I'm standing in front of one of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's new wine kiosks in a Montgomery County ShopRite, thinking that if this is the future of alcohol consumption in the Keystone State, residents might want to give up the bottle or move to New Jersey.
The machine itself is a vision, a glass-and-wood-paneled monsterpiece with three flat-screen TVs.
But in the hour I puzzle over what to purchase if allowed, not one fellow shopper shows a hint of interest. Well, except for the dude who does a doubletake as I puff into the internal Breathalyzer machine to prove I'm not drunk. He must think I'm kissing the kiosk.
The machines represent the PLCB's futile quest to maintain an alcoholic monopoly amid renewed cries for privatization. Gov. Corbett won't tax natural gas frackers, but even he agrees the state should get out of the booze business. And yet, the PLCB keeps bingeing.
Last summer, the agency opened its first Fine Wine & Good Spirits store in New Hope, a $160,000 homage to Pottery Barn promoting cork recycling and "expert" clerks trained on the taxpayer's dime.
Last fall, the PLCB debuted 32 of the $100,000 wine kiosks. This year, 24 more will begin spitting out Sutter Home at Wal-Mart. Lucky us.
The machines appear to contain dozens of intriguing varietals. But on closer look, they brim with mass-market labels such as Yellow Tail - no Chairman's Select gems here. Duplicates dominate, in part due to rules mandating that whatever's on the top shelf be reachable on the bottom for buyers in wheelchairs.
Oddly, four wines in the case - including the Relax riesling and Gnarly Head zinfandel - are mysteriously MIA on the touch screen. They don't show up as red or white.
The customer confusion is intentional, according to Simple Brands, the kiosks' Conshohocken manufacturer, which pockets a $1 fee from each sale and 50 cents more per bottle from the state.
"We give all our wineries the opportunity to advertise," explains Mark D'Andrea, the firm's marketing chief. "Those four decided it wasn't valuable enough" so they were banished, listed only by name in the "all product" category. Gulp!
The East Norriton kiosk debuted in February and has collected $1,486.03 from the sale of 147 bottles - an average of 29.4 bottles a week. (Most customers, I'm told, buy just one bottle.)
Some kiosks move cases of merlot, but others repel oenophiles, based on PLCB data.
Machines in the Collegeville Wegmans and West Philadelphia Fresh Grocer each cleared over $40,000 since November. But a kiosk in a West Mifflin Supervalu made just $3,604.87 in the same period, selling as few as 10 bottles a week.
Who will profit remains unclear.
"Simple Brands owns the machines and is responsible for maintenance," explains the PLCB's Stacey Witalec. "But it's our product. Our staff stocks them and monitors the transactions."
In fact, 20 state employees work at a wine kiosk call center where, among other duties, they watch people like me on camera lamenting the lack of choice and fretting we'll flunk the breath test for gargling mouthwash. Had I known, I would have worn lipstick.