Like most people, I was a picky eater when I was a kid. Food certainly wasn’t something I looked to for adventure. But when I was in junior high something happened to change that.
I stopped by to visit my friend Frank, who was cooking something for dinner. I can’t remember what he was stirring in the pan, but it certainly didn’t look or smell anything like food—at least no food I had ever seen. So, of course, when he offered it to me, I colorfully said no. Frank then said something that flipped a switch in my head, forcing me to reexamine my assumptions about food and allowing me to start thinking about food in a different way:
“Why?” he asked. “It’s not a tattoo.”
A tattoo, back then at least, was a strong symbol of commitment and was pretty close to permanent. Frank was saying that no matter how much I didn’t like the taste of his experiment, it wasn’t going to be permanent. But he was also saying something else. Like tattoos, trying unfamiliar food can be a form of expression and rebellion. And without the permanence and commitment of a tattoo, there was no good reason to refuse.
That’s when it clicked—I grabbed a plate and joined Frank for dinner. After that, rebellion started to taste pretty damn good. That rebellion has since ripened into a sense of adventure, a way to challenge my tastes and perspectives, a way to learn.
And that is part of why I find Snackbar to be such an exciting venue. Snackbar is the latest addition to Philadelphia’s small plates scene. Situated in Rittenhouse Square, its cozy digs feature comfy chairs, low tables and an elevated fireplace high enough for everyone to enjoy.
Snackbar takes a cerebral approach to the small plates format. Jonathan McDonald, Snackbar’s chef, practices a little of what some would call molecular gastronomy—a ten-dollar word that means McDonald understands the chemical and physical properties of food and exploits that knowledge by experimenting with inventive food combinations and cooking techniques. In other words, McDonald’s a bit of a culinary rebel.
As a result, Snackbar’s offerings may challenge you. Some of its dishes are ponderous and could leave you deconstructing them for days. A few may even be a little intimidating, such as the Curried Banana (yes, it’s a dessert and, strangely, it works), the Sweet Curried Popcorn (an addictive snack you’ll often find at the bar) and the infamous Adrahan Cheese (it smells like it was aged in the bowels of a wet Egyptian mummy, but it’s delicious). But if you have an open mind and take the time to unpack the flavors and think about how they work together, it could be a wonderfully rewarding experience.
One of the most approachable plates is the Chocolate Cake. Don’t let this unassuming dessert fool you, though; if you pay close attention, you’ll discover there’s a lot going on with this dish. Like many of Snackbar’s offerings, the chocolate cake is participatory and empowering in that you have the ability to construct different bites on your own from the various elements on the plate.
The cake arrives cracked open, spilling a warm pool of chocolate pudding. The cake itself is a light yet intense chocolate and is even more satisfying with a taste of the rich pudding. Hidden inside the pudding is a small treasure—a whisper of licorice. It’s subtle, delicate and once you find it you’ll be digging for more. But there’s only enough for one bite, maybe two if you’re lucky. Another surprise is that the cake is topped with a few carefully placed grains of coarse salt, taking the dish in yet another direction. Again, these bites are fleeting. Finally, you’ll scoop into the bed of light cream that cradles ground malted coffee for a more robust and hearty perspective. All told, this meticulously mapped-out morsel is one of the most compelling chocolate desserts in the city.
Other dishes that allow you to play with interesting flavor combinations are the Beef Gyoza and the Poached Foie Gras. The Beef Gyoza, for example, allows you to pair the briny cornichons or mustard seed on the dumplings with the mocha caramel sauce—both of which are stellar combinations.
The Foie Gras successfully plays with extremes—the rich, savory poached foie gras on one hand and the sweet buckwheat bun and quince paste on the other.
Coming soon to the new menu (it may already be there) is the Beef Tongue, the more intense cousin of the Beef Gyoza. Like the Gyoza, it employs mustard and cornichons, but this time they're artfully paired with coffee and high-quality, fatty beef tongue.
Snackbar also knows how to pay attention to the details. The Brussels Sprouts, for example, had just the right amount of truffle oil to enhance the earthiness of this much-maligned vegetable; too much of this potent delicacy would have overpowered the smokey, grilled flavor. Also, the sprouts are cut in half, allowing the flavors to permeate leaves—an intuitive and necessary, but time-consuming, step that is often overlooked with sprouts. The almond foam and the Marcona almonds enhanced the sprouts’ nutty flavor in this carefully constructed dish.
