A Croatia-to-Pittsburgh wine odyssey: How an obscure bottle gets in the PLCB system

There they were. The only 14 bottles in Pennsylvania.

Back of the store, low shelf, under the sign reading “Premium Collection” sat this particular unicorn, inconspicuously priced at $20.99 a bottle.

The Croatian winery Bibich grew enough grapes to make only 300 cases of their 2011 Bibich R5 Riserva. Three of those cases came to Pennsylvania. All 36 bottles of that white wine — rich, toasty, a little sour from its partial and intentional oxidation, tannic but not sharp — went to one store in Indiana County, 60 miles from Pittsburgh.

Yet after a year, 14 bottles remained, still the only bottles of that wine available for sale in the commonwealth through the retail monopoly Liquor Control Board.

Indiana County seems an odd place to find an obscure if notable wine. There is no obvious reason for it to be where it is.

What this illustrates is a little bit of how to work the PLCB’s system. Even with a government agency as the only wine and liquor buyer for the whole of the commonwealth, there are ways to acquire something otherwise unattainable in Pennsylvania. With interest from customers, and an advocate somewhere within the bureaucracy, similarly rare or unusual products can find their way onto a shelf.

In this case, it began with a handful of customers who walked in to store No. 3206 sometime in 2013 and pledged to buy some Bibich wine if the resident wine specialist could get it.

They had seen Anthony Bourdain admit lust for Croatian wine and Bibich in particular in an episode of “No Reservations” in February 2012. [See the episode here; relevant portion at 30 minutes.] They had read Wine Enthusiast’s enthusiastic seven-page September 2011 spread on Croatia — just across the Adriatic from Italy, its North Dalmatia wine region shares a latitude with Florence. A blend of native Debit, Pošip and Maraština grapes with some Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, the 2011 Bibich R5 Riserva won a flattering review in Wine Enthusiast as recently as October.

In that Indiana store, the customers met Matt Redinger. He isn’t officially a PLCB retail wine specialist — the store doesn’t have one — but he has committed himself to offering more interesting wine in a county of 88,880, 34th of 67 in the commonwealth in population.

“This is a very rural area,” he said. “There is almost no wine culture where we are.”

Dale Horst, director of marketing and merchandising for the PLCB, said a commitment from customers is a good indication the state will make money on a special purchase. It’s a risk, but a calculated one.

And anyone can ask for a product the PLCB doesn’t offer, he said. The process is not fast — it might be weeks, but more likely it will be months, because it is dependent on the PLCB’s quarterly board meetings, where these purchases are approved.

And sometimes the answer is no, either because the product is unavailable through an approved vendor or because a luxury buyer recommended against acquiring it.

The usual protocol to ask the state to buy special wines or liquors is about as much fun as making an appointment to spay a cat. There’s one generic email address for inquiries about special orders, or a customer has to call a toll-free number during weekday business hours. In addition, any PLCB store employee can pass along a request to a district manager.

But the most efficient path to entreating the state to make a special order, Mr. Horst said, is in person through an employee at one of the state’s 78 Premium Collection stores. Those employees often have a better idea of which of the PLCB’s five wine buyers — they work under the Luxury Product Management Division chief in the Bureau of Product Selection in Harrisburg — to contact directly with a request.

Once a request lands with a luxury buyer — to the PLCB, “luxury” means “special,” not “expensive” — the buyers can choose to track down already-PLCB-approved importers or distributors who could offer the product.

The buyers also try to get a bottle for an official tasting.

Buyers can recommend against ordering a specific product without so much as sampling it, according to the PLCB’s published guidelines. Sometimes they think it simply won’t sell, sometimes they think an existing product is similar enough and superior.

These buyers often are looking on their own for new products as well, Mr. Horst said. Importers and distributors schedule tasting appointments and otherwise offer their wares. The buyers talk to sommeliers and other knowledgeable sources while also reading magazines, blogs and trade publications to get their own sense of what they might want to pursue.

“What’s on the ’Net, what’s out there?” he said.

Geography and demographics sometimes play in to what they buy.

The sake buyer, for example, has to consider whether a certain product might sell best “in Chinatown in Philadelphia or to sell to a Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Horst said.

Sake is Japanese, but the point remains.

