LCB specialists uncork wisdom of wine at shops

Kari Andren
| Thursday, June 12, 2014, 9:15 p.m.

Megan Painter pours an ounce of pinot noir into a small plastic cup and explains that a red wine from Burgundy, France, will always be pinot noir.

As Painter works the tasting bar at the wine and spirits store on Northern Pike in Monroeville, some customers address her by name, asking what she's tasting this week and how much it costs.

Painter's job as one of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's 68 wine specialists is part educator and part investigator.

Wearing green aprons emblazoned with “wine specialist,” these experts, stationed at 64 stores statewide, answer questions, offer recommendations, host weekly wine tastings and compile email newsletters detailing new products and drink recipes.

They often have to decipher what a shopper is seeking with fragments of information about a brand they liked or something they want to give as a gift.

“It's like a fun game to hit the bull's-eye, because everyone has a different target,” Painter says.

At a recent tasting, Painter chose two Burgundy wines, one red and one white, to illustrate that French wines are named for their region of origin, not what's in the bottle.

“(Customers) learn, and they're more apt to try it,” says Painter, 33, who's worked for the LCB since 2001 in stores and in the agency's Harrisburg headquarters as a wine buyer.

The retail wine specialist program, which began in July 2012, aims to assist and teach customers about wine, says Dale Horst, the LCB's director of retail operations. Wine specialists will soon be placed in eight more stores, including the Ben Franklin South store in White Township, Indiana County.

“(Tastings) give customers the opportunity to try flavor profiles and wines from different areas they may not normally buy and different quality levels and price points,” Horst says.

Wine specialists are civil-service positions with salaries ranging from mid-$30,000s to mid-$50,000s. They undergo at least three LCB training courses and can opt to take courses by the Society of Wine Educators to become a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Specialist of Spirits. Experts also can elect to take the French Wine Society's course to earn a French Wine Scholar credential, Horst says.

Some of the wine specialists have developed a following; Painter estimates her email newsletters go out to more than 1,500 people.

Dawn Harkett, 55, of Plum says she attends the tastings every Friday and comes back to the Northern Pike store because of Painter.

“She knows her stuff. She knows what to recommend,” Harkett says. “It's as close to a privatized (system) as you're gonna get.”

Jerry Metallo, the wine specialist at the Cranberry Mall state store, has his regulars, too. One customer brings his own wine glass to tastings on Mondays and Wednesdays, Metallo says