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The latest guide to buying wine and spirits in Pittsburgh

Note: While this story was written shortly after Pop City started publishing in 2006, it has remained one of our top-read features over time and readers have requested an update. So here it is. Cheers!

Moving to any new place is exciting as well as challenging. Moving to Pittsburgh, or anywhere in Pennsylvania, brings its own unique challenge which is: how does one buy liquor, wine and beer in this place?

Unlike many states which sell alcohol in grocery stores, Pennsylvania wine and hard spirits have been sold only in state stores (aka Wine and Spirit Shops, sometimes Shoppes) run by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Beer is sold only in beer distributor outlets and bars. That's changing, though. Giant Eagle Market District in Bethel Park just announced beer sales starting today--customers can buy two beers to consume with food on the premises or two six-packs to go. Other Market District stores in the area offer a similar arrangement.

Although Pennsylvania is the last complete control state, that doesn't mean you can't find good selection of wine or beer or any kind of alcohol. As an aficionado of wine and beer, let me be your guide to the better stores in the Pittsburgh area.

Let's start with state stores for wine and liquor which are either regular or specialty stores. There are also outlet stores, most near Philadelphia, to prevent people from going out of state to buy liquor; as well as a few experimental shops --and failed kiosks--in select grocery markets such as Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson and Cranberry.

First opened in the 1980's, specialty stores carry a broader selections of wines and spirits, especially the better quality stuff. For example, they'll have a good selection of California wines, a decent range of French, and a larger representation of the special sale wines, called Chairman's Selections. For help in selecting wines that fit your price and palate, each store has a specialty wine coordinator. Tip: Be sure to ask them about the wines from Southwest France such as Corbieres and Languedoc which represent some of the great bargains available.

Want to buy by the case? You can, but there are no discounts. If it makes you feel better, no one else is getting a price break either: even restaurants buy at the same price which is why you'll pay double or higher markups for wine when dining out. Prices in Pennsylvania State Stores include many state taxes (my favorite is the 16% 1936 Johnstown Flood Relief tax though it's now under a different name.) Suffice it to know that when you purchase wine or liquor they will add 7% sales tax to the shelf price at check-out.

Where to shop
A good, though small, state store, in the Shadyside district offers a decent wine selection at 5956 Penn Circle South. The specialty wine coordinator here is the affable Bob Tirk. In the center of Pittsburgh, the Specialty Store Downtown at Smithfiled and 4th St.has an even better selection. Ask for Carol Nath, the wine coordinator.

Perhaps the best superstore (which is a bigger specialty store) around is in Fox Chapel's Waterworks Shopping Mall where Randy Galioto is the specialty wine coordinator. You'll also find good stores at Monroeville Mall (Aimee Lippert, wine coordinator), and Robinson Town Center (1160 Park Manor Boulevard; the position of wine coordinator is open right now).

My advice? Get to know your wine coordinators; it will pay off since they notify their select list via email of recent acquisitions, good bargains and even wine tastings. Ask to be added.

Other places provide an alternative although they take more time. At Dreadnought Wines, , on Penn Avenue in the Strip, you can order a mixed case of wine but you must then wait two days for the paperwork to clear state bureaucracy before you can pick it up--or have it delivered to your home for a fee. (Note: Free delivery to downtown, North Shore and Strip District homes) See Mike Gonze, who manages the extensive wine selection, for what's good.

And check out the wine tastings the first and third Friday of every month; they also host a full schedule of classes through out the year. Dreadnought is the sole carrier in this area of my friend and Western PA native Gary Eberle's Paso Robles wines. Here they carry everything from an inexpensive sipper (prices start at $9.00) to premium wines well over $100 and every price in between. All the wines available from Dreadnought Wines are NOT available in the regular PLCB stores. These wines are from small boutique wineries.

Another noteworthy place, which is worth the 45-minute drive from downtown, is StateLine Fine Wines (304 723-4581) in Weirton, West Virginia. Martha Shaver, who lives in PA, commands a presence at this store where they feature a great selection of French wine including Burgundy and Rhone, plus a good smattering of the rest of the world at decent prices. Don't miss the wine tastings. Of course, bringing wine back into Pennsylvania from here is illegal. So you didn't hear it here.

You can find all the locations of the area state stores in the phone book (the blue Government pages) as well as the PLCB website. Although selections vary from store to store; prices are uniformly the same.

Physics of beer buying
According to my friend at Carnegie Mellon University, Joel Smith, beer sales operate according to the St Pauli Girl exclusion principle (this is a physics joke): in a bar or tavern you can buy a maximum of two six-packs to take away or in the beer distributor a minimum of a case or four six- packs. So it's impossible to buy three six packs in one visit. This interesting regulation serves the purpose of controlling the flow of alcohol. To get around it you can buy two, exit, hand them to a friend, and then re-enter and buy two more. Just a thought.

For aficionados of micro and craft-brews, two neighborhood distributors are abundant sources of pleasure, from malty to hoppy. In Oakland, try Mellinger's at 404 Semple Street where the delightful Diane is proprietress. In Regent Square, head to McBroom's, where Dino reigns at 1200 South Braddock Avenue. Tip: Dino's wife assembles the kind of beer gift baskets you'd love to receive. And just down the street is Dino's other enterprise, the newly expanded D's Six Pax and Dogz, where you can enjoy hot dogs and sandwiches. Wash them down with your choice from an overwhelming beer selection, including six on tap. Then head to the back room called The Beer Cave and customize a six-pack to go. You can't beat it. And I say cheers to that.

In other and very recent news, look for the opening of Brewtopia in Castle Shannon coming soon.

More beer distributors are located all over the City although many carry limited selections, especially of imports and microbrews and prices among them can vary up to two or three dollars a case. Like buying food, you should always check the beer date to determine freshness. If the beer distributor won't let you see it, don't deal with them. As noted, most taverns and bars sell 6-packs of beer to go, mostly at a premium price.

You can also order your wines and spirits online by credit card, and then pick them up at your local state store. For more information and a list of special sales and the discounted Chairman's Selections, log onto www.pawineandspirits.com. Since sales and selections change regularly, check every month or so or better yet, get on that wine coordinator's email list.

Ordering wine out of state or importing wine from out of state (only wines not available locally) you must go through the Pennsylvania control system and pay taxes. This is now possible online at www.lcb.state.pa.us. Be forewarned that the state still adds their full markup, including all taxes (18% alcohol tax plus sales taxes of 7%) and $4.50 handling charge.

Despite the recent Supreme Court decision, reciprocity of freely shipping wine between states is still not possible in Pennsylvania. The upshot? You still cannot legally import wine on your own, even from Ohio or West Virginia, nor can you have wine shipped directly to you from Pennsylvania wineries.

But take heart: some progress has been made. Select state stores and beer distributors are now open throughout the area on Sundays. And efforts are being made in the political arena to privatize liquor sales. Stay tuned. And salud!

Photograph copyright Brian Cohen


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