On this 73rd Anniversary of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America convention, I thought it appropriate to reflect on my tenure as Chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and my career in the private sector of the wine industry for the past nine years.
I attended the WSWA Convention seven times and always enjoyed the excitement of the events and meeting with the industry to prioritize my vision for growing wine sales in Pennsylvania and making the state system more profitable.
I served on the PLCB for more than seven years, the majority of those years as Chairman, and departed in January, 2007. I was an appointee of Governor Tom Ridge (who became Director of Homeland Security) and was named Chairman by both his Republican successor Mark Schweiker and then Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.
Pennsylvania is the largest control state, with complete oversight of wholesale and retail wine and spirit sales. I am an advocate of privatization, since I do not think that the state should be in the alcohol beverage business, which is best left to private industry. Nevertheless, as Chairman of the PLCB I worked with the dedicated state employees as a team to grow the business with a wine-centric vision. I was not a legislator, so privatization was outside of my control.
I have always been a wine lover, and am passionate about the wine industry. When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1987, I never thought that my career would be spent in the wine industry. Having now been in the wine business for the past 17 years, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing that is more enjoyable and fulfilling. I love working with my retail partners and my winery friends.
Getting Customers Excited
When I took over as Chairman of the PLCB, I initiated a series of wine-centric initiatives to update the state store system. I founded wine festivals in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that attracted thousands of attendees and featured wine personalities like Francis Ford Coppola, Warren Winiarski and Paul Hobbs. I worked with the legislature to allow stores to open on Sundays and holidays. We also started aggressive wine training programs for employees and put outlet stores on our borders with neighboring states.
Of all the new programs and initiatives, there was no program that resonated more with the consumer than the Chairman’s Selection program. As one of the top purchasers of wine in the world, I traveled to wine country to personally meet with wineries and bring back incredible deals for customers. I met with hundreds of wineries and featured many marquee wines like Phelps Insignia at the lowest price in the country. In fact, I featured hundreds of hot deals like Napa’s Fischer Coach Insignia and Freemark Abby Bosche at unbelievable prices. The excitement surrounding those wine deals brought a ton of new customers to the stores and the depletions were off the charts. It created pride among our employees and gave consumers a reason to shop in Pennsylvania, instead of going to competitors just over the border.
When I left the PLCB and founded my own business, I decided to focus on introducing exciting wine programs to private retailers. Retailers want special wines at great prices to create loyalty among consumers, increase foot traffic and build gross profit margins.
I have thoroughly enjoyed working with large wine retailers in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York to create exciting wine programs, featuring delicious wines from top appellations at compelling prices.
Wine customers, in particular, love the treasure-hunt experience and are willing to venture into new labels. They’ll also stay loyal if the quality of recommended offerings is compelling. It’s important to sell the romance of your product, as long as the pedigree and taste profile of the wine is something that brings pride to your sales team.
In an era of keen competition among retailers, it is crucial for enterprising retailers to differentiate their products and offer extreme value for consumers. There is just not a lot of mileage in stacking out commodity brands at the lowest possible price. While hot prices on go-to brands are a reality of the market place, retailers are realizing the harsh reality that custom-tailored wine programs with quality labels at attractive pricing and strong margins are the keys to maintaining consumer excitement and a strong bottom line.