This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Mark Wilkins of PAWineTalk.com.
If opinions could be crushed to make wine, abundant cellars would abound. As for the quality of the wine, well, that’s another matter. The paths leading us to opinions can place relative worth on our stock.
Mark Wilkins, the man at the controls of PAWineTalk.com, sorts through thousands of wines and tasting reviews from Commonwealth collectors. He also referees occasional praise and countless gripes against the almighty state board. This wine guy has wisdom, and a good bottle, to share.
In the first part of our e-mail interview, Wilkins talked about the beginnings of PAWineTalk and his background. Now, the juicy bits.
Any opinions you want to relay about the PLCB? Is it as evil as people think it is?
While PAWineTalk is dedicated to wine only, a large part of the PLCB’s business comes from products that many PAWineTalk readers would rarely consider drinking. The PLCB has to cater to a much broader clientele than just a few wine lovers.
The PLCB was created by the Pennsylvania Legislature to control the sale of liquor and wine. Even if CEO Joe Conti wanted to, he couldn’t just wake up one day and say, “Public companies could do a better job, so we’re getting out of this business,” and shut down. They must sell wine, and they must be the only ones doing it in this state. So, I think the PLCB is in an unenviable position: They are mandated by law to do something that a large percentage of their customers think they shouldn’t be doing.
I try very hard not to take a public position on the PLCB itself. I have met a lot of PLCB employees and many of them try very hard to do a good job serving the public. Unfortunately, a lot of times all it takes is one uncaring or uninformed employee to create a bad experience, and then that tends to be a lasting impression, blotting out the past positive experiences.
One of the things that I don’t like about the PLCB is that many of the Wine & Spirits store employees seem to have little incentive to learn about the products they are selling or to improve the overall buying experience. Of course that’s a generalization and there a lot of exceptions. Usually there are one or two people from each Premium store who are pretty familiar with the wines they have, but if they are unavailable you can have a frustrating experience.
Do you correspond with the PLCB? More to the point, are they aware of you and do they try to give you input?
Yes I do correspond with several people at the PLCB, and no they don’t try to give me input, but I try to give them input!
A couple years before I started PAWineTalk, I returned from a trip to Sonoma and was disappointed to learn that they didn’t carry anything from a smaller winery I had visited and enjoyed. I sent an e-mail to the address on www.pawineandspirits.com asking about it, and a couple days later got a response. Honestly I hadn’t expected to get one. They said they had looked into it, were impressed with the winery, and were buying a couple of their wines. They even asked which store was closest to me so that they could be sure to stock it there. You could’ve blown me over with a feather.
Based on your time with the site and as a dedicated follower of the state system, do you have any tips for consumers who are looking to get more out of their wine purchasing experience in the Commonwealth?
Find the Luxury Wine Consultant at your local Premium Collection store, learn his/her name and make sure they know yours. Ask for their e-mail address, most of them are happy to respond to inquiries that way. Many also have e-mail lists that they maintain locally that they’ll use to send periodic updates.
Use PAWineTalk notifications. There will be fairly regular e-mails and some may not be of interest, but every once in a while you’ll get a heads up regarding something you really want. It’s always fun to walk into a store and ask for a specific wine and have them reply “How did you know we had that? It just arrived yesterday and we haven’t even put it out on the floor yet.”
Are there current PLCB offerings you’re impressed by?
Chairman’s Selections: I picked up a bottle of Mumm Napa DVX 2001 at $29.99 that I’m waiting to try, I’ve liked the other Mumm Napa sparkling wines I’ve had and the price is unbeatable. At the lower end, Murrieta’s Well Meritage 2005 for $10.99 is a great value, and the Diseno Malbec 2007 is also great for $7.99 and probably won’t last long. I’ve been wanting to try Epiphany Dry Riesling 2008. It’s $11.99 and got a great rating from one of the more prolific — and tough — raters on PAWineTalk.
Other wines: There are two Zinfandels from a small winery called Sequum which are really great. Again, not cheap ($29.99), but delicious. They are currently available only in a few stores across the state. Use the PAWineTalk Wine Availability Map to show which stores have them, they’re worth the hunt.
What’s the future hold for wine consumers in PA? Who has the potential to change the system?
Later this year, I expect the PLCB to start rolling out their automated kiosks. Look for them in grocery stores and malls/plazas. But they won’t hold much interest for fine wine drinkers, the selection will likely be limited to lower-end commodity items.
I should point out that there is a sizable population in the state who do not want the current system to change. And I don’t mean just PLCB employees and their union, and it’s not a Democrat vs. Republican thing, either. Remember, there are still parts of the state that are dry. The bill recently introduced by Mike Turzai to privatize the sale of wine and liquor is just the latest in a long line of similar bills, all of which have gone nowhere.
If you want things to change, send an e-mail to your legislator asking for their position, and if you don’t like it, vote him or her out!
Contact Jeff Alexander at [email protected] / On Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeffal66