Well lo and behold, today I find out that the state of Pennsylvania, where I used to live, has its own brand of mediocre wine, called Table Leaf. It’s manufactured by a winery in California, but sold through state-owned Pennsylvania liquor stores. Does that seem nuts? Well, it starts to make sense when you recall that in Pennsylvania, the state has a virtual monopoly on liquor sales through the stores run by the Liquor Control Board. So in addition to making it incredibly inconvenient for you to buy a bottle of wine or other booze, they also are able to market their own house brand (at apparently inflated prices). In the decade I lived in the state, I never met a single person who thought the state monopoly wasn’t ridiculous (polls show support for privatization to be strong, albeit not universal).
As the National Journalwrites today, Tom Corbett, the highly unpopular governor there, might be able to save his political skin with an effort to privatize liquor sales. Last week the state House passed a privatization bill, though the outcome in the Senate is uncertain. Why I find so puzzling is that every Democrat in the House voted against it. It isn’t as though a state liquor monopoly provides some essential service like health care that liberals feel everyone needs to be guaranteed, or that the private market has proven to be unable to satisfy consumers’ liquor needs. Yes, there are government jobs at state stores that would be lost if the system were privatized, which is why unions are opposed, but there’s only so far you can go in defending a system that is almost impossible to justify on any broader conception of the public good.
Boy, this was a burr in my saddle when I lived there. We lived in Chestnut Hill, which is one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. My guess is that there is a comparatively sophisticated market for wine there. The state-owned wine shop wasn’t poorly stocked, but shopping there was like buying booze at the DMV. Since I started drinking wine seriously, I’ve always made a point of finding a good independent wine shop and getting to know the salespeople there, so they can help me find bargains and steer me to things I would likely enjoy but might not otherwise find. That’s not possible in the state of Pennsylvania, unless you happen upon a wine clerk who knows his or her business.
More typical was this classic exchange I had one night with a young clerk at our neighborhood store one night:
Me: “What can you tell me about this wine?”
Her (picking up the bottle and looking at the label): “Iss Burgundy.”
If you live in Philadelphia and want to buy wine in any kind of serious way, you quickly discover Moore Bros., a fantastic wine shop just over the Ben Franklin Bridge in New Jersey. I can’t say enough good things about this place and the people who work there. I discovered so many delicious, affordable wines under their tutelage, and was never disappointed. They’re really friendly and helpful, and make buying wine, even for a relative novice like me, such a pleasure. They did a big business with Philadelphia-area wine drinkers illegally taking hauls for personal consumption across state lines. As TAP observes, there is no conceivable public good served by maintaining the PA state monopoly on wine and liquor sales. It serves only to protect the public employee’s union that guarantees jobs, regardless of performance or competence.
Granted, there are bigger problems to worry about in PA than the accessibility of wine. But it’s not nothing.