A phone call or an email is often enough to get a luxury buyer’s attention, Mr. Redinger said.

“Luxury buyers are a lot more accessible than maybe people would think they are,” he said.

About three months after his initial inquiry about the Croatian wine, the buyer got back to him. He had taken part in tastings of Croatian wine organized through the PLCB for distributors to show off new products and thought he could offer his customers something special.

He became essentially the customers’ agent within the PLCB.

“I told her the Croatian wines available were just not that Croatian and I thought I could sell it,” Mr. Redinger said.

Pennsylvania usually requires an importer or distributor to acquire a new wine. With the Bibich R5 Riserva, the PLCB turned to a familiar face: Tony Jones, a PLCB employee for 29 years before he opened CBL Wine Company LLC in 2011. His office is in Philadelphia, hence the acronym for his business: City of Brotherly Love.

That the PLCB would buy only three cases and send them all to one store is not the norm, he said.

“This is a very isolated incident,” he said.

He said the order from the luxury buyer surprised him.

“If I was her boss, I say don’t just buy it for one store, buy enough for 20 stores,” he said.

That’s not always possible with a wine where just 300 cases were produced.

“But maybe I could have gotten five cases and you spread it around, look at sales and demographics, look to some of the urban stores,” he said.

A customer could try to contact him to directly to order wine, he said, but that rarely happens.

“The average customer doesn’t have the resources to find out I’m even the supplier for that,” he said.

CBL sells only to the state of Pennsylvania, he said, in part because that’s the bureaucratic world he knows. But that’s not the only reason.

“The government pays, and pays on time,” he said. “It might take a while, but that check always comes. And honestly, I live in Pennsylvania, too. And we need all the help we can get here in Pennsylvania getting better wine.”

The Bibich R5 Riserva is one of the first Croatian wines to be consistently imported to the United States. Distribution, however, is not egalitarian. Philadelphia got zero bottles. Pittsburgh, too, got none. Just Indiana.

Demographics don’t provide more of a hint why the PLCB said yes. The 2010 U.S. Census estimated somewhere between 303 and 713 people in Indiana County were of Croatian ancestry. Neither number cracks 1 percent.

Nor is the county an outlier in terms of alcohol sales. From July 2013 to June 2014, Indiana County PLCB stores were 32nd among Pennsylvania counties in sales, or 0.44 percent of the total across the commonwealth, before accounting for sales tax, according to the PLCB’s annual marketing report.

Following the luxury buyer’s recommendation, the PLCB voted to buy the Bibich R5 Riserva at its quarterly meeting Oct. 15, 2013, paying $150.43 per case, agency records show. That set the agency up for a 67.4 percent markup — a tidy profit of $8.45 per bottle, which sell for a dollar or two cheaper in other states.

The agency also ordered the Bibich R6, a red, also earmarked for the Premium Collection store in Indiana.

Two days later, Mr. Jones said, he got the purchase order.

The PLCB could have put him in touch with the customer and turned the order into what the state calls a Special Liquor Order, or SLO, which would have meant Mr. Jones could ship the wine directly to the customer instead of it going to a store.

But that’s not up to him.

He sent a contractor to pick up the wine, which like so many other imports was stored in a warehouse in northern New Jersey. Pennsylvania has its own transportation contractor, but using it means pickup doesn’t happen on Mr. Jones’ preferred schedule, he said.

From New Jersey the wine went to a warehouse in Scranton to get PLCB-specific barcodes affixed, and then to one of three PLCB distribution centers before going to the store in Indiana County.

“It would have hit shelves by mid-November,” Mr. Jones said.

Such a purchase doesn’t always work out for the PLCB.

The R6 sold out quickly, Mr. Redinger said. But the R5 languished. Sales to those first interested customers amounted to 17 bottles, leaving 19 bottles in the Town Fair Plaza store in Indiana. Mr. Redinger used five bottles for in-store tastings, although those have not led to more sales. That left 14 bottles.

Tracking them down meant a drive was in order. A reporter and a friend clambered into a Jeep on a cold and clear Friday and went the long way, 66 miles, on Route 28 to Route 422 into Indiana.

There the pursuit ended. Four bottles bought between them. Unicorn captured.

Jacob Quinn Sanders: jsanders@post-gazette.com.


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