When you're taking risks, you expect that some of the dishes will miss the mark. But with Snackbar, ironically, some of the safer dishes were the ones I found to be the least impressive. I know the Pork Belly has received a lot of accolades. But, quite frankly, it did not live up to the hype. The technique of slow-cooking the egg with the stock is rather conventional these days. And the pork belly itself had surprisingly little taste; the egg broth seemed to drown whatever flavor it may have had. The Vanilla Financier also had some issues. The cake was a little dry, and the layer of gel that topped the cake did not add much to the dish. Also, the Barbequed Chicken, while beautifully plated and very well-prepared, was not particularly flavorful.
Some of Snackbar’s dishes are pretty cutting edge. And for that reason, not everyone will walk away with the same impression. But for those of you who are up for a little adventure, Snackbar could be a whole lot of fun. For those of you who normally play it safe, just think of it this way: It’s not a tattoo.
January 28, 2007
Ladies and gentlemen, start your appetites. Nary a snowflake has fallen yet here in Center City Philadelphia, but it’s already time for the winter installment of Restaurant Week.
You know the drill, folks—from January 28 to February 2, 2007 over 100 Center City restaurants will offer a minimum of 3 courses for only $30.
A list of participating restaurants and their menus can be found here (including the newly-opened Xochitl [pronounced “so-cheet”]). Many restaurants allow you to make reservations through Open Table.
If you have any particularly enjoyable (or disappointing) Restaurant Week experiences this time around, feel free to talk about them here in the comments.
January 27, 2007
Alright, I’ll admit it. I bought this wine to satisfy my inner geek. What can I say—resistance was futile.
Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will recall that Chateau Picard was the fictional 24th Century red wine estate in La Barre, France owned and operated by Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother. The wine was featured in several ST:NG episodes and movies. At the “40 Years of Star Trek: The Collection” auction held in October 2006, two empty bottles of the 2267 vintage of Chateau Picard, which were used as props in the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, sold for $6,600. Talk about wine futures….
The real Chateau Picard is located in Saint-Estèphe and was classified a cru bourgeois in 1932. Mähler Besse purchased the property in 1997 and modernized the equipment. The property grows Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) and Merlot (15%).
On the nose: The nose is not all that fragrant, though you can detect light notes of graphite, spices and green peppers.
On the palate: Typical of wines from Saint-Estèphe, the acid in this medium-bodied red is fairly high, and the tannins are not too far behind. The Merlot seems to restrain some of the tannins in the mid-palate, but eventually they boomerang back to claim the finish. The cherry fruit flavors are fiercely tart and subdued. Sadly, not as elegant or as refined as you would expect from the family of a decorated Starfleet Captain (perhaps the 2267 vintage will be a little more supple). But even without the help of a Tricorder, you may be able to detect a few faint notes of chocolate and nutmeg lurking in the background.
On the wallet: I tend to enjoy acid and tannins in my wine. And I do prefer Picard over Kirk. So this wine is fun for me, at least it will be for a bottle or two. But unless you’re really into tannins, acid and/or bald Starfleet Captains, $23.99 may be a bit steep for this sharp, little gum-stretcher.
On the table: This wine screams for food. Stick with rich meats or cream-based dishes. Avoid pairing with tomato sauces and Klingon cuisine.
January 23, 2007
You may recall former PLCB Chairman Jonathan Newman saying that Pennsylvania Senator John Rafferty, the Chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, was planning to hold a hearing at the end of January regarding the process used to hire a CEO for the PLCB. That hearing, in fact, was held today.
For all of you Pennsylvania politics geeks out there, you can find links to video of the hearing on the Pennsylvania Senate Republican News site, including:
(1) the Testimony of Former PLCB Chairman Jonathan Newman (followed by Q&A) [56 minutes]; and
(2) the Testimony of PLCB Chairman Patrick J. Stapleton and PLCB Member Thomas Goldsmith (followed by Q&A) [1 hour 20 minutes].
It’s worth clicking on the testimony of PLCB Chairman P.J. Stapelton. After his response to a question hits the 8 minute mark (and cartoonishly involves several black-and-white charts), the microphone inadvertently catches the Senator who asked the question whispering to a colleague, "I’m sorry I asked the question." (See time index 23:27.) Too funny. What's funnier, though, is that Stapelton's response then goes on for another 4 minutes.
It appears that the hearing continues on Jan. 30. Following the link below, you will find the text of former Chairman Newman’s testimony.
TESTIMONY OF JONATHAN NEWMAN BEFORE
THE SENATE LAW AND JUSTICE COMMITTEE
JANUARY 23, 2007
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify today regarding the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and the selection of its new Chief Executive Officer.
Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my 7 ½ year tenure on the PLCB, having served as Board Chairman for the last 4 ½ years.
