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Pennsylvania wine retailers can’t get the Liquor Control Board to replenish their best bottles

Pennsylvania’s restrictions under COVID-19 have inspired a petition to change the way that specialty wines are sold in the state.

DiBruno Bros., shown here at 1730 Chestnut St. in Center City, and restaurants that sell wine by the bottle to go are pushing for the state to reopen their supply channel.
DiBruno Bros., shown here at 1730 Chestnut St. in Center City, and restaurants that sell wine by the bottle to go are pushing for the state to reopen their supply channel.Read moreDiBruno Bros.

With Pennsylvania’s state stores closed as part of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, shoppers have been buying huge amounts of wine at Di Bruno Bros., an Italian grocer in Center City.

“I would absolutely compare this to holiday season sales, but without the cheer and instead with a constant mood of panic and stress,” said Sande Friedman, wine and beer category manager at Di Bruno.

The problem for Friedman and others who sell specially selected take-out bottles that are not readily available in the state system is that they can’t restock those wines now. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board shut down the “special order” system that retailers must use to get them from small distributors and importers.

“As stock depletes, we are having to switch space that previously belonged to wine and fill it with beer instead, just because we can reorder it,” Friedman said. “The fact that our beer wholesalers are open and operating makes the wine limitations that we’re now struggling with feel even more ridiculous.”

Asked why the PLCB won’t allow retailers to restock the wines that they built their businesses around, PLCB spokesperson Elizabeth Brassell said by email that the agency is making difficult choices.

“We understand the disruptions some decisions have on consumers and licensees across the Commonwealth, but in these unprecedented times, the health and safety of our customers, employees and communities are of paramount importance and must take priority over the sale of alcohol,” she said.

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Under the special-order system, specialty retailers and restaurants order from boutique distributors and importers through the PLCB website and then must go to a state store to pick up their wares. They do this even though a 2016 law required the PLCB to implement a process that would bypass the state stores and allow the good to be shipped directly from the distributor to the specialty retailer. But that streamlining never occurred.

Pennsylvania is the only state to adopt such draconian measures on the sale of wine and spirits, even among other states with control systems, said Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association. “It feels like no thought has been put in beyond that, like how do we serve the consumers of Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvanians can still order online from Pennsylvania wineries and from wineries in other states that have a license that allows them to ship to consumers here.

Meanwhile, the Liquor Control Board’s own online store is not available to many would-be shoppers.

“The website is accepting a controlled number of orders per day. Access continues to be randomized to avoid overwhelming the site with high traffic, prevent order abuse, and prolong access throughout the day, so that order availability isn’t exhausted in seconds or minutes each day,” Brassell said.

From April 1 through Tuesday, the online store accepted nearly 7,778 orders and had $707,666 in sales. At that rate, would have $37 million in annual sales, compared with just $5 million in actual sales in the year ended June 30, 2019.

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For wine lovers, bottle shops like Fishtown Social at 1525 Frankford Ave. have apparently been a godsend.

“We’ve been selling all of the inventory we have, the wines that were originally reserved for out-by-the-glass, dine-in programs, and all of the retail wines that we had in the shop,” said Vanessa Wong, owner of Fishtown Social, which also has a wine bar. “Now we’re getting to a point where it’s pretty low.”

Selling wine to go has enabled Wong to keep paying four employees. “I might have another couple weeks of wine left and then I have to close up. With no ability to get new inventory I won’t be able to keep my staff going," she said.

Jill Weber, who owns Jet Wine Bar at 1525 South St., is totally exasperated by the PLCB’s position, especially given the deep financial hole that the state is sliding into amid the soaring unemployment rolls. “Pennsylvania needs money. Pennsylvanians need jobs, and there’s this very simple easy way this can be done that doesn’t harm anybody," she said.

After getting nowhere with the PLCB to let her resume ordering from the small importers and distributors, Weber started a petition asking the state to allow direct shipments of wine to places like hers, which have licenses allowing them to sell wine-to-go, rather than going to the backroom of a state store. As of Wednesday, 767 people had signed the petition, which asks the state to follow a provision in a 2016 law to streamline pickups.

The “special order" system that Weber uses generated $112.8 million in sales for the PLCB in fiscal 2019. That is just 4.5% of total system sales, but it has grown twice as fast as the system’s overall $2.5 billion in sales in recent years.

If there’s a silver lining to the shutdown of the special order system, it could be for the Pennsylvania wine industry. Di Bruno and Jet are adding to their selections of wine from the state.

Di Bruno has increased the number of different wines it carries from Wayvine in Chester County and has added bottles from Pinnacle Ridge in Berks County and from Galen Glen in Schuylkill County.

“We’re thrilled to be on the Di Bruno’s wine list,” said Sarah Troxell, the winemaker at Galen Glen, which is known for its white wines, such as Grüner Veltliner.