The specialty fine wines in Pennsylvania that aren’t available through the State Store system will soon be easier to buy, thanks to a court ruling Friday. But it remains unclear how soon consumers may see a benefit.
Specialty wine dealers last month sued the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to allow direct sales of special order wines to consumers, and to retailers and restaurants that sell wine for takeout. The Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the dealers Friday.
Zach Morris, owner of the Bloomsday cafe, wine bar, and bottle shop in Old City, said the decision had made it a “great day for consumers and a great day for people who love wine and want to get it more easily.”
“But because there’s no timeline on it, we hope the PLCB complies with the judge’s order," Morris said. "They may have to be compelled.”
The opinion, written by Judge P. Kevin Brobson, followed the court’s first ever remote video hearing, held on YouTube on April 28. It could shave $1.75 off the price of each special order bottle of wine. That reduction would come because the PLCB will no longer be able to collect a processing fee. Other PLCB fees and taxes — a 10% markup and an 18% liquor tax formerly known as the Johnstown Flood Tax — would remain in place.
The PLCB is “reviewing the judge’s opinion and we are not in a position to offer public comment at this time,” an agency spokesperson said.
Previously, the PLCB had required dealers to send their special order wines to a PLCB warehouse for pickup by customers. When the State Store system closed on March 16 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the warehouses were shuttered, too.
“That created a big problem for us,” said Jason Malumed, an operating partner with MFW Wine Co. of New York, which distributes wines to Di Bruno Bros. and other upscale retailers and restaurants in the Philadelphia region. “Our business went to zero. On that day, they said we couldn’t deliver directly to the stores.”
Retailers were also left high and dry.
“During the last six weeks, it’s been just about impossible to restock,” said Emilio Mignucci, vice president of Di Bruno’s.
The PLCB reopened last week for pickup from the warehouses, making it less difficult to replenish inventories.
“But you see inefficiency there," Mignucci said. "We buy it through the State Store system anyway, but [the wine] doesn’t need to go the warehouse and sit and wait for us to pick it up. We can remove a layer by just having the distributor deliver to us.”
Malumed said a 2016 state law allows for direct deliveries. The PLCB just hadn’t put a system in place.
“The law not only allowed grocery stores to sell wine to go, but it had a provision for special order products,” Malumed said. “It said the PLCB shall implement a system to allow the shipment of products by 2017. It never did.”
Faced with the possible demise of his business, Malumed filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court on April 18 seeking emergency relief.
“Within 14 days, we were having the first ever live-streamed trial in Pennsylvania court history,” Malumed said. “There were 160 people watching at its peak. The PLCB spent all their time talking about how difficult direct delivery was. It’s not difficult."
Judge Brobson did not give the PLCB a deadline to comply. Malumed said the PLCB argued that putting a mechanism in place could take up to 10,000 hours — roughly five years if only one person is assigned to make the fix. Malumed said his IT consultants say “it can be done in 48 hours.”
If the PLCB doesn’t act quickly, though, Malumed isn’t concerned.
“We still have our claim for damages open,” Malumed said. “They need to realize that every day that goes by with no direct delivery, damages will continue to accrue.”