I have been appointed by three Governors and have been unanimously confirmed three times by this Senate, for which I am grateful. I take pride in the entire PLCB team and its record of accomplishment during my tenure. I believe that together we have erased much of the negative perception of the Agency from the past, and that Pennsylvania’s taxpayers and consumers believed we were making strong progress.
When Governor Rendell reappointed me as Chairman in June 2006, he stated, “[B]y incorporating innovative e-commerce practices and initiating the Chairman’s Selection Wine program, Jonathan has helped position Pennsylvania as a national leader in the growing wine industry.” The Governor also stated, “By adding new stores, expanding product selection and educating employees, he has led the Board’s efforts to improve the PLCB’s retail operation.” I appreciate the Governor’s kind words and emphasize again that the credit is shared by the entire PLCB team. For my part, I will say that I enjoyed my fulltime commitment to Pennsylvania’s consumers and worked my 60-to-70 hour weeks believing I was making a difference in people’s lives.
The PLCB has been a labor of love for me. I enjoyed it all: visiting stores; getting to know our employees; conducting tastings with our specialty wine team; improving selection, prices and the consumer experience; building morale; and developing our esprit de corps. I also believed it was important to connect with consumers and enjoyed my many evenings with them at Chairman’s Selection dinners, wine tastings, store openings and our other consumer-oriented events. While my family is happy to have me with them nights again, and I’m certainly delighted to be with them, I will miss these events and interacting with our consumers.
To my great satisfaction, the many marketing and legislative initiatives successfully implemented during my time with the PLCB seemed to resonate with consumers: Enhanced employee training; stores in supermarkets; more attractive Premium Collection stores; the Chairman’s Selection wine program; gift cards; temperature control for fine wine; an e-commerce website and wine clubs; the Philadelphia, Central Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh Wine Festivals; outlet stores; Sunday sales; new holiday openings; accessory sales and in-store samplings. Consumers voted in favor of such innovations with their hard earned dollars.
And I was certainly looking forward to the exciting new initiatives I had in the pipeline, including the Virtual Store, which would make a much greater product selection available to consumers anywhere in the state with superior web functionality.
On July 10, 2006, the PLCB issued a press release approved by the Administration’s Press Office. The release was titled “PLCB Announces Record Sales Performance: Sales Growth Exceeds 7 Percent For The Third-Consecutive Year.” It noted that for FY 05-06, the PLCB would return $80 million in profits and $315 million in taxes to the Commonwealth. It reported the PLCB would provide more than $18.5 million to the Pennsylvania State Police for enforcement, $2 million to the Department of Health for drug and alcohol programs, and $4.5 million in license fees to local municipalities. Member Goldsmith noted that “the PLCB will have contributed more than $420 million to the Commonwealth, bringing the total to more than $1.5 billion for the past four years.”
The PLCB has not achieved this kind of consecutive year-over-year growth since the end of World War II—and this while our state’s population has remained fairly stagnant. In fact, the PLCB’s Breakout Flash Report, dated just the day before the CEO was approved by the Board, shows this trend as sustained through my tenure. This December 12th report shows that sales for the present fiscal year were already up over 5.7% in units and a healthy 7.6% in dollars.
And as you will hear, our bottom line is as healthy as our top line.
A review of PLCB Comparative Operating results over the last three fiscal years shows gross sales increased to $1.38 billion in FY 03-04, $1.465 in FY 04-05, and $1.573 billion in FY 05-06, with expenses holding steady as a percent of gross sales at 20.44%, 20.59% and 20.78%, respectively. Total revenues provided have been $348 million, $369 million and $414 million , respectively for those years. For FY 06-07, the total revenue transfer is projected to be over $484 million which includes over $334 million in taxes and a $150 million PLCB profit transfer we are able to make because of sustained growth over the last few years. Thus, the revenue transfers over the last four years are expected to total $1.615 billion.
As a means of legitimatizing the CEO appointment, the Administration disingenuously points to a projected $12 million increase in what it labels “expenses” for FY 06-07. I say “disingenuously” for two reasons.
First, as the direct result of increases in compensation and benefits negotiated by the Governor’s administration itself, and an increase in the licensee discount signed by the Governor, our expenses will increase by more than $18 million in FY 06 – 07.
Second, as noted, the Agency’s contribution to the Commonwealth’s general fund is projected to increase by over $70 million in FY 06-07, over the previous year. This means that in the same year in which what the Administration terms an increase in PLCB “expenses” is projected to be $12 million, we will actually contribute more than $70 million in additional funds because of our strong, sustained business. This is an impressive performance we should all be very proud of.
