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Pa. set to put wine in easier reach

HARRISBURG - Need a bottle of Chardonnay? A Pinot Noir with the groceries? Just grab your driver's license and credit card - and skip the mouthwash.

Jim Seibert and Kortney Zerphy ponder the wine selection at a Wegmans in Mechanicsburg. The dispensing area is equipped with a breath analyzer. (Evan Trowbridge / Staff)
Jim Seibert and Kortney Zerphy ponder the wine selection at a Wegmans in Mechanicsburg. The dispensing area is equipped with a breath analyzer. (Evan Trowbridge / Staff)Read more

HARRISBURG - Need a bottle of Chardonnay? A Pinot Noir with the groceries? Just grab your driver's license and credit card - and skip the mouthwash.

The "wine kiosks" are coming. They've already made it to Harrisburg.

A new way to buy wine in Pennsylvania, courtesy of the state Liquor Control Board, the kiosks are elaborate vending machines, equipped with breath-test devices, that dispense wine by the bottle after a few taps on a touchscreen.

The LCB uncorked two test kiosks in Harrisburg-area supermarkets last month.

If all goes well, Philadelphia-area residents will see the machines as early as September. Area supermarkets are still negotiating with the LCB, so it's too early to say where kiosks may spring up, officials said. They envision as many as 100 kiosks eventually dotting the state.

"On the whole, the program has been very successful, far beyond our expectations," liquor board chairman Patrick J. "P.J." Stapleton 3d said Friday. The board took in $16,000 in sales of 1,400 bottles during the first two weeks of the test program, said LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.

The kiosks are the latest offensive in the board's campaign to improve customer service and change its image from lumbering bureaucracy to state-of-the-art retailer. In recent years, the agency has taken such steps as sprucing up its stores, marketing vodka for Mother's Day, and training its employees in the fine art of being courteous.

Till now, wine has been sold almost exclusively from the LCB's State Stores. The kiosks are an effort to make wines more accessible.

In an unscientific sampling over the last two weeks, customers seemed to agree on one thing: The kiosks are a step forward. They were less unanimous on whether it was the right step.

"They are making a small attempt at something they should be light-years ahead of," said Bill Swartz, a Cumberland County retiree, sizing up the test kiosk at a Wegmans supermarket just outside Harrisburg.

Swartz said that while the gauntlet of security measures on the machines seems thorough, the entire contrivance seems a little over the top.

The kiosk's coolers are 10 feet tall and stocked with 53 varieties of wine, including such brands as Yellow Tail, Sutter Home, and Kendall Jackson. Prices range from $5.99 to $22.99 per bottle. Selection will eventually vary from one kiosk to another.

You can look before you buy: The bottles are behind locked glass doors. Touchscreen menus offer descriptions, with tips on which wine goes best with which dish.

After making a selection on the booth's touchscreen, a customer scans in a driver's license and swipes a payment card. Then there is the breath-test device - calibrated to reject anyone whose blood-alcohol content measures 0.02 percent or higher. (The kiosks don't alert the cops. The rules are like those at State Stores - customers judged to be over the limit simply don't get served.)

To take the test, the customer breathes into a circular metal screen about the size of a doughnut. You don't have to put your mouth on anything - just stand within a foot of the screen. A puff that could blow out a birthday candle does the trick.

A notice above the testing device advises: "If you've used mouthwash/spray or gum containing alcohol 30 minutes prior to taking this breath test, you may be subject to an inaccurate reading."

If everything checks out, the kiosk door unlocks, a plastic shield rotates, and the purchased bottle is revealed.

But don't be fooled into thinking that touchscreens festooned in vineyard imagery and testing devices that prefer stale breath mean the LCB has banished the human touch. After every transaction, the kiosk's speaker issues a scratchy "thank you."

The words come from an employee, watching Big Brother-like via a video camera hooked up to the LCB's Harrisburg headquarters. The employee's job: to ensure the patron buying the wine and blowing into the breath screen is the person on the driver's license.

Another LCB spokeswoman, Stacy Kriedeman, said that eventually a total of 30 employees will monitor, operate, and stock the kiosks.

"It's not a replacement for a State Store," said Jim Sellers, chief executive officer of Simple Brands, the Conshohocken-based company that makes the machines. "It's just one added opportunity."

He said the wine kiosks were the first machines of their kind.

Not all wine fanciers believe this is something to brag about. Some oenophiles turn up their nose at making the art of selecting a wine into something akin to grabbing a can of soda from a vending machine.

"It kind of dehumanizes the retail experience," said John Kafarski, editor of New Jersey-based, which in 2009 labeled the kiosks the "Worst Wine Idea of the Year."

He called the kiosks "the antithesis of what wine is about," the experience of exploring rare selections and taking suggestions from knowledgeable staff.

Thus far, customers have been more forgiving. Kortney Zerphy, who swung by the Wegmans kiosk with boyfriend Jim Seibert about a week ago to investigate the contraption, gave it a B-plus.

Zerphy said the machine botched its shot at a perfect grade when she saw it fail to unlock the door guarding the wine for a previous customer - this reporter.

Not to worry, said the reassuring voice of the LCB employee: The customer would receive a refund on his credit card in three to five days.

"This is a testing phase, so we are anticipating glitches like that," Witalec said. She added that while "a few sporadic issues" had cropped up with the machines, no ongoing snafus had occurred.

For now, Simple Brands is not being paid by the LCB for the kiosks, Lesser said. The company gets its reward in the form of exposure - if word of success in Pennsylvania leads to future contracts with other states and Canada. And the LCB may soon add a $1-per-purchase fee to be paid by the customer and remitted to the company.

Even in the testing phase, the kiosks have become part of a decades-old debate over whether Pennsylvania should stick with the LCB and State Stores or privatize, like New Jersey. At a news conference last month, Gov. Rendell praised the kiosks as an example of the LCB's push to be more consumer-friendly.

Too friendly, says Rebecca Shaver, Pennsylvania executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She says showcasing alcohol in grocery stores sends the wrong message to kids.

"It's just an excessive attempt to market more alcohol," Shaver said. "Alcohol isn't a product like milk, eggs, and cheese."

Two days before the kiosks were launched, State Rep. Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) announced he would sponsor a bill aimed at privatizing the system.

Said Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, the Harrisburg think tank that hosted Turzai's announcement: "The government trying to imitate businesses is no substitute for true competition in a true marketplace."

Turzai said selling licenses for stores and distribution to private owners would bring $2 billion to the state's recession-wracked coffers. Rendell called this idea "fool's gold." Besides, said State Rep. Robert Donatucci (D., Philadelphia), chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, State Stores brought in about $125 million in sales last year.

Donatucci said, "The system, believe it or not, is a good system."

Back in the wine-and-cheese section at Wegmans, Zerphy's boyfriend, Seibert, who works at an auto-body shop, questioned whether the complicated kiosks were really an emblem of a consumer-friendly system.

Asked Seibert: "Couldn't they just put the wine in the fridge?"