Published July 08, 2010
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Swipe your driver's license, look into the camera, blow into the breath sensor and — voila! — you have permission to buy a bottle of wine from a vending machine.
Pennsylvania, which has some of the most Byzantine liquor laws in the nation, recently introduced the country's first wine "kiosks." If the machines are successful in their test run inside two grocery stores, the state Liquor Control Board could place the high-tech alcohol automats in about 100 others.
But does anyone want to buy wine this way?
It seems the answer is yes. Customers using the machine at a Giant supermarket outside Harrisburg were thrilled that it could be a permanent fixture.
"This is just convenient one-stop shopping," said Darby Golec, 28, of Enola. "It'll be nice to have it all in one area."
The vending machines are a testament to both the wonder of technology and the obscurity of Pennsylvania's complicated liquor laws.
Individuals can buy wine and liquor for home consumption only in state-owned stores staffed by public employees. Private beer distributors sell cases and kegs only. Licensed corner stores, delis, bars and restaurants can sell beer to go, but only up to two six-packs per customer.
Numerous attempts at reform have been turned back by special interests intent on keeping their slice of the pie. So simply stocking Chianti and cabernet on supermarket shelves is not an option under the state's post-Prohibition liquor laws.
The liquor board has tried to be more consumer-friendly in recent years, including opening 19 full-service state stores in supermarkets. The board touts the kiosks as another step toward modernization — "an added level of convenience in today's busy society," liquor board Chairman Patrick Stapleton said in a statement.
Not everyone is swallowing that line.
Craig Wolf, president and CEO of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, questioned the machines' efficacy in preventing sales to minors.
Keith Wallace, president and founder of The Wine School of Philadelphia, described the kiosks as well-intentioned failures with limited selections and overtones of Big Brother.
"The process is cumbersome and assumes the worst in Pennsylvania's wine consumers — that we are a bunch of conniving underage drunks," Wallace wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "(Liquor board) members are clearly detached from reality if they think these machines offer any value to the consumer."
Conshohocken-based Simple Brands provides the kiosks free in exchange for the ability to sell ads on attached flat-screen monitors.
The machines are about the size of four large refrigerators, though the wines are kept at room temperature. An ATM-type device sits at one end.
A customer chooses a wine on a touch-screen display, swipes an ID, blows into an alcohol sensor (no contact with the machine is required) and looks into a surveillance camera. A state employee in Harrisburg remotely approves the sale after verifying the buyer isn't drunk and matches the photo ID.
State officials say the process takes 20 seconds. The kiosks only take credit or debit cards, and they're closed on Sundays and holidays. A "convenience fee" of $1 would be added after the pilot phase.
The machine got a warm reception at Giant, where customers asked lots of questions and perused brochures describing the 53 available wines, from Argentine malbecs to California merlots.
Simple Brands President Jim Lesser doesn't anticipate much business from connoisseurs, but they're not the targeted demographic.
"They were developed for the average consumer who wants a nice bottle of wine with their steak and seafood," Lesser said.
Japan and Europe have beer vending machines, but Lesser said the self-serve alcohol concept probably wouldn't have worked in the U.S. until now. Today, he noted, Americans use kiosks for everything from buying movie tickets to checking in for airplane flights.
Exit surveys show customers like the wine kiosks' convenience and easy use, and early sales have exceeded expectations, said Lesser. Eventually, the machines may be seen in other states, he said.
Wendell Young IV, president of the union representing state wine store workers, anticipates some new jobs, from remote camera staffing to kiosk restocking. The number of jobs depends on sales, he said.
Local vintners are watching the initiative closely. Lee Miller, owner of Pennsylvania-based Chaddsford Winery, said she'll support anything that might boost sales.
"If they're not going to put it on the shelf, I think it's a great way to offer wine to people," Miller said.
Bob Mazza, owner of Mazza Vineyards near Erie, is disappointed that none of the approximately 120 wineries in the state are represented in the kiosks.
"You would think they would subscribe to the idea to support local industry," Mazza said.
Liquor Control Board spokeswoman Stacey Witalec said the machines are stocked with proven sellers for the pilot period and will be re-evaluated based on customer feedback.