Allow me to give you the specifics.
Two PLCB tax revenue streams, consisting of the Johnstown Flood Tax and the PA Sales Tax, go directly to the Commonwealth’s bottom line and rise and fall with sales volume. They are not affected by expenses. A third revenue stream, consisting of the PLCB mark-up on product sold, also rises and falls with sales volume, but is affected by costs such as wages and salaries, PSP enforcement, store and other rents, plus the cost of inventory. Therefore, when PLCB sales spike up, as they have dramatically for several years, the two tax streams grow proportionally without offset, while the third stream grows too, though offset by increased expenses.
It should be evident that what really matters to the state, fiscally, is not the PLCB’s expenses considered in a vacuum, but the revenues provided to the Commonwealth, and the expenses in relation to those revenues.
Let’s examine these expenses.
The PLCB Budget office has analyzed the additional expenses for FY 06-07. Its conclusions are most interesting. First, the increase of the licensee discount supported by the Administration took it from 7% to 10%, resulting in a $8.8 million reduction to the PLCB’s bottom line in FY 05-06. In FY 06-07, the full year discount is projected to increase by $2.4 million, for a reduction of $11.2 million to the bottom line.
Second, the compensation and benefits increases negotiated by the Administration will result in expense increases of $10.32 million and $6 million, respectively, in FY 06-07. Additionally, there is an increase in potential GAAP leave liability, outside of the PLCB’s control, of $2.3 million relating to retirements. Therefore, in total, the increase in expenses brought about directly by the Governor’s Administration totals $18.72 million at a minimum in FY 06-07.
It should also be noted that increases in sales volume drive increases in sales related expenses. For example, our increase in gross sales volume this year of over 7%—part of a total 24% increase during the last three years—has resulted in an increase of $4.7 million in real estate rents, and of $6.5 million in fees relating to credit card processing and product handling/freight.
As we have proved, upgraded stores and better locations drive increased traffic and yield greater sales, especially in border locations. These new, nicer stores do cost more to build and operate, but they generate much more revenue. And they keep our citizens’ dollars in the state, whereas lesser stores would send consumers into neighboring states.
Some have suggested that smaller stores with sub-par locations are more than adequate because the PLCB has no competition. Any Pennsylvanian who lives within driving distance of a state border knows that simply isn’t the case.
I am very proud of our financial performance and record sales and appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.
Let me turn now to the events of the past weeks. I am very concerned that the lack of transparency and heavy handed politics resulting in the appointment of a CEO to the PLCB, may have already undermined the positive change in perception among consumers that the PLCB has accomplished in recent years. The controversy may have already begun to hurt sales and started to erode our valuable goodwill. Customers vote with their pocketbooks and they know there are out of state shopping alternatives.
I was certainly surprised and saddened by the recent rushed process to have the PLCB rubberstamp the Governor’s hand selected CEO, which I firmly believe was not consistent with transparency and good government. I believe the lack of process and heavy handed politics have now completely politicized the PLCB. I’m very concerned about a perceived return to the old bureaucratic mentality of “the consumer be damned.” I am hopeful that the Legislature will take appropriate action to restore the PLCB’s status as an independent government agency acting in the best interest of consumers and taxpayers, and not because of political dictates.
I would like to detail some of the background regarding the PLCB’s 2-to-1 approval of the Governor’s choice for a CEO of the PLCB, a position that has never existed since the agency was formed in 1933.
During August of 2005, I first heard rumblings the Administration might be considering a political appointment of a CEO to the PLCB. I next heard the political appointment might be of an Executive Director to replace the outgoing Director of Administration. Not sure what was in the works, and wanting to ensure the continued integrity of the Agency, I wrote the Governor’s Chief of Staff. In my letter, I expressed that any positions should be subject to appropriate process and set forth my concern that as Chairman I had not been consulted regarding any proposed actions.
In advance of a meeting with the Governor on October 20, 2005, I wrote him a detailed memorandum advising him of the information I was hearing and my concerns that I had never been provided any documentation regarding proposed actions at the Agency. When I met with the Governor on that date, he assured me he had no plans to appoint a CEO to the PLCB.
In the memorandum to the Governor to which I just referred, I wrote,
“As Chairman of the PLCB, I have performed as a de-facto CEO at a salary of $60,000. As you know, the salary is a non-issue for me. I thoroughly enjoy my dual role of overseeing and managing this $1.5 billion agency. As Chairman, I have worked full time at the position as required by Section 202 of the Liquor Code, which covers Qualifications of Members. ‘Board members shall devote full time to their official duties’.”
