The Wizard of Wine

It appears the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s controversial wine kiosk program is coming to a close now that the State and Simple Brands, the manufacturer of the machines, couldn’t come to an agreement on money the State alleges Simple Brands owes.

As you are aware, these kiosks are, first of all, HUGE. Like, I think the Wizard might live in them.

I have never used the kiosk in my local Giant Eagle because at first I was intimidated by the sheer size of the machine, then it was out of order for several months, and then I was not chancing the machine eating my driver’s license for lunch, which was one of the reported malfunctions.

I was previously aware that in order to receive a bottle of wine from a kiosk, you had to swipe a valid ID to prove you were of age. I was also aware of the added Big Brotheresque step of breathing into a breathalyzer to ensure that the customer is not drunk.


I was, however, unaware of this step:

The customer must … look into a surveillance camera that is remotely monitored by a state employee in Harrisburg who approves the sale after verifying the buyer isn’t drunk and matches the photo ID.

You realize what this means don’t you? That at some point, in some meeting in Harrisburg, the great minds of our state sat around a table and essentially said this:

“Okay, we want to put wines into the hands of our consumers more easily. We can do that two ways. We can spend a couple million dollars to have customized kiosks the size of actual Kias. The customers will have to swipe their ID card. When they swipe the ID card, that will trigger a search in our database to pull up that person’s driver’s license while the customer is asked to blow into a breathalyzer and then stand very still and look into a camera. We will then hire staff, we’ll call them wizards, to man computers in Harrisburg who will have remote access to every single transaction that takes place at the kiosks all over the state, and they will be charged with matching up the face to the license, confirming the breathalyzer readout, and then if nothing went wrong with all that technology — the scanner, the breathalyzer, the camera, the database, the delivery mechanism, the doohickeys, and the whatsits — the technician will then approve the sale at which time, hopefully, the machine will recognize the command coming from Harrisburg and allow the customer to purchase a bottle of wine.  OR, option two, we could let the grocery stores sell wine.”


God save us from the Commonwealth, the Mommy Dearest of Big Brothers.


  1. CrashJK
    September 21, 2011 6:00 am

    FREE MY BEER NOW ! Abolish the union and state’s monopoly on beer, wine and spirits !!! Wooooooo

    Let’s Go PENS !

  2. Ex-Pat Pittsburgh Girl
    September 21, 2011 9:51 am

    You’re giving someone way too much credit. What more likely happened was a bunch of folks got around a dinner table at some fancy restaurant in Philly with an industry lobbyist who had a client who had some business relationship (BIG DONOR) and said “how can we fleece the taxpayers and make some big money for ourselves. MWAH MWAH MWAH MWAH.”

  3. Larry
    September 21, 2011 10:09 am

    I think it was somewhere between Ginny’s and Ex-Pat’s idea. Probably more like, “OK, nobody here really wants to expand consumer choice and convenience, despite what our marketing materials say, right? OK, then … how can we give the *appearance* that we’re making things more convenient, and take the steam out of the ‘get rid of the State Store system’ meme, while really just keeping the status quo?”

    (In all seriousness, as I recall, the proposal to adopt this Rube Goldberg-esque solution only appeared in the day or two *after* a proposal hit the state legislature to disband the State Store system…)

  4. Pittsburgh Tom
    September 21, 2011 10:16 am

    One of my favorite part that you left out was that the kiosks had the same hours as state stores, which takes away one of the conveniences of having wine sold in grocery stores.

  5. bucdaddy
    September 21, 2011 10:20 am

    I had heard so much about these things that I wanted to see one in action, so one day after I was finished visiting my dad in Bethel Park, I stopped at the South Hills Gint Iggle to look. As my good fortune would have it, the moment I found it a woman stepped up to try to get a bottle out of it. So I watched, just for the sheer amusement value. It took her a good five minutes to do all the swiping and breathing, and when she finally, FINALLY got her bottle, she turned and saw me watching and said something like, “Well, THAT was hard.” And I said, “I’m sorry, but I just had to see this thing in action. I’m from West Virginia, where I can walk into my grocery store and buy Jack Daniels off the shelf.”

