Pennsylvania's new wine kiosks get panned

Pennsylvania is known for having some of the tightest alcohol control laws in the United States. The distribution system is owned and operated by the state government, which issues licenses to retailers under a quota system. Retailers in the state have a number of hoops to jump through if they want alcohol on their shelves, including a restricted list of brands that they are allowed to carry. In December, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (the agency that issues the licenses) announced it would test self-service wine-dispensing kiosks in a select number of grocery stores, and yesterday, the first two opened for business at Wegmans Food Market and GIANT Food. Designed in roughly the same shape as a Zoom Shop but longer, the kiosk's touchscreen guides the shopper through the wine selection process and offers food pairing tips. On checkout, the user is asked to scan his driver's license and credit or debit card, then must breathe into a breathalyzer unit to check for intoxication. A live agent at the PLCB looks at the shopper through a two-way video connection to personally ensure that the buyer is the person on the driver's license. The shopper then walks to the appropriate door on the unit, where a single bottle of the chosen vino awaits, while the rest of the bottles in the machine remain behind security gates. To say the wine enthusiast community's reaction has been negative would be an understatement. At the blog The Wine Culture Project, the kiosk has been singled out at the "worst wine idea of the year." Writer John Kafarski laments what it will do to the wine-buying experience, turning the product into "nothing more than soda in a vending machine." Shoppers will not be able, for instance, to look at a bottle, hold it in their hands and read the labels before committing to the purchase. Alder Yarrow of Vinography feels the same way, saying that locking the bottles away in a secure cabinet where people cannot touch them is a perfect way to reduce wine sales:

So if you had a bunch of grocery stores, and those grocery stores sold wine, but you didn't really want people to buy any wine, what would you do? You might force people to peer through the front door of this cabinet to try to read the name of the wine they think they might want to buy, and force them to remember it until they walk down to the end of cabinet where they are forced to swipe their credit card in order to buy the bottle. That is, if they don't have to stand on line waiting to use the machine, which is, of course, the only way to buy a bottle of wine. And then if you wanted to add insult to injury, you might make sure that people could ONLY pay by credit card, and give them a touch-screen kiosk, with a lousy user interface that forces them to browse through inscrutable categories of wine or many pages of search results to find the wine they're looking for. Then you'd provide them with really crappy information about each wine. And finally, you'd install a breathalyzer and force everyone who wanted to buy a bottle to use the breathalyzer, and then to swipe their government-issued ID just to make sure they weren't drunk AND under-age. Think I'm joking? Welcome to Pennsylvania, and the bizarre alternate universe of the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board. You want to buy wine in grocery stores, you're going to have to convince a passive aggressive computer to open the pod bay doors, first.

That last comment is a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that part of the machine bears an unsettling resemblance to HAL 9000, the murderous computer from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," something that commenters on the discussion site MetaFilter are having a lot of fun with ("Give me a Pinot Noir, HAL." "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.").

Wine dispenser open for business at Wegmans

One person we talked to took issue with the breathalyzer function – not only that you're putting your mouth up close to something that other people are also breathing into and it's not being cleaned between uses, but the need for that function in the first place.

"I think that's incredibly restrictive," said Neal Ward, sommelier at The English Grill in Louisville, Ky., a AAA Four Diamond restaurant with a wine cellar that is considered to be one of the best in the Midwest. "You have to prove that you're not drinking in order to buy a bottle of wine? Come on, that smacks of Big Brother. I don't see where forcing a person to take a breathalyzer test serves any good purpose other than to frustrate the consumer."

According to a PLCB press release, the breathalyzer is set to the state's "zero tolerance" level of .02 blood alcohol — so if a shopper has had a beer with dinner, he would not be allowed to complete the purchase. The press release also said that if the program is well received, it will launch another 100 of the machines, "as part of the PLCB's multi-faceted effort to enhance customer convenience."

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