] is just not there anymore. . . . We’ve just gone back to being State Stores.”
A barometer of savvy

The Chairman’s Selections have always represented a small portion of sales for the state, just under 3 percent of the LCB’s $1.69 billion in revenue from 2006 to 2007.
But the program symbolized a huge change for the agency’s long-maligned image, and launched Newman’s star. Now it is a prominent barometer of the LCB’s “wine savvy” since Newman’s departure.

Begun in 2004, the Chairman’s Selections leveraged Pennsylvania’s clout as one of the world’s largest buyers to obtain steep discounts on premium wines. The specials were a buffer against Pennsylvania’s onerous 18 percent liquor tax and won an instant following among oenophiles, many of whom illegally sought wine values out of state.

“All of a sudden, my students who lived in New Jersey were coming to Pennsylvania to buy wine!” marveled Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “That didn’t happen before. But [Newman] changed how the PLCB was viewed – and that’s a paradigm shift.”

It was one of the most effective initiatives Newman created to fight that tide of law-breaking wine buyers – improving the quality of the stores instead of relying on border enforcement.

In Pennsylvania it generally is illegal to bring in liquor purchased in other states. Residents may buy wine over the Internet, but there are restrictions on how much and from whom it can be purchased. The wine must be shipped to a State Store for pick-up.

Newman said last night that he did not believe he was encouraging Pennsylvania residents to break the law.

“If you want people to buy wine, you do it by giving them beautiful stores, knowledgable personnel, a wide product selection, and hot pricing, not by threatening to arrest them,” he said. “I am not condoning that people break the law, but I think it is a law that should be reconsidered by the legislature.”
Newman presided over other revolutionary changes during his 7 1/2 years on the board – instituting Sunday sales, in-store tastings, and “one-stop” stores inside supermarkets while renovating stores with climate-controlled wine cellars.

“It didn’t take long for actual, real hope to set in,” said Marnie Old, a former Striped Bass sommelier, a wine educator, an author and a consultant who spends up to $75,000 a year in LCB stores for her clients.

That optimism was replaced by a bitter dose of cynicism in January 2007 after Conti’s sudden appointment, which prompted a slew of editorials decrying “the stink of dealmaking” at the expense of progress. An acknowledged lack of passion for wine from Conti and the new chairman, P.J. Stapleton, concerned many.

Conti refused to “rehash” details of that event. But he and Stapleton both said they had gained a greater wine appreciation in the last year.
“But there are other important aspects to running the PLCB,” Stapleton insisted, citing the agency’s mission of education and its administration of 25,100 liquor licenses and permits on top of its retail operation.

Stapleton said the LCB had been focused on “modernizing its business practices” and reducing costs, closing 13 stores in the last year and hoping to save up to $30 million. The system has culled nearly 30 percent of its specialty wine selection, including 2,500 wines with six bottles or fewer on state shelves.
Conti has also overseen a $26 million overhaul of the agency’s technology infrastructure, a streamlining intended to improve the consumers’ experience. “This is the science – not the art – of retail,” he said.

Stapleton said the new sommelier, Monosoff, and planned store redesigns and several small “wine-only” boutique stores by next year show the LCB’s commitment to the state’s wine culture.

The lack of “art” in the LCB’s current retail offerings, however, has raised concerns. This is evident in the Chairman’s Selections, which have ballooned from a once-solid choice of about 30 quick sellers to a less-exclusive list of 163, weedy with slimmer deals and less-desirable vintages.
“If there wasn’t such a public outcry, they would have let [the Chairman’s Selections] go away with Jonathan,” said a high-ranking LCB manager who asked not to be named. “Instead they went the other way. They flooded it to the point that they’re not ‘selections’ anymore. . . . They just bought anything they could get at a discount.”

Ex-chairman Newman is more than eager to talk about the wines he plans to supply through his company, Newman Wine & Spirits. But he groans at the LCB’s current selections.

“I’m pained looking through this list. I see specific deals I turned down,” he said, calling certain wines from the 2000 vintage “long in the tooth.”
The change has been obvious even to those who initially found the Chairman’s Selections overrated.

“I don’t see as many bargains, and I see attempts to exploit the label,” said Mark Squires, a Philadelphia writer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. “Some steam has gone out of the movement.”

Still a work in progress

Monosoff knows she has a mighty challenge ahead as consulting sommelier. As wine buyer for the Four Seasons, she had her own frustrations dealing with LCB staff.

Improving service will be a big part of her job. Along with advising the LCB’s buyers on Chairman’s Selections, she will help develop training programs for the staff.
“This is a process,” she said.

Rice, the former clerk in Center City, said Monosoff was a smart addition, a sentiment echoed by others.
“I think she’s great, and she has the ability to bring that enthusiasm back,” Rice said. “But who are they going to bring in to do it” in the stores?
“The rank-and-file clerks didn’t care about wine.”

If nothing else, Monosoff knows the agency is counting on her to reconnect the public to “a person they can understand and know. They’re looking for me to become the new face of the PLCB.”
Selecting other side

The old face of the PLCB, meanwhile, is plotting his return in a big way. Newman spent a week in December tasting wines in California much as he did for the state, treasure-hunting for end-of-vintage overstocks and lesser-known boutique wines. He sipped his way through 250 samples to find a worthy 14. Depending on the retailer, some wines will be reduced from a suggested price of $30 to $12, others from $80 to $30.

Newman projects he will be placing wine in as many as 100 stores in the Mid-Atlantic by year’s end. Eventually, he plans to sell nationwide.
In Wilmington, Frank’s Union Wine Mart has already sold out (online) its order of 15 cases of a California cabernet called Dominari, discounted 65 percent off list to $350 a case. And as early as this week, the first bottles will be shipped to nearly 40 other shops from Maryland to Connecticut. They include more than a dozen in South Jersey and Delaware – stores Newman once fought hard to keep Pennsylvania buyers from.

But Gary Brady of Canal’s Discount Liquor Mart in Pennsauken, which will carry some of Newman’s bottles, has gotten over it: “We won’t hold it against him.”

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