    There’s apparently no bottom to the humiliation y’all up there will endure.

    “Well I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused.”

    — Elvis Costello

  6. mike
    September 21, 2011 10:30 am

    75% of the time I’ve been past one of these there’s a state employee standing by to assist with the purchase. That means that for every purchase at a machine housing maybe 100 different SKUs you’ve got two state employees involved. Our state is a mess.

  7. Butcher's Dog
    September 21, 2011 10:52 am

    In the list of evidence to prove “our state is a mess” the wine kiosks are pretty far down, IMHO. We have, what?, one in nine bridges with serious problems, we laid off teachers by droves, and we want to seriously diminish our clout in national elections by splitting our take of electoral votes by district. Yeah, the wine boondoggle probably puts over the top on this one.

  8. Sam's Dog
    September 21, 2011 12:46 pm

    And in defense of this program, in this morning’s PG, Joe Conti, the LCB’s CEO said the experiment was “an innovative attempt to marry the convenience of buying wine with buying food in a supermarket.” See, all those other states who simply put wine on a shelf are absolutely not being “innovative.” Conti also said that while it certainly wasn’t a failure, it didn’t end up successful. See, there really is an alternate universe in which our political appointees reside. @ Bucdaddy, yeah, but do the angels want to wear your red shoes?

  9. Ex-Pat Pittsburgh Girl
    September 21, 2011 1:04 pm

    Legislation to privatize the state stores has been around for ages. The last serious attempt was during Ridge’s first term and he got so much flack from the unions that he never brought it up again. Having worked in Harrisburg off and on for over the past 13 years, @Larry, trust me, it’s way closer to what I put forth than Ginny.

  10. AngryMongo
    September 21, 2011 1:09 pm

    And why is the wine not on the shelf next to the beer in my Giant Eagle? Is it that I have a better chance of buying wine, while drunk, than beer?

    Honestly, you go to the store, grab beer off the shelf, walk up to the register, pay for the beer and walk out. And this all takes place while Joe Yinzer is only at step 2 of the Wine Kiosk Sobriety Checkpoint Test.

  11. efw_west
    September 21, 2011 1:23 pm

    is it me, or does every state store employee look like they must have a relative somehow connected to the government? And asking questions to them usually brings stares of bewilderment…..

  12. bluzdude
    September 21, 2011 1:24 pm

    Why not just have a cop there on duty to administer the white line/backwards alphabet/axe-juggling field sobriety test? I mean, let’s be REAL sure that the drunks aren’t buying alcohol.

  13. Cnik
    September 21, 2011 1:27 pm

    Lets see… how could we make it easier….

    Hmmm… how about simply letting the Giant Eagle (or any other store) clerk simply allow me to grab a bottle off the shelf and then have THEM looks at my ID. Could it possibly be that easy?

    Nah… lets just waste loads of $$$$ to make sure the process is completely screwed.

  14. Cnik
    September 21, 2011 1:29 pm

    PLus… I’ll never understand why they would need to have a breathalyzer… Are they saying that I shouldn’t be drunk when I’m buying a product that will make me drunk?

    maybe they should sniff the clothing of smokers next to make sure they don’t smell like the stuff they will soon smell like…

  15. Butcher's Dog
    September 21, 2011 1:33 pm

    Honesty compels me to say that the state store employees in my small Mercer County town are friendly and seem knowledgable about the products. And since it was pointed out that, should privatization ever occur and supply and demand being what it is, I may have to open my own liquor store to insure I get the brand of wine I like, I think I’ll stick to the way things are now. Not that they’re ever going to change in my lifetime. This IS Pennsylvania, after all.

  16. The Hamburgular
    September 21, 2011 1:33 pm

    The kiosks should have saved on payroll and benefits for state store employees, but it didn’t. Perhaps to cut down on payroll expenses, I’ve oberved an increase in the number of 20-somethings working in state stores. The older employees cost more. The trade off is the product knowledge.

  17. unsatisfied
    September 21, 2011 1:34 pm

    just do what I did….move!

