HARRISBURG - The state Liquor Control Board, oft-criticized for being the hapless brainchild of Prohibition days, is quietly trying to join the 21st century.
With little fanfare, the agency has rolled out a new, free application for the iPhone, an "app" meant to make it easier to find your favorite wines and liquors - and perhaps impress your date.
The LCB's app lets users search the location of their nearest wine and spirits store, peruse the latest list of wines and other products on sale, order wine for home delivery, and locate the closest and cheapest state store to buy a favorite bottle.
A similar app for the Droid will be unveiled in a few weeks, LCB officials said.
"We're pretty excited about this," Joe Conti, the liquor board's chief executive officer, said Monday at a legislative budget hearing for the agency.
The technological push is the latest effort by the LCB to keep customers happy. And if, in the process, it helps fend off the looming threat of privatization, few on the agency's 5,700-employee payroll will complain. Gov. Corbett campaigned on an LCB privatization platform, and a top House Republican is pushing hard for legislation to auction off the state system.
For privatization diehards, though, the new app is but a lonely blip in the webosphere.
"No matter how much they try to mimic private industry, they can't compete," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who is championing a privatization bill. "The only way to truly modernize Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board is to privatize."
Miskin and others note that the LCB hardly has a stellar record when it comes to innovation. They point to the agency's experiment with wine kiosks in supermarkets. Left in the wake of that venture is nearly $1 million the LCB says it is owed by the Conshohocken vendor that provided the kiosks.
But the new app is not the LCB's first attempt to appeal to a tech-obsessed customer base. The agency has a Facebook page (with 6,462 "likes" as of Monday evening) and is on Twitter @PAWineSpirits (with 1,163 followers).
The app, called Fine Wine & Good Spirits, gives users four buttons to choose from on a home page. One click, and you can shop for wines, view pictures, and read descriptions, and register to have bottles sent to your home. Another click, and the app locates the LCB store nearest you.
Still another, Conti said, could be useful when dining out - and this is the part that could impress your dining partner. Whip out your iPhone, and click! Up comes a screen that lets you scan the bar code on the back of a bottle - say, if you like what you were just served. The app finds the nearest LCB store with that wine in stock.
"Time is so short for everyone, so we need to get information to those who want to receive it in the easiest, most successful way possible," said LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.
There are drawbacks. For instance, only about 2,500 wines are available from the LCB for ordering online. And though there are roughly 40,000 products available for browsing through the app, not every alcohol product will be in its database.
Plus, the LCB is not exactly Lewis and Clark when it comes to exploring the webosphere. Private companies already have apps on the market that help you find not only the nearest location for buying a wine (or any other product, for that matter), but also the location with the best price.
LCB officials counter that their app is a work in progress, and - like some wines - can only improve with age.
"From a retailers perspective," Witalec said, "it's critical to the success not just of our business, but it's critical to our communications efforts with our customers."