The American Wine Consumer Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group that aims to protect the rights of wine lovers, recently ranked Pennsylvania 47th out of 50 states on consumers' access to wine, giving the state's practices a grade of F overall.
"Pennsylvania wine lovers suffer under some of the most onerous wine laws in America, resulting in very limited access to the full number of wines available in the United States and causing significant inconvenience for wine consumers," the coalition wrote in its August report, "Consuming Concerns: the 2013 State-By-State Report Card on Consumer Access to Wine."
Pennsylvania, under practices by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, earned the low marks because of its state-controlled wine-buying program and its ban prohibiting retail stores or wineries from shipping stock directly to residents' homes.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that Cure's sommelier Michael Kreha is heading to New York at the end of October to run a wine shop after working only six months at the popular Lawrenceville restaurant.
"I was drinking better wine when I was an architect in New York than as a sommelier in Pennsylvania," he said.
The architect-turned-sommelier had been a partner at Bar Marco in the Strip since it opened in 2011, where he sparked patrons' enthusiasm for wine. Even though he's no longer a partner, what he started there has gained momentum: The restaurant is building a wine room for tasting menu dinners that will debut this fall.
Having a young sommelier leave town would seem unremarkable in any other city. But when fewer than a dozen restaurants in town have ambitious wine programs, it's a loss.
Compare opportunities to learn about wine with the culture of beer in Pittsburgh. There's a bar with 40-plus brews in many neighborhoods. East End Brewing expanded into Larimer last year and two breweries have recently opened in Lawrenceville -- Roundabout and Hop Farm. Atlas Bottle Works, which aims to provide the most extensive selection in the city, will soon join those places in Lawrenceville this fall.
The wine scenario in Pittsburgh is quite the opposite. In a fantasy life, a customer could wander into a shop that's more attractive than a branch of PennDOT, where, on a late Saturday afternoon, a diner could sample a flight of Spanish wines and hams, chat with neighbors and take home a couple of bottles she's never tried.
For now, that diner would have better luck in Cleveland, where restaurants, gourmet shops and wine bars are part of the fabric in many neighborhoods.
"Over and over, core wine consumers in Pennsylvania have demonstrated and expressed a desire to have access to the hundreds of thousands of domestic and imported wines currently available in the American marketplace, yet unavailable or poorly distributed via the Pennsylvania state store system," wrote the American Wine Consumer Coalition in its position on HB 121, which would allow wine to be shipped directly to consumers. The bill has passed in the state House and is pending in the Senate.
"The only way to deliver this kind of access to the state's consumer is via legal direct shipment of wine from out-of-state sources such as wineries and retail stores," it wrote.
For a decent selection, a customer has to visit one of the 11 Premium Collection stores in Allegheny County (such as Eastside near Whole Foods, Waterworks near Aspinwall and One Oxford Centre, Downtown). And even in those places, the clerks with wine knowledge are not always available and generally can't offer the personalized service that comes from independent wine stores in other states.
That said, if a consumer knows how to navigate the PLCB, there are deals here that don't exist in other states. The PLCB "is the largest purchaser of wine and spirits" in the U.S., as noted on its website, and the Chairman's Selection program delivers good values.
"There are lots of cool wines at the store," said Mr. Kreha, the former Cure sommelier, citing "back vintage Riesling and rare magnums for a deal, finds you'd never see elsewhere because someone would have bought them all."
Another option is Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District, where customers must purchase a minimum of $50 and wait two business days as the special orders are processed by the PLCB. "We're an importer and distributor of wines," said Deb Mortillaro, co-owner. "We facilitate sales with the PLCB."
It's not that Pittsburghers don't want to learn about wine; it's that few opportunities exist to do so at the moment. Dreadnought does hold classes for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification based out of London, as well as more casual classes two Fridays a month. And many restaurants are expanding their efforts.
Spoon in East Liberty brought sommelier John Wabeck on board in January, making a significant difference in the variety and volume of wine sales, said general manager Heather Perkins. A couple of months ago, wine sales surpassed liquor sales at Spoon.
Mr. Wabeck was nominated among the nation's best sommeliers in 2010 by Food & Wine magazine. Before coming to Pittsburgh, he worked for the Eat Good Food Group in Alexandria, Va., a collective from James Beard-nominated Cathal Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle, as well as partner and cocktail maven Todd Thrasher.
"My Italian section is bigger than I would have had it a year ago," said Mr. Wabeck. "But with such a large Italian community, that's what's available and it's what people like," he said.
But he's not content with the status quo. Mr. Wabeck is holding weekly tastings for others in the restaurant industry to help staff prepare for the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, a challenging test that takes years of preparation to pass all four levels. For diners, Mr. Wabeck holds "Three Blind Wines" on Thursdays, when he coaches diners through a blind wine tasting, which includes a score sheet that lists several varietials, three of which are those poured. Varietals and vintners are revealed at the end of the session.
But it's also about less formal events and making connections with consumers.
"I build a relationship with customers, and when they trust me I may lead them to the geekier stuff," he said.
Ms. Perkins agreed. "People in Pittsburgh are willing to learn about wine if you can find a way to make it approachable."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM