Quietly changing a long-standing practice, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board last week began allowing delivery of certain wine and liquor products to home and business addresses.
Before then, customers could order products from the PLCB's inventory and pick it up only at a state-run store. With this change, for an extra fee, those deliveries can go instead to homes and offices -- but only on about 1,500 to 2,000 items in the PLCB's massive, 30,000-product catalogue.
Most of the products eligible for home delivery are items that cannot be found in stores -- special liquor orders, some "Chairman's Select" wine offerings and certain niche products.
Meaning if you want a case of Jameson Irish Whiskey shipped to your front door, you're still out of luck.
Still, "it's a pretty big change" in policy, board spokeswoman Stacey Witalek said.
The board debated making the change for several years, she said, fearful that wine and liquor would make it into the hands of the underaged far more easily. To satisfy that concern, the board enlisted shipping giant UPS as a partner and will require a signature and a valid photo ID at delivery.
"After that, it's in the house and it's just the same as before," Ms. Witalek said.
Shipping fees will include a charge of $14 on an order of between one and three bottles and an additional dollar for each bottle beyond that. That's twice as much as it costs to ship it to the state stores for pick-up, but lower than most out-of-state home delivery rates (at least, among those wine and liquor distributors that will ship to Pennsylvania homes).
"It [never] made sense to me to shop online for something, and then have to go to the store to pick it up," said Maggie Meskey, bartender at Salt of the Earth restaurant. "If I was buying a specialty bottle, I wouldn't balk at paying $14.
"I think it will encourage more people to buy from the state," she said.
That seems to be the case early on -- the PLCB reported that Cyber Monday online sales, totalling 663 bottles, were triple last year's number.
The change in policy is a big step for the Prohibition-era agency, which has been besieged by calls for its dissolution and for the privatization of state stores. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett made the privatization of Pennsylvania's wine and spirits stores a part of his gubernatorial campaign last year, and the state Legislature is contemplating the change.
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House Liquor Control Committee hearings are scheduled for today and Thursday in Philadelphia on the privatization topic. Also today, Auditor General Jack Wagner has scheduled a news conference to discuss "whether privatization of liquor sales in Pennsylvania would benefit taxpayers and consumers."
The PLCB suffered a recent PR misstep when its widely panned automated wine vending machines were pulled offline. In September, the last of the state's 21 remaining kiosks were decommissioned, ending the PLCB's one-year experiment with self-service supermarket wine.
This pilot effort seems far more promising.
"It's clearly an effort by the LCB to be consumer-oriented, [as] other states are allowing direct shipping," said R.J. O'Hara, principal at Flaherty & O'Hara, a Pittsburgh law firm that deals exclusively with liquor law issues.
"What remains to work out is how small-batch products that aren't carried by the state will find a way in."
"Direct shipment" -- that is, having distillers and wineries ship right to your door -- is a separate issue from "home delivery."
The agency and its board have been debating direct shipment issues for years, especially as it pertains to out-of-state wineries. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot discriminate against out-of-state wineries when it regulates direct sales and shipments, forcing states to visit their wine and spirits shipping laws.
Those direct-shipping issues aren't affected by this change in home-delivery policy: Out-of-state farm wineries, which produce limited supplies, still must obtain a "limited winery license" to ship in state; out-of-state spirits distillers still must find Pennsylvania-licensed importers if they want to legally distribute product here; and larger out-of-state wineries that produce more than 200,000 gallons a year, but aren't carried by the PLCB, are still locked out.
In-state farm wineries, meanwhile, can still ship to your door, as long as they have a license to do so.
Ms. Witalek said this pilot program, like all others undertaken by the PLCB, will be reevaluated in a few months, at which point the board will decide how to "move forward, [or] expand to the entire catalogue."
"We wanted to move slowly on this," she said.
In addition to the PLCB privatization bills now being considered, several bills would change the state's direct shipment laws to make it easier for out-of-state wineries and spirits purveyors to ship into Pennsylvania.