A group of wine pros strive to make
Pennsylvania a better place for drinking
Photographed By Chloe Berk
Most wine stories begin in an idyllic vineyard in the hills of Tuscany, or maybe with a bottle procured at a shop in a less-than-fashionable arrondissement in Paris. But in Pennsylvania, most wine stories begin in Johnstown. Located in Cambria County, about 40 miles southwest of Altoona, Johnstown has been the site of a series of devastating floods dating back to 1889. That first flood killed more than 2,000 Pennsylvania residents and did $17 million dollars worth of damage ($425 million in today’s terms). The Johnstown Flood prompted the first major disaster- relief effort from the newly formed American Red Cross. So what in the world does a 125-year-old flood have to do with the current state of wine in Pennsylvania? It is, to say the least, complicated.
In 1936, after Johnstown was victim to yet another devastating flood, the Pennsylvania General Assembly imposed a 10% emergency tax on all wine and spirits sold in the state. It was supposed to be a temporary tax that funded victims of the flood and recovery and cleanup efforts in Johnstown.
With the help of the flood tax, Johnstown was up and running again in six years. Funny thing is that in 1963 the tax was raised to 15%, and then raised again to 18% in 1968. The so-called temporary tax was never repealed and is worked into the price of every bottle sold through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) to this day.
But in the grand scheme of wine pricing and distribution in the state of Pennsylvania, the Johnstown Flood Tax is only the beginning of the problem. Without digging too deep into the math of wine and spirit sales in Pennsylvania, we can tell you that instead of paying wholesale, restaurants basically pay retail for all wine, spirits and beer. Plus, they’re taxed twice—8% on their purchase from the PLCB and another 8% when the goods are resold to the public.
Add these numbers to the fact that the government is the sole purchaser of wine and spirits in the state, and the situation gets murkier than the inkiest (and priciest) bottle of Zinfandel you’ve ever bought in the state of Pennsylvania.
In other states, passionate amateurs and professionals alike can go about pursuing their love of under-the-radar varietals and trophy bottles relatively unfettered by state agencies. But in Pennsylvania, wine, like pharmaceuticals and firearms, is regulated by the government.
A quick trip over the bridge to Jersey or south on I-95 to Delaware shows that things over state lines are different. There are boutique wine shops with knowledgeable clerks ready to assist, and restaurant wine menus that list bottles at reasonable prices. And there are those of us who risk illegal weekly or monthly out-of-state trips to stock our cellars with more interesting (and cheaper) bottles rather than enduring the state store.
The mood and feel of the state store, a Pennsylvania institution, goes back to the days where the state-run shops were set up in a similar fashion to a pharmacy; in essence, they were dispensaries, where there was a ledger of stock that customers would order by number from a state-employed attendant stationed behind the counter. And while the state is making strides to improve the ambiance and staff education of certain shops around the state, most still have the same lacking selection and neon-lit sterility (but none of the friendliness) of a neighborhood drugstore from 1972.
With years of restaurant experience under her belt and the background of an early adopter in the world of natural wines, Kate Jacoby, co-owner of Vedge in Center City, has curated a remarkable wine list of small-production, minimally manipulated wines that you’re not likely to find in your local Fine Wine and Good Spirits.
“People who shop exclusively in state stores have a very limited scope of what’s available to them. It’s as if you’re eating in the same restaurant every single night and they change their menu every once in a while and they only have one style of cooking,” says Jacoby. It’s not that Jacoby doesn’t have faith in the future of the PLCB. “I formed really good relationships with the people working at the state stores over the years,” she says. “I feel like there are definitely good people working there, very capable in a very difficult system.” But she says those people are the exception to the rule. “It’s sad for me because wine is a such a passion of mine.”
At Vedge, she tries to stack the wine list with bottles that won’t break the bank for diners. “We try to keep our markups low. We want to be able to serve really good stuff and not have to lose our shirts on it,” says Jacoby.