I also wrote,
“In the era of the pay raise, I think it would be difficult to launch a costly nationwide search for a highly qualified individual for a management position with the media scrutinizing the hiring of such a highly paid government official.”
I also made clear in the memorandum that I did not want a dime more to continue performing responsibilities consistent with those of a CEO/Chairman position. I noted that the continued de-facto duality of my role was important toward assuring a chairman not merely engaged in oversight, but also responsible for operations as mandated by statute.
And I stated explicitly that if there was a need for a Chief Operating Officer or similar position, a thorough national search would be needed “mindful of the limits of salary in state government.” To the very best of my recollection, I never personally discussed this topic with the Governor again until he called me on December 11, 2006.
In early 2006, Joseph Martz, the Secretary of the Office of Administration, began work at the PLCB as the Acting Director of Administration. We did discuss this topic on several occasions during his tenure, before he left the Commonwealth to work on the Governor’s re-election campaign. Secretary Martz told me he believed the PLCB should do a Request For Proposal looking at the management structure of the organization before even considering additional positions. He also believed that once a top national consulting firm reviewed management structure and identified advantageous positions, if any, we should do a national search to fill them with the best qualified individuals. He confirmed to me on several occasions that the Board would have a chance to review any such RFP and make a thorough evaluation regarding any proposed changes or positions.
This was my last interaction with the Administration on this topic until Monday, December 11, 2006 when I learned from the Governor that he was naming Joe Conti as CEO of the Agency. The Governor spoke with me at 2:30 PM that day. He informed me he was referring Joe Conti as CEO of the Agency and that he expected the Board to vote its approval the day after next at our Wednesday Board meeting.
I told the Governor on that call that I had concerns and that I needed to sit down and speak with him. I expressed concern that the appointment would render me a paper tiger as chairman, unable to continue with the kind of accomplishments we had achieved to date. He responded that he would set up a meeting and get back to me. I did not hear from him again Monday and, concerned that the Board meeting at which he expected approval was imminent, I called him that evening and e-mailed his Secretary, Ann Shriver. I said that I would be in Harrisburg all day and evening on Tuesday and would be glad to meet with him at anytime. He never responded and, to this day, I have not heard from or spoken with the Governor.
I did receive a phone call from Secretary Martz’s office. He and Senator Conti wanted to meet with me in Martz’s office at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, December 12, the day before the Board meeting. Shortly before I left for this meeting, I called the PLCB’s Director of Human Resources to see if a salary was already set for the appointee and whether a job description existed. He told me that the salary would be $150,000 and that Joe Martz would give me the job description at the meeting. I told him that I had very serious problems with the salary and lack of process.
During the meeting with Secretary Martz and Joe Conti, Mr. Martz made it quite clear that my two fellow Board members would vote the next morning to approve the CEO appointment. He said my support was expected. He informed me Kate Phillips would be calling me and that the Administration expected me to give her positive quotes for a press release. He told me that the salary was set at $150,000 and handed me a five-page job description someone had prepared.
When I suggested that a salary that high would not sit well with the public, Senator Conti explained that the Governor had wanted him to take more than $150,000 but that he had declined. I pointed out to Secretary Martz as I quickly reviewed the job description for the first time that the “Definition” and “Examples of Work” seemed to indicate the Board would be abdicating all of its statutorily mandated responsibilities to the CEO. I explained this was completely unacceptable because the Chairman’s role would be almost wholly ceremonial, and the Board’s confined to policy and regulatory matters only.
I looked at the many responsibilities delegated to the CEO, the required skills listed for the position, and noted that the Minimum Experience and Training called for, “Ten years of progressively responsible experience in directing the purchasing, distribution, marketing and sales operation for a business,…” I had never even received Mr. Conti’s resume, yet we were forced to vote on the very next morning. I asked Mr. Martz to delay the vote to allow for adequate reflection and appropriate input.
I was told that the CEO appointment would be approved the next morning with or without me—that this was what the Governor wanted.
I responded that I would vote against this action and would state the reasons for my dissent.
The following morning at 10 a.m., I was outvoted at the Board Meeting and Joe Conti was approved 2-to-1 by the Board. PJ Stapleton, who the Governor has now appointed as the new Chairman, has told the press he thinks Conti’s $150,000 salary is “peanuts.”
I do not. I am very concerned about a brand new position, the lack of transparency in creating it, the absence of appropriate process in filling it, and its improper usurpation of the Board’s statutorily mandated duties. And, yes, I’m concerned about the unprecedented high government salary to be paid for it. It is simply insensitive to the citizens of this Commonwealth who work hard for their dollars to call it “peanuts.”
