By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Whether you’re in the mood for Merlot or Moscato, the taxpayer-funded private label TableLeaf wine may have something to fit your taste.
That is, if you’re OK with buying government-subsidized alcohol.
Officials from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board testified Monday before the Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing, and among the many topics discussed was TableLeaf, the often controversial private label wine the PLCB has sold and marketed in its wine and spirits stores since 2011.
State Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, asked how much the PLCB spends on producing and marketing Table Leaf.
“I walked into my state store last week and was distressed to see that your TableLeaf wine was displayed right in the front, very predominantly,” Vance said. “I do have a problem with your competing with the private sector.”
Board member Robert Marcus addressed Vance’s question, appearing to read a prepared statement from a binder of notes on the table in front of him.
He called TableLeaf “a huge success” and said the wine, at one point, was the 17th best-selling wine in the nation.
“Our private label program is part of our ongoing program to give consumers more and better low cost choices and to simultaneously increase the money we return to the General Assembly,” Marcus said.
TableLeaf often is criticized as government-buoyed competition to private wine retailers. And it’s been criticized for using a California winemaker, Brono Wine Co., to make the wine. But the PLCB maintains its delivering consumers what they want.
“Opponents who don’t think the PLCB should be in the business at all most certainly don’t think the PLCB should get into the private label business,” Marcus said, “but that is the ideological view, not a position driven by customer service. Pennsylvanians are voting with their wallets on these products and we believe in the revenue maximization.”
Priced between $6 and $15 a bottle, TableLeaf products are considered a value-priced option, on shelves since 2011. PLCB now makes seven varietals, spanning the flavor and body spectrum in offerings from an average 750 milliliter bottles to its 1.5 liter options.
The brand proves popular. Since the beginning of the program, the PLCB has made nearly $7 million off of the sale of five different varietals totaling more than 761,000 bottles.
The PLCB’s private label program includes several other wine brands, like Dialed In, LA MERIKA, Hayes Valley and Las Parcelas, and one spirit, Copper Sun vodka.
Critics of the private label, including Vance, argue against the brands on the basis of their very creation.
“Government tax dollars competing with private dollars, there is no excuse for doing that,” Vance said.
Marcus gave no indication of how much PLCB spends on producing or marketing TableLeaf and the other wines and spirits. But a December report from The Pittsburgh Tribune Review found the agency spent about $474,000 of its marketing budget for its own brands.
Senators asked multiple questions about the possibility for privatization, at a time when Gov. Tom Corbett has a plan to sell off the state store and create new liquor licenses.
The PLCB operates more than 600 retail wine and liquor stores throughout the state. Corbett’s plan to auction off licenses would allow for up to 1,200 stores, and change sales rules for bars, convenience stores and grocery stores.
Parallel to that discussion, some state senators, both Republicans and Democrats, have pushed for legislation that for “modernize” the current operation – either before a state store sell-off or instead of privatization altogether.
Such changes could include how products are priced to expanding Sunday hours, bringing in as much as $100 million more a year according to Senate estimates.
“We are going to fight like hell to make this system more sustainable for now and in the future,” said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny.
Board Chariman Joseph “Skip” Brion, who Corbett appointed less than two years ago, said he does not believe the state should be in the liquor business, but modernization laws would help.
“My attitude is if we are going to have a liquor business make it the most profitable and best that you possibly can,” Brion said.
In 2010-2011 fiscal year, the PLCB transferred $105 million in cash to the state’s General Fund, and generated about $391 million in tax revenue, according to a February 2012 Senate hearing. More than $20 million was transferred to Pennsylvania State Police to fund liquor control enforcement operations, and another $7 million was transferred to the Department of Health Drug and Alcohol programs.
Contact Melissa Daniels at [email protected]