The world of good wine in Pennsylvania, and even more so in Philadelphia, is a close-knit community of people who are so passionate about bringing in good bottles that they’re willing to fight to do so. Importer David McDuff is at the forefront of this local movement. Fifteen years ago McDuff was working with David Bowler, an importer based in Manhattan, and living in Philadelphia. Sitting at the bar at a.kitchen just off Rittenhouse Square, McDuff talks about his first foray into serious wine sales in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a pain; it’s a bottle state, which means that pricing in Pennsylvania is based on a bottle of wine and not on a case of wine.” McDuff goes on to explain that while wine in other states is purchased by the case (and at a bulk discount), the PLCB insists on a pricing structure that’s based on single bottles. “For an importer that’s used to selling many cases at a time, the idea is generally not very appealing.”
But somehow the headache, and perhaps the challenge, of the state motivated him. He approached Bowler.
“Through me being very persistent and doing the basics with a couple with my first clients here in Pennsylvania, I proved that while, yes, we would sell bottles here and there, and we would also sell plenty of cases.”
Paging through the wine list of a.kitchen, you’ll see a treasure trove of grower Champagne, a tour of the Loire and an intro to the wonders of the Jura. Clearly, McDuff ’s persistence as the restaurant’s wine distributor has paid off.
“People who shop exclusively in state stores
have a very limited scope of what’s available to
them. It’s as if you’re eating in the same restaurant
every single night and they change their
menu every once in a while and they only have
one style of cooking,” says Jacoby.
“A.kitchen was pretty much my first client in Pennsylvania, not the first person that I ever sold wine to in Pennsylvania, but they’re the first real customer of note,” says McDuff. He credits a.kitchen’s operator David Fields with putting the wine program together here. He had the original vision for it and he was the one who convinced Bowler that it was worth his time to try to sell wine in Pennsylvania. “Even though things have evolved tremendously in Pennsylvania, a.kitchen remains one of my best customers and one of the biggest moving forces in Pennsylvania with the wine movement.”
Wine lists in restaurants around the city (and even in select state stores around the city) show that things are improving at lightning speed. Tim Kweeder built the list at a.kitchen and a.bar while working a side gig at Moore Brothers, a cult wine shop with locations in both New Jersey and Delaware. Since then, he’s gone on to man the ingenious list at Petruce et al.
Upstart Philly-based importers Megan Storm and Jason Malumed have made it their mission to ensure that esoteric bottles are on lists and shelves around town and that the sommeliers so stoked on these pours can finally get their corkscrews around them.
Mariel Wega took over the list at a.kitchen and a.bar from Kweeder and she sees wholesale pricing as the biggest obstacle in introducing customers in Pennsylvania to a more exciting range of wine. “If we could pay the wholesale price rather than retail, that would certainly help us offer a better price to the guest as well. As soon as fairer prices are available to us, we can pass that on and do more exciting things—really mix up the glass-pour lists around town,” says Wega.
Sommelier Lauren Harris, who recently opened Townsend on East Passyunk in Philadelphia, is more than pleased about her restaurant’s abbreviated and well-thought-out one-page wine list. “I’ve never served this much bottled wine. I think that the guests in Philadelphia recognize that there’s better value in a bottle.”
Along with the increase in bottle sales, Harris sees a trend toward more thoughtful wine menus around the city, lists where each bottle is hand-picked by everyone along the chain: from the small producers making the wine to the importers and distributors who find them and the sommeliers who put them on the list. Harris says she notices that more and more guests are willing to go with lesser-known bottles. She thinks that’s a direct result of the enthusiasm and education diners are getting from this new wave of wine professionals working in Philadelphia. “It’s like a supportive cushion of [wine] exposure and everyone’s destined to be into it.”
While the wholesale pricing structure most other states enjoy might be years away, perusing the wine menu of places like a.kitchen, Townsend and Petruce et al. gives wine lovers a lot to be excited about.