Whine and Spirits

Every so often, I think that I’ve reached some sort of plateau in terms of how much I hate the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Then I make some stupid mistake, like shopping at a Pennsylvania liquor store again, and I discover new vistas of animosity and contempt. I drove up to Cranberry tonight to get a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, because the PLCB’s web site indicated it was one of the only stores west of the Susquehanna that had any. The Cranberry store is promoted as a “Premium Collection” store by the Liquor Control Board. That means that it supposedly has a better selection, nicer atmosphere, and more knowledgeable staff than the other stores.

The Premium Collection store is better than what State Stores were like when I first arrived in Pennsylvania in the late ’80s. Back then, a liquor store was basically a counter with a catalog on it, and a huge storage room. “Hi,” you’d say to the cashier. “I’d like a bottle of #24601.” The guy would then go into the back room for a while, leaving you alone. Ten minutes later, he’d come back out front to tell you that they were all out of #24601.

So the Premium Collection store is better than that. But since I haven’t seen many advertising campaigns lately along the lines of “McDonald’s! Our French Fries Don’t Have Fingers In ‘Em!" or “Coke! Sucks Less Than Diphtheria!", I’m going to say that’s a pretty low target to be reaching for.

I found the Montenegro in short order and then remembered that sometime last year I had bought a very nice 3 point Tokaji Aszu at the same store. I looked around a bit, but couldn’t find it. That’s when the fun began.

I approached a clerk. “Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for a certain Tokaji.”

I got a blank stare in return.

“Tokaji,” I said. “It’s a Hungarian wine. It’s spelled t-o-k-a-j-i.”

“Hmmm,” he said, leaning against the computer on which he could check his inventory to see whether he had any of the bloody wine, “I don’t think I’ve heard of that. I don’t think we have it.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, how about Amaro Nonino?”

“Is that foreign, too?”

Now it was my turn to give him a blank stare.

“Yes,” I said, very slowly. “It is, as a matter of fact, foreign.”

“Well then, we don’t have it.”

I gaped in disbelief.

And then I gave up. I spent another 10 minutes or so searching the store, found the Tokaji I wanted, and left. Later, a friend suggested “You should have asked them if they had any Scotch. I hear that’s foreign, too.”

This is what is so frustrating about the PLCB: the problem is the people. I’m always hearing people phrase the problem in terms of state-owned stores versus “free enterprise.” But that’s not it. Ontario has state-run liquor stores that are a pleasure to shop in. The LCBO is exactly like the PLCB in every way, except it doesn’t suck. The stores are beautiful. The staff are helpful, and care about the product. You can taste selected wines in some stores (for a price, of course, and in strictly limited quantities).

No, the problem isn’t that we have a State liquor system, but that we have a State liquor system that employs people who could not care less about satisfying customers. I don’t care that this guy doesn’t know what Tokaji is. In a store with thousands of products, I don’t expect every employee to know everything about every product. But when a customer asks a question, I expect the employees to give a damn. I expect them to want to try to help. Or, at a bare minimum, at least pretend to care.

Are there good employees who work for the PLCB? Sure. I’ve met a couple. But they are outnumbered by the thousands upon thousands of slack-jawed know- nothings whose only purpose on this earth is to make me rue the day that they ever got a job.

The PLCB, which claims that part of its mission is “to provide the best service to [their] customers,” is an utter and complete failure when it comes to retail liquor sales. It’s too late to save it. It should be dismantled, shut down, annihilated, and then cut up into seven parts, which should then be buried in remote parts of the State and left to rot.

The PLCB monopoly on liquor sales has to go.

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