No more whine stores in Pennsylvania

MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Peters, with Restaurant School wine instructor Phil McCartney.
MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Peters, with Restaurant School wine instructor Phil McCartney.
Posted: February 28, 2014

"I CAN'T remember the exact name. Mart something. It's a red wine . . . "

"What part of the world is it from?"

"I think it's from us?"

That's all the info Rob Peters needs.

After a lickety-split visual scan and a series of quick steps through the Ardmore Plaza Wine & Spirits store, he's got his hands on the exact bottle - a Cabernet Sauvignon from Louis M. Martini out of Sonoma County, Calif. - that his customer is seeking.

Peters has been presented with such cryptic oenophilic conundrums for 20 years, and it's his job to field them. He's one of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's wine specialists, highly trained in-store sherpas with a knack for knowing what you mean, even if you don't.

"It's fun, trying to figure out the puzzle with just a few pieces," said Peters. "It's part of the challenge. We do it every day."

Thriving on vague tasting notes, fragmented winery titles and fuzzy iPhone label pics, the specialists are a small guild. But they're a sharp one, their prowess counterattacking the common belief that LCB retail employees are surly and underinformed.

To take best advantage of their knowledge, just ask.

No more whine store

For years, state-store workers have enjoyed one of the least flattering customer-service reputations in all of Pennsylvania, up there with PennDOT and Comcast on the medal podium of benign consumer ire. The LCB, well-aware of this distinction, has been making aggressive changes to its training over the past few years to shift the focus to service.

Currently, the LCB offers beginning, intermediate and advanced tiers of basic wine training, classes that come at no cost to employees. The first two levels recently became an employment requirement for state-store workers; in 2013, 1,137 LCB employees completed training of some level. (There is spirits training, as well.)

Beyond that is a voluntary master's level, plus state-guided training for the Certified Specialist of Wine certificate, doled out by the D.C.-based Society of Wine Educators. Around in an official capacity since 2011, in-store specialists have, at a minimum, conquered the gamut of LCB training. Many also have the CSW, as well as the even more challenging "Scholar" title from the French Wine Society.

Of Pennsylvania's 607 state stores, 75 are "Premium Collections," featuring a much wider product list. Sixty-eight of those locations have designated wine specialists, a figure that includes more than 30 in Philadelphia and its suburbs. These specialists curate their own expanded selections, meaning each shop features a different personal focus.

"Our biggest challenge is product knowledge," said Dale Horst, director of retail operations for the LCB. "The average store carries about 3,800 items. A [Premium Collection] store can carry another 2,900 to 4,100 items on top of that. The goal is to increase the product knowledge level of every employee."

A bad rap

Peters, a contractor before his foray into wine, has been Ardmore Plaza's de facto specialist for decades, but he and co-worker Sally McNair, an 11-year veteran, now share the distinction officially. "They're a lot more aggressive today about training than they were 20 years ago," he said.

Both say they run into occasional negativity on the floor.

"Pennsylvania gets this bad rap," said Peters. "They go in and run into a part-timer who's just been hired. The part-timer is puzzled, so then they walk out and go, 'That proves my point! Nobody knows anything in Pennsylvania.' But it's as easy as asking, 'Can I talk to someone?' "

When a customer seeking help does engage a higher authority, the specialist tends to employ a series of questions, beginning with a big one. "My first question - and some people get turned off by this - is how much you want to spend," said Max Gottesfeld, specialist at 1218 Chestnut St., in Center City. "But I don't want to offend you by showing you something that's too expensive or too inexpensive."

Once that's out of the way, queries move toward personal tastes, flavors, grapes, regions, food pairings - all factors that will, it's hoped, help specialists nail the right pick.

"[The challenge is] finding out what they really want," said Ardmore assistant manager Shane Donnelly, who is preparing to go for his CSW certification. "Sometimes, people know what they want and just have some trouble expressing it."

"It's not just black and white," said Peters of the wine world. "It's like that color wheel from Sherwin-Williams."

Bottle shopping

Like many other specialists, West Goshen-based Moira O'Neal hosts informal in-store tastings several times a week to provide customers with firsthand intros to new bottles. "I'm there for the more educated consumer, but I'm also helpful to people who are just getting started," she said.

Given his store's Center City location, Gottesfeld, who also organizes tastings, is a specialist who's developed relationships with many bars and restaurants.

But he also works with a group of everyday regulars who trust him to pull bottles and build custom cases. He's got an open-door policy of sorts when it comes to his picks.

"If you don't like it, come back and tell me what you don't like about it," he said. "If you like it, tell me what you like about it. It all helps me get better wine for you."

Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at or on Twitter @drewlazor.

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