Making those choices would be a challenge for even a well-seasoned wine drinker. So I turned to several Philadelphia wine experts for advice – plus specifics on how they would spend that $500 – and discovered a wide range of strategies, styles, and considerations for tackling such a happy conundrum.
The first question each one asked, though, was probably the least sexy: What is the storage situation?
“If wines are not stored in a reasonably cool, dark environment, they’re not going to hold very well,” says Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “Even two years out, bottles can be compromised.”
Dealing with wine fridges or a genuine basement wine cellar is a project of its own that can easily devour hundreds of dollars. But it’s a necessary evil if you plan to lay an expensive bottle down for a decade or two.
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.
Local wine aficionados love to grouse, often with good reason, about how state regulations can sometimes stand between them and that coveted vintage.
But they are divided over whether a favorable decision in a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court would do much to make more varieties available, or cheaper, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The court is being asked to decide whether states can limit direct, winery-to-wine-lover sales.
Keith Wallace, president of the Wine School in Philadelphia, had 53 phone messages the day after the Supreme Court heard arguments, and knows that oenophiles are watching the case.
Wallace spends $30,000 a year on wine. He said that recent innovations by the Liquor Control Board mean that “you have an enormous selection available.
“The problem is that the price point is often 10 to 30 percent higher than anywhere else,” he said.
The best-case scenario, he said, would be a Supreme Court decision that dealt a mortal blow to the state-store system.
But the odds are that Pennsylvania’s unique system, criticized for decades but politically resilient, will survive relatively unchanged.
At the five-year-old Wine School of Philadelphia, located in Fairmount, 60 students are taking sommelier courses, even though director Keith Wallace decries the profession as “the worst position on the face of the earth. At most places, they’re glorified restaurant managers, talked down to and condescended to.”
Beverage managers, responsible for all libations served, make “marginal income,” between $30,000 and $40,000 after long hours, Wallace says, “at the very top, you can make $60,000 to $80,000,” but the hours are punishing. “The wine industry itself is an amazing place to work,” Wallace says. He directs students to industry positions, advertising for a large wine company, importing, running portfolios for distributors all offering the possibility of better pay, travel, nights and weekends off. (Contrary to assumptions, there are import and distribution jobs in Pennsylvania, but only one buyer.)