I believe a hard working Board doing its job can run the PLCB, as the law requires. I hope I’ve proved that. A Board with all members fulfilling their statutory obligation to work for the agency fulltime should not require a CEO to do its work for it. If new positions are going to be created there needs to be rigorous evaluation of what additional skill sets are required, and then a real process to fill it, with an opportunity for public discussion, media scrutiny and a national search process.
And if, instead, the Board is to be circumscribed in its duties, with part time efforts acceptable and only policy and regulatory functions, then its salary should be reduced. There should, in this event, be serious consideration given to adopting the practice of commissions of control states like Oregon, and many private companies, which compensate Board members on a per diem basis for their attendance at Board meetings.
As Senator Rafferty, and Representatives Donatucci and Raymond, the Chairmen of the House Liquor Control Committee, observed of the new CEO position in their letter to the Board of December 13, 2006, “If such a position is created, we no longer understand the significance of the Board, given that their power is now subject to a chief executive officer that has not been appointed by the Governor, nor confirmed by the Senate.”
The Board is mandated by statute to run the operations of the agency. It is not a board of directors of the corporate world which provides oversight and advisory functions, leaving operations to management. It is management. Appointing a CEO for the Agency has improperly created a second, parallel management structure. Neither the Governor nor the Board itself can reduce the statutorily conferred fulltime management role of the Board. Yet the Governor has anointed a CEO to perform the very same functions.
I would propose for clarity that the title CEO be added to Chairman Stapleton’s title to underscore that the Board is the statutorily mandated fulltime management of the PLCB; and that if the Board needs assistance in areas such as finance and operations, it may conduct a national search for true expertise. I would further propose that the $150,000-plus-benefits to be paid for the redundant CEO position be returned to the taxpayers.
Of course the continued vesting of operational authority in the Board, as required by law, necessitates Board members work fulltime for the agency, as they are paid and required by law to do. Board members of talent and accomplishment willing to undertake such fulltime roles within government salary parameters are motivated by dedication to public service—by the desire to make a difference in peoples’ lives. They are out there.
If, as the Governor has proposed, the role of the Board is to be eviscerated and operational authority improperly vested in a CEO, then, as alluded to above, the salary of Board members ought certainly to be reduced to a per diem.
I believe we need to ask if the process here was appropriate. Has a good-government standard of openness, transparency and process been met?
Will this method of appointment suffice for the creation and filling of future positions on other boards and commissions throughout the Commonwealth?
I would like to thank the Senate Law and Justice Committee for their oversight hearings into the process resulting in the appointment of the CEO, and would be glad to answer your questions.
January 19, 2007
The Inquirer reported on Wednesday that there is a controversy surrounding the purported savings on some of the Chairman’s Selection wines, and former PLCB Chairman Jonathan Newman is taking heat for it. Chairman’s Selections compare the actual price with the “suggested,” “quoted” or “regular” price. According to the article, such comparisons may be misleading because a few of the Chairman’s Selection wines are not sold in any other state.
The article focused on the phrase “suggested” price because that’s the one used to market the Chairman’s Selection wines that are made solely for PA consumers, such as the Whitehall Lane Chairman’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. But, in context, that phrase isn’t as troubling as it has been portrayed to be. Once you see that the words “Chairman’s Selection” are boldly printed directly on Whitehall’s front label and/or read on the back label that the wine was designed by Newman, the phrase “suggested price” should stand out as an admission that there isn’t any other market for this wine besides PA. In other words, just by reading the label you should be able to conclude that the price comparison for this wine is a fiction and does not hold any meaning. At a minimum, these facts should raise enough questions that you shouldn’t give the comparison too much weight (if any) in making your purchasing decision.
By contrast, the phrases “quoted price” and “regular price,” which are used to market wines picked for the Chairman’s Selection program that are also sold in other states, are a little more complicated. Given PA’s unique wine distribution system, it is difficult to gauge whether these phrases are identifying any true savings without knowing more information. For example, “quoted” to whom and by whom—the winery to its other distributors, the winery to the PLCB or the PLCB to its customers? These could all be different prices. Plus, they may not reflect any real consumer market, rendering the comparison meaningless. Do the “quoted” and “regular” prices include the 18% Johnston Flood Tax? If not, the purported savings is artificially inflated.
All of this leads to the more basic question that, so far, no one has asked: If, as a Pennsylvania consumer, I’m allowed to buy wine only through the PLCB, aren’t all of the PLCB’s price comparisons inherently illusory? Comparing PA’s price to the price in some other market does not illustrate any “savings” for me if it is illegal for me to have access to that other market. It’s a fictional choice, a choice that legally does not exist for PA consumers.
