Newman's exit still a sore point among wine lovers
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A posting a few weeks ago on the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters' Web site forum cast a dismal tone.
"The Chairman's Selection program wasn't perfect, but it was fun. And it was also cool to know that the person in charge really dug what he was doing," wrote the poster, James Andrews, a database professional who works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"And sure they're continuing the program and, who knows, there might even be a deal or three, but really the joy has been sucked out of it. For a moment there, it was possible to actually LIKE our draconian state store system, but no more."
The fact that Mr. Andrews used the past tense in reference to the Chairman's Selection program may be telling.
A year after Jonathan Newman resigned as Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board chairman, his absence remains a sore point among wine enthusiasts who frequent such sites as forums.egullet.org/ to swap information on wines and good bargains. Mr. Newman himself posted on the site several times over the years.
If his critics felt he too closely identified himself as the PLCB and wielded too much individual influence, no one disputed that Mr. Newman knew wine and had a passion for finding good deals. "It was so bad for so long, and he changed the perception of it. Suddenly you could get what you wanted," Mr. Andrews said in a telephone interview.
Now, Frank's Union Wine Mart in Wilmington, Del., (www.frankswine.com) has enlisted Mr. Newman to offer his recommendations on its Web site. They call it "X-Chairman's Selections."
Among those who don't count themselves as fans of Mr. Newman are some Pennsylvania winery owners who felt neglected during his chairmanship. "There was a period of 15 months that the LCB just didn't talk to us," said John Kramb, owner of Adams County Winery near Gettysburg and president of the Pennsylvania Winery Association. "We don't have a lot of show in state stores, so we were easy to ignore.
"The good news is that [PLCB Chairman Patrick J.] Stapleton and [CEO] Joe Conti have indicated there is a shift in the winds. The communications have opened up."
Among current board members, only new member Robert Marcus says he has been a collector. Mr. Stapleton does not make selections for the Chairman's Selection program.
"It just looks like the selections are not as interesting. There just doesn't seem to be that enthusiasm," said Katie Loeb of Philadelphia, who moderated the eGullet forum for years.
In an interview last month, Mr. Stapleton and Mr. Conti -- whose abrupt hiring by the board prompted Mr. Newman's resignation -- said they have moved on from the turmoil of a year ago, and expressed some surprise and slight irritation that it's still a topic of discussion.
Yet, as recently as November, some state stores carried Chairman's Selection wine notes signed by Mr. Newman. And the Oxford Centre store, for one, still has a kiosk featuring comments from former San Francisco Chronicle wine writer W. Blake Gray, who, after interviewing Mr. Newman for the first time, extolled Pennsylvania as "arguably the best place in America to buy wine."
Late last year, Mr. Gray joined Mr. Newman to start Newman Wine and Spirits, a company that will use the buying power of select retailers outside of Pennsylvania, a business model patterned after the Chairman's Selection program.
Mr. Gray now says "it's embarrassing to me personally" to have his earlier endorsement still on display because he believes the Chairman's Selection program "is now basically a closeout bin for stuff that people want to get rid of."
He added: "It's like a positive review continuing to hang in a restaurant window after the chef left to be replaced by an owner's nephew with no sense of smell. I wish I could take a chisel and scrape my name off in all of those stores."
Those who know wine, and who followed the changes on the liquor board, are undoubtedly a select group, but they say average consumers are affected whether they know it or not.
"Clearly, having someone who's passionate about wine on a personal level in charge of a wine purchaser that's the size of Pennsylvania is only going to benefit the consumer," said Ms. Loeb. "It's not going to become the gulag shop experience like it was, but will there be a noticeable drop in quality? Yes, I think so." --Steve Twedt
First Published January 28, 2008 12:00 am