January 06, 2007

A Few Thoughts on Newman’s Resignation from the PLCB

You’ve all heard by now that Jonathan Newman resigned from the PLCB. You can find the full text of his resignation letter here on the Clog. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Friday, wine enthusiasts are worried that Newman’s departure will affect the selection of wine we have enjoyed over the past few years. Actually, this worry existed prior to Newman’s departure, when the CEO position was created and took the statutorily-mandated day-to-day operations away from the Board. But now that Newman has resigned, the worry seems more real and the consequences more imminent.

Many people are taking a wait-and-see approach. But I'm less optimistic. There are signs already that things may get worse.

Part of it is understanding what we’ve lost. Everyone applauds Newman for making PA a more wine-friendly state. But what’s interesting is how he did it. Newman managed to take the one thing that made the selection of wines in PA abysmal—having to fill the shelves of 643 state-owned stores—and actually used it to expand the selection of wines—leveraging the state’s buying power to get great deals on quality wines. He transformed part of an antiquated bureaucracy into a sword for consumer advocacy. Such out-of-the box thinking is rare, even in the private sector. Sure, things weren’t perfect, but he made things better than they used to be.

I don’t know much about Conti. However, I do know that he has been opposed to privatizing the state-run system—not exactly the resume of an advocate for the PA wine consumer. So, I don’t have much confidence that he will pick up the baton of progress that was stripped from Newman’s grip, or run with the vigor and passion Newman displayed. I look forward to Conti proving me wrong.

Other clues that there’s a less-than-bright future ahead for wines lovers in PA can be found in statements the PLCB has made. The Chairman’s Selection program was one of Newman’s most successful innovations. Although the new chair, P.J. Stapleton, says that they “have a commitment” to the program, he said it is “hard to say at this point if there will be an increase or a decrease or if the quality will change.” The fact that Stapleton suggests that the quality could be in jeopardy and admits that the choices could decrease is not encouraging.

Also, Stapleton took a shot at the Chairman’s Selection program, saying “a lot of wineries in California and elsewhere looked at Pennsylvania as an opportunity to rid themselves of wine” they didn’t want or couldn’t sell. I’m not surprised by this and, in fact, it’s something I’ve always suspected. But, to be fair to Newman, this isn’t so much a problem with the Chairman’s Selection program as it is an inherent flaw in the state-run system that the Chairman’s Selection program simply couldn’t fix—having to fill the shelves of 643 stores across the entire state. If they only had to stock a few stores’ shelves, they would have the luxury of being more selective. Stapleton, who is not a wine lover, seems to suggest by his criticism that he believes the program should be reduced. But taking choices away from PA wine consumers, without something to counterbalance it, only seems to put us back where we started before Newman took the helm. We’ll see how it plays out, but these statements aren’t delivering the comfort or inspiration the PLCB should realize it needs to deliver right now.

I’d like to finish this post with a toast to former Chairman Newman. In honor of his innovations, I’ll raise a glass of one of his Chairman’s Selections—the 2003 Chateau Lascombes, an elegant Bordeaux from the Margaux region: Thank you for making Pennsylvania more of a wine-friendly state, and good luck with your future plans. And, hopefully, there will be a wine this enjoyable on the shelves the next time you visit a PLCB store. Cheers.


TrekMedic251 said...

I, for one, will probably go back to crossing the Ben Franklin again for decent wines.

As far as the "dumping bad wine on us" crack, I'm going to disagree. Its a matter of economics. When you're scooping up 90% of a particular vintage, that HAS to give you some price leverage as a buyer.

PhilaFoodie said...


I agree with you completely on the economics, but I don't think that's mutually exclusive from Stapleton's point.

The reason I think it's true that some wineries are using PA to clean out their closets is because the vintages on some of the wines that come in are around a year out of date from when they were initially released.

For example, the 2003 Michele Chiarlo Superiore Le Orme Barbera d'Asti came out in February 2006 and the PLCB received some in May 2006, which is timely. However, the PLCB received its second batch of the 03 Le Orme in December 2006, which just so happens to coincide with the release of the 04 Le Orme, suggesting that somebody decided to clean out their closet to make room for the 04.

I don't have a problem with wineries occasionally using PA to clean out their closets, though, as long as the wine has been stored properly and is still good. Plus, taking a few of these older cases off their hands helps build relationships with wineries, which Newman understood is part of the business.

Jake Melon said...

I was a big fan of the Chairman's selection and liked what Newman has done for PA. I am really concerned that now we will go back to the way things were in the past; going across the bridge or to DE to purchase good wine. It is a shame.