Failure of wine kiosks highlights archaic liquor laws

In an outcome that surprised no one, Pennsylvania’s ill-designed experiment with supermarket wine kiosks came to an end last Tuesday. The kiosks, which were effectively wine vending machines, were abandoned by the state Liquor Control Board after one year and a net loss of $1.1 million. Shoppers wanting to purchase wine can no longer do so at local supermarket vendors and must go to a state-operated wine and spirits store.

Of course, judging by the roughly $1.1 million operating shortfall the machines have left in their wake, the process of using the kiosks was too complicated. The wine kiosks are 10-foot behemoths that would make Rube Goldberg proud. Suppose that, as a legal, responsible, sober adult, you wanted to buy the ingredients to cook dinner. You go to Giant Eagle, look at your shopping list, pick up some chicken breasts, mushrooms, and olive oil. Next on the list: a bottle of marsala. You walk up to the kiosk and find the bottle you want on the touchpad. The machine then asks you to swipe your ID. Then you’re asked to blow into a breathalyzer. Finally, you are made to look into a surveillance camera mounted in the kiosk. If a state employee in Harrisburg is satisfied with your identification and lack of inebriation, and the machine is working that day (closed Sundays, holidays, and outside of working hours), you get your bottle of wine.

Since these procedures were devised by the same state that has what even the Associated Press called “some of the most Byzantine liquor laws in the U.S.,” we are hardly surprised by their failure. It’s notoriously difficult to obtain a liquor license in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, over 30 states allow regular beer and wine sales in grocery stores, and Pennsylvania is one of only four states in which the state control board has authority over wine. (The other three states are New Hampshire, Utah, and Wyoming.)

If Pennsylvania’s legislators truly cared about trusting their consumers to make choices for themselves, they would reform and update the state’s archaic liquor laws to bring them more in line with the rest of the country.

If they do not, we will continue to see many more costly and embarrassing mistakes like these failed wine kiosks.