  18. PAgirlinFlorida
    September 21, 2011 1:43 pm

    It’s getting to be the time of year where the climate in Florida is becoming more tolerable…but buying wine and beer in the grocery store is on the list of reasons to live here too! That said, can’t wait to be back in western PA this weekend – woo-hoo!

  19. spoon
    September 21, 2011 1:51 pm


    OK i’m done now.

    no wait


    now i am…

  20. Cnik
    September 21, 2011 3:30 pm

    @Butcher… why wouldn’t a private store be able to order the brand of wine you like? It works fine that way in other states?

  21. AiXeLsyD13
    September 21, 2011 3:58 pm

    You speak the truth! This is a genius post, point well illustrated.

    But then again… it is the government we’re talking about here.

  22. Butcher's Dog
    September 21, 2011 4:01 pm

    @Cnik: maybe. Takes longer than just walking into my local state store now, though.

  23. Ex-Pat Pittsburgh Girl
    September 21, 2011 4:18 pm

    @Cnik — In PA, if another state store has the wine, then they can swap it out. If not, it can only be ordered and sent to @Butcher’s Dog’s neighborhood store if the distributor has a contract with the LCB. Out of state wine distributors — especially when dealing with small batches and small vineyards –do not have contracts with the LCB, primarily due to volume.

  24. Heather
    September 21, 2011 4:52 pm

    Definitely one of the better things about now living out of state. I can buy hard liquor in Kroger, kids in tow. And it’s way cheaper than it is at any state store…

  25. Ms Lee
    September 21, 2011 5:47 pm

    All you need to know about this situation and the future of privatization is summed up by the PLCB’s founder. Upon its creation, Governor Gifford Pinchot stated that the purpose of the Board was to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

    He’d be pleased to know that his legacy lives on.

  26. TC
    September 21, 2011 6:24 pm

    How did the state make that decision? Easy. The company that makes the kiosks are friends of Ed Rendell, and gave $400,000 in campaign donations.

  27. Shibori
    September 21, 2011 8:21 pm

    Yinz laugh at us down here in Fayette County, but I can take the new 43 toll road (another brilliant cost-benefit analysis from Harrisburg) and in 20 minutes (round trip) on my lunch break buy beer and liquor at a gas station the way God intended, cheaper than the state store even when you add in the toll.

    And for anyone that thinks that dropping the state stores would raise prices and limit selection, check out the new-ish Kroger near Ruby hospital next time you’re in Morgantown. The staff in the beer and wine department know their stuff, take special requests with no hassle, and their prices have been anywhere from 10-30% less than here in PA (in my experience). Of course that’s if you could find the same brands here in PA anyway, which often you can’t.

  28. bucdaddy
    September 22, 2011 1:29 am

    Shibori speaks the truth. I live a mile from that Kroger. It does, however, not have a liquor department. The University Towne Center Giant Eagle, a few miles down the highway from Mount Morris, does have a liquor department and a decent wine selection, but a crappy beer cooler. Can’t have everything, I guess.

    Anyway, Shibori, I invite you to venture a little farther and visit the Morgantown Brewing Co. downtown or the outpost of Mountain State Brewing in the Wharf.

  29. johnaz6312
    September 22, 2011 8:20 am

    I on a regular basis stop at the Circle K,here in AZ and pick up a 16oz can of Becks beer. They have wine too but I’m a beer drinker. The clerk has yet to administer a breathlyzer to me before he sells me the beer. Thats convenience.

  30. Michelle Smiles
    September 22, 2011 10:31 am

    Just finished listening to the NPR show Radio Times discussing this issue. Now the whole country is making fun of PA. They asked for people who used the machines to call in to discuss their experience and no one would admit it.

  31. mkmccp
    September 22, 2011 7:27 pm

    I used one at the giant iggle at the Waterfront. I couldn’t find the Riesling listed in the “white wine “sections so I hit the help button.. and a voice from within the machine asked me what I needed help with. I was so freaked out. They were very nice and talked me through where to find the button for the Riesling bottle, but for a minute there I really did think there was a wizard inside that ginormous vending machine.