I’m repeating myself, but this is not a problem with the Chairman’s Selection program that needs to be “tweaked,” as it is being spun by the PLCB. Rather, it is problem inherent in the state’s tightly-controlled distribution system that the Chairman’s Selection program simply couldn’t escape—i.e., that, legally, there is no other market against which PA consumers can compare the PLCB’s prices.
This brings me to the most interesting part of the story, which has nothing to do with wine. It’s the story’s convenient timing. The Whitehall Lane controversy has been well-documented by the folks on eGullet since as far back as the beginning of October 2006, but you didn’t hear a peep about it in the press for 3½ months. But now, all of a sudden, shortly after Rendell takes a little heat for the CEO debacle and days after Newman resigns in protest, Newman gets scapegoated for price comparisons? Smells a little corked to me. But, conveniently, it does lay the groundwork for the PLCB to argue that it needs to “tweak” the number of wines offered through the Chairman’s Selection program, doesn’t it?
Reminds me of a line in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”
Careful, fellas. Don’t tear down too many bridges Newman built. Otherwise, a lot of people may start using the one bridge that’s out of your reach—you know, the one that leads to wine stores in New Jersey.
January 13, 2007
The year I turned 21 I had the worst New Year’s Eve of my life. Having come of age only a few days earlier, I was determined to spend New Year’s Eve in a bar somewhere—anywhere—engaging in what I knew would be a legendary degree of mayhem and debauchery. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I rang in the new year standing on a frozen pond in the bitter cold of someone’s back yard in central Pennsylvania, completely sober, watching a grown man and his eleven year-old son shoot pistols into the sky at the stroke of midnight. It was a sad moment. But as I stood there tasting the spent gunpowder carried by the crisp winter air, I realized something that I have taken great comfort in ever since—no matter what happens the rest of my days, I probably never would have a New Year’s Eve any worse than that.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, New Year’s Eve 2005 was one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had. We went to Tangerine with close friends of ours from D.C. I don’t remember many details about the meal. But I have been reminded (and am embarrassed to admit) that I was so captivated by the food that night that I was oblivious of the exotic belly dancers parading through the restaurant and undulating beside our table. That, too, was a sad moment, I suppose, but for different reasons.
I wanted to try Tangerine again this year, hoping for a repeat. The deal was similar to last year: passed hors d’oeuvres, a five course meal served family style, a Champagne toast and dessert buffet at midnight—and, of course, belly dancers—for $120 per person.
Tangerine’s meal this year had a few conceptual and execution issues. For the most part, though, these issues were easy for me to overlook because the dishes were so flavorful. For example, the second course was a Lobster Velouté with Fennel Purée and Tarragon Oil. The lobster, while rich and buttery, had a noticeably chewy texture and was a little overcooked. But, overall, the dish was so rich and flavorful (particularly the fennel purée and tarragon oil, which complemented the buttery lobster nicely) I was willing to overlook the texture of the lobster.
The third course—the Mediterranean Turbot with Crab Risotto, Olive Tomato Ragout—is another example. The Turbot, although well-prepared, did not seem to fit well with the rest of the dish. The rich risotto and the olive tomato ragout, however, were addictive together. The ragout, itself, was surprisingly rich. And, paired with the rich risotto, they were flavorful enough to carry the dish without the Turbot.
Similarly, the Potato Mushroom Gratin that accompanied the fifth course—the Moraccan Spiced Filet Mignon and Horseradish Creamed Swiss Chard—was overwhelmingly salty. But the cinnamon and all spice that were used to season the filet made the dish taste like Christmas.
Some dishes, however, struggled more than others. The first course—the American Sturgeon Caviar atop molded tabouli that included blue fin tuna alongside golden raisin crisps—was ill-conceived. The sweet and toasty caviar was delicious solo. But the onion-heavy tabouli was way too overpowering to be paired with something as delicate as caviar.
Also, the fourth course—the Harissa Grilled Lamb with Rosemary Socca, Eggplant Salad and Harissa Yogurt—was a great idea, but did not quite hit the mark. The smokiness in the creamy eggplant salad was satisfying, and I enjoyed the use of the socca. But the lamb was very dry and stole a lot of the momentum from this dish.
The dessert table, new this year, was a huge hit. The table held almost a dozen different ways to break the New Year’s resolution you made only a few moments ago. The one misstep that was inexcusable, though, was that the Champagne did not make it to our table until almost 12:20 a.m. I rang in the new year with a glass of 2003 Chateau Josephine de Boyd (Margaux), the second wine from the Second Growth Bordeaux Chateau Brane-Cantenac, which we enjoyed during dinner. Not a bad way to ring in the New Year. But for $120 a person, getting the Champagne out on time is the one part of the service you simply shouldn’t botch.
