We’ve been buying wine for the school and our newsletter for nearly twenty years. We’ve learned a thing or two over that time. Want to learn our secrets to buying great wine in Pennsylvania? Read on!

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Don’t Trust the Discount

You’ve seen those advertisements, the big sign that screams “Amazing Deal! 50% off this AMAZING Wine”  The wine may be discounted, but it’s probably not as good a deal as you may think.  Wine merchants calculated those discounts with the “Suggested Retail Price” which is often not the actual retail price. Before you buy, check out the average US price on a database like winesearcher.com. Sometimes, you are only saving a dollar or two.

As a rule, the profit margin for a retail wine shop is around 30%, so any discount more than 20% is probably an accounting fiction.

Know the Why

If there is a real deal going on, it’s because of the winery, importer, or wholesaler is taking a financial loss. Because of that, wine is offered on steep discount for a finite number of reasons:

  1. The wine compromised: it is too old, or is cooked.
  2. The winery is in financial trouble.
  3. Ownership of the wine inventory changed hands.
  4. Need to make room for the next vintage.

Sadly, it’s often a combination of these reasons.  It’s best to be a bit skeptical of a deal that sounds too good to be true. Do a quick search online to see if the winery is having troubles, or if the wine is getting bad reviews recently (cellartracker.com is a great resource for this type of research)

What is a Chairman’s Selection?

This program was started by our friend and former PLCB Chairman Jonathan Newman. The program exploited the oversupply of wine on the wholesale market.  By purchasing entire inventories of wine, his team could negotiate huge deals.  In those years, the deals were often quite good. These days, the discounts are less reliable and are often matched by wine shops in the free market (e.g., Delaware and New Jersey). The program is still a very good way to purchase wine, but it is less reliable.

Are the Ratings Legit?

Just because you see a wine earned 92 points, that doesn’t mean it’s a great bottle of wine. For starters, not all ratings are considered equal.  The top dogs in this field are Wine Spectator, Vinous, and Wine Advocate.  In Pennsylvania, the Wine School publishes great wine ratings in our newsletter. However, there are plenty of outfits that will sell a high rating for a few dollars and a free bottle of wine.

The other problem is often one of neglect. There are thousands of bottles of wine in a shop, and vintages change and it’s very possible no one noticed. Make sure the ratings you are reading about are for the wine you are looking at. We have seen ratings  quoted for wines that were from five vintages ago.  We have also seen ratings for the wrong wines, as well.

Beware Bad Wine Storage

Really Bad Wine Storage

Probably Worse Than Your Local Wine Shop

Wine storage is sub-par in most of the wine & spirits stores in Pennsylvania, and getting worse. Over the past few years, the PLCB has dismantled or disabled the temperature control storage rooms in their Premium Collection stores. It’s not any better in many of their wine warehouses.

Don’t despair. Bad storage is ubiquitous in the wine world, so we have some tips that will keep you drinking great wine, no matter where you buy your wine.

When to Buy

Be very careful when buying wines from July through the end of September; these are the months when heat damage is most likely. Oftentimes, heat damage won’t impact wines for immediate drinking but it can really do a number on wines you intend to cellar for a few years.

Buy It Fresh

Another smart idea is to buy wines that have just been shipped into the state. Be careful of any bottle that looks like a dust-covered orphan. Wines in case stack-outs are more likely to be purchased recently. This means the wines are less likely to have been hanging around since the summertime. In PA, the most obvious case stack-outs are the Chairman’s Selections.

Check For Leaks

If a wine has been exposed to extreme heat, it will push through the cork.  This is a serious problem: the wine will be seriously cooked* and probably oxidized, too.  To check for leaks, take a look at the sides of the bottle, if there are any drips from underneath the capsule, don’t buy the bottle.

If you get home, and find that the cork has a trail of wine up through the cork, you should probably should return it… as long as you still have your receipt (see below).

*For a primer on wine flaws, check out our wine dictionary.

Keep Your Receipts

Wine Reciept

A Rather Old Wine Receipt

Make sure you keep your receipts when you purchase wine at a PLCB Wine & Spirits Store. It is a pain in the cork, but it will allow you to both return wine and store it legally.

Return Bad Wine

You have the right to return any bottle of wine that is unsatisfactory. To take advantage of this PLCB rule, you will need to have your receipt from the Wine & Spirits Store. If the wine was under $20, they will give you a refund or store credit. For returns of expensive bottles, they will send you a check.

Protect Your Wine Collection

If you have graduated from wine drinker to wine collector, you need to protect your liquid investments. Building a good wine cellar is important, but in PA it’s also important to keep your original receipts.  State wine law requires Pennsylvania citizens be able to prove that wine was purchased in-state, whether it was at a Wine & Spirits store or a private wine shop. If you can’t, they have the right to impose hefty fines and confiscate the wine.  This is very unlikely, but it has happened.