Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh a few years ago, I needed to pick up some beer for a potluck. My uncle pointed me towards a place, and I figured I would grab a six-pack on my way. I walked in and found—you guessed it—nary a six-pack in sight. I asked the guy at the counter where the six-packs were and he mumbled something about a sports bar down the street. I left with lots of questions and a case of some unremarkable beer.
That was my introduction to our fair state’s wild and wacky attitudes towards booze. Pennsylvania has some of the strictest alcohol laws in the country and is one of only two states where the government maintains a complete monopoly over the sale of wine and spirits (Utah is the other). They keep a close eye on beer as well, regulating where, when and how much of it can be sold.
The debate continues to rage over whether the system ought to be privatized. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) argues that the current system generates important revenue for the state and that their bulk buying power allows them to pass on savings to consumers. Others say that the laws are arcane, inconvenient and drastically limit selection (you’ll never guess what side I’m on). Proposals for varying degrees of privatization have been bouncing around Harrisburg for years, but for now the PLCB chugs along, largely untouched since the end of Prohibition.
Keep an eye on in-store sales
Each month, Fine Wine & Good Spirits posts a list of in-store specials. These sales, which generally range from one to five dollars off hundreds of wines and spirits, are in effect at every state store for the entire month. If you aren’t brand loyal, it can be a great way to try out a new bourbon or cabernet at a (slightly) reduced price. Check out the month’s specials here.
If it’s not on the shelf, check the site
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in stores, check online. Over at the Fine Wine and Good Spirits website, you can find hundreds of bottles that are only available online. Still more bottles can be special ordered through third party suppliers, though these sometimes require a minimum quantity. There are shipping fees and wait times associated with both online and special orders, but they might be worth it to get that interesting pick you’ve been searching for.
Shop Premium Collection stores
These are the special Wine and Spirit stores that carry the usual products, plus an expanded and much better selection of limited distribution wines and “luxury spirits.” Plus nearly every Premium Collection store is open on Sundays, unlike most of the regular stores. And when you’re there, you can …
Buy the Chairman’s Selections
If you’re like me, you don’t get more than a few steps into the store before grabbing some wine. That’s because all the Chairman’s Selections are prominently displayed right at the entrance of Premium Collection stores. The Chairman’s Selection program, which started in 2000, puts the state’s buying power to use and discounts an ever-changing variety of good and often very good wines. Upcoming selections include a 2013 Castillo de Monjardin Tempranillo for $7.99 (seven dollars off the quoted price) and a 2012 Kite Hawk Wines Cuvee for $29.99 (a whopping $52 off the quoted price). Chairman’s Selections also come with a vivid description to assist the curious novice.
Don’t be afraid to travel
When it comes to wines and spirits, shopping around won’t save you any money—prices are the same across the state. But if you know where to go, you can find a much better selection than your local store might carry. The Shadyside store (store ID 0263), located in the Eastside shopping center on Penn Circle, just underwent a massive remodel and though the selection didn’t change much, the store is now a much more pleasant place to peruse. For a larger store, albeit a less shiny and new one, head to the Waterworks (store ID 0214). Like the Shadyside store, the Waterworks location is a Premium Collection store, and it boasts one of the largest arrays of wine in the area. Or you can try an alternative to state stores and shop Dreadnought Wines which just moved from the Strip to Lawrenceville. They offer a great selection along with classes and wine tastings. But back to the Waterworks …