There is nothing like ringing in the new year with a great meal. And, despite the few nits discussed above, Tangerine delivered.
232 Market Street
January 06, 2007
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.
January 01, 2007
A few years ago my wife and I hosted a Champagne tasting at our house for New Year’s Eve and it was a blast. So, we thought we’d try it again this year. This was a blind tasting—all of the wines our guests sampled were in randomly-numbered brown paper bags. Nobody knew which Champagne they were tasting when they recorded their comments. I picked five Champagnes for the tasting, most of which had received some sort of press over the past few weeks. Of the five selections, four were Champagnes and one was a California Sparkling wine. All of the wines were non-vintage. Because rosé Champagnes are all the rage this year, two of the four Champagnes we tasted were rosés. The results of the tasting were interesting.
The two rosé Champagnes were the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV ($70) and the Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Rosé NV ($34.99, PLCB No. 029573). My friend Kez, who lives in France, highly recommended the Billecart-Salmon in the comments to a previous post. Slate recently called the Billecart-Salmon “arguably the best-value nonvintage rosé on the market.” I also understand it received a 90 from Robert Parker and a 91 from Stephen Tanzer of Food and Wine Magazine. Sadly, you can’t get it here in PA; a friend of mine brought it in from New York. The color was a light, salmony pink. It displayed aromas of raspberry, strawberry and minerals and was relatively acidic. The bubbles were explosive and frothy.
Someone I trust at one of the PLCB Specialty Stores recommended the Nicholas Feuillatte. This wine received an 87 from Wine Spectator. It had the color you would expect a rosé Champagne to have. Not as acidic as the Billecart-Salmon, nor as bubbly, and many of our guests said it had a bitter finish. But it was a little fruitier, had nice berry flavors, and our guests found it to be round and soft (one even found it to be more balanced than the Billecart-Salmon).
Of the two rosés, though, most folks preferred the Billecart-Salmon. Many, in fact, picked it as their overall favorite of the evening. Although this was definitely my overall favorite as well, I was not as blown away by the Billecart-Salmon as I expected to be. These two rosés were notably different, but I don’t know whether the differences between them are great enough to justify paying twice as much for the Billecart-Salmon.
Of the three non-rosés, two were Champagnes and one was a California Sparkling wine. The very first wine we tasted was the one from California—the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley NV ($21.99, PLCB No. 007933). This wine was featured in Wall Street Journal’s December 1, 2006 Tastings column (subscription required). The WSJ’s wine critics, Gaiter and Brecher, rated it Good/Very Good but didn’t give it an amazingly glowing review (they said it had “no real depth”). Plus, as the article points out, American sparkling wines are “often less nuanced, and the bubbles sometimes seem an overlay on the wine instead of an integral part of the taste.” It was also the least expensive of the five. So, I didn’t expect this wine to leave any lasting marks. Surprisingly, though, everyone picked this American sparkling wine as their favorite non-rosé, beating out the two French offerings. Two of our guests even selected the Roederer as their overall favorite. It was light, crisp, clean and smooth, and had a nice balance between sweetness and acidity.
The wine I expected to do better than it did was the Taittinger Brut Champagne La Francaise NV ($35.99, PLCB No. 004001). Wine Spectator rated this a 91, saying it showed “elegance and finesse” and had “an understated power.” This Champagne didn’t display any flaws. It was rather effervescent and I thought it had a slightly creamy finish. But aside from that, it was rather non-descript and unimpressive.
The last wine we tasted was the Pommery Brut Royal NV ($37.99, PLCB No. 029553). Last year my wife really enjoyed the Pommery we had, and because she had been reminiscing about it, I thought I’d throw it into the mix. I read on one of the bulletin boards that Richard Juhlin, who claims to be the number one Champagne expert in the world, rated this Pommery a 75, which ain’t good. But you didn’t have to be a Champagne expert to be offended by this bottle. Our blind tasters described its odor as “rubber gloves,” “petroleum” and “awful.” One guest gave this Champagne a two-word review that pretty much said it all: “That smell!” The fact that this was the second most expensive Champagne of the evening made it all the more disappointing.
So, what did we learn? Not much, really. After all, it was New Year’s Eve and we were doing shots of Champagne for two hours straight; it was heard to learn anything after that. But we had a lot of fun and we were among friends. And that’s what ringing in the new year is all about.
Stay tuned for New Year’s Eve 2006, Part II—Tangerine.