Wine Column: My Return to Pennsylvania Wine

I thoroughly enjoyed my seven-year tenure at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), most of it as chairman of a then-$1.7-billion-dollar operation with over 600 stores and thousands of employees.

Never would I have imagined such a role at the beginning of my career. When I graduated the University of Pennsylvania Law School and practiced law as a commercial litigator in Philadelphia, the furthest thing from my mind was a career in the wine industry.

But in 1999, then-Governor Tom Ridge appointed me to the three-member Liquor Control Board. In a relatively short time, after then-Chairman John E. Jones III became a federal judge, I became chairman of the board.

I spent my time getting a thorough wine and retail education, and interacting with management and staff all over the state, to understand what we could be doing better. In the next couple years, through the inspiration of store employees, I founded the Chairman Selection program, using the state’s purchasing powers to find great wines at very attractive pricing.

I also founded the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia Wine Festivals. And I started many new initiatives, including temperature control of wine, stores in supermarkets, instituting Sunday and holiday sales, the sale of wine accessories and other programs.

When I left the PLCB in January, 2007, I decided to found my own wine brokerage business and focus on sales in the northeast corridor — everywhere but Pennsylvania.

Over the past decade, I worked with hundreds of retailers and learned so much. After more than a decade of abstaining from doing business in Pennsylvania, it was time to go home, forget about politics, and bring my expertise back to my home state.

It was an emotional journey. When I was at the PLCB, it was like an extended family, where I knew many of the employees by their first name and considered them friends and colleagues. In May my wine selections (sold through Breakthru Beverage) started appearing on Pennsylvania store shelves. I focused on many of my favorite producers and brought gorgeous wines to my home state, and the consumers responded favorably with strong depletions and feedback.

It was June 4, 2018, that proved to be a special day. I visited a hotel ballroom outside of the state capitol in Pennsylvania to pour my wines for hundreds of store personnel throughout the state. It was a homecoming. Even though there were many new faces, it reminded me how special it is be in the wine industry and how much I missed my home state.

It was particularly inspiring to discuss the wines, as the feedback was tremendous. I gained fresh insight into the consumer and sales trends in Pennsylvania stores. While it was reassuring to hear that all the wines were met so enthusiastically by customers, it’s so important to be a good listener. It also reminded me that the most important factor in successful retail wine sales is the strength of store personnel.

Finding the right staff and making a commitment to their wine education and training is paramount to successful wine sales. They are on the front lines and the ones that are interacting with consumers — they will surely make or break the very success of your business. 

As chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Jonathan Newman was the nation’s largest wine buyer and brought a number of popular innovations to bear, including the Chairman’s Selection program and opening of local stores for Sunday sales. Follow him on Twitter at @NewmanWine and visit his website: www.newmanwine.com. Read his recent piece: Talking Sonoma Vintages with Michel-Schlumberge Winemaker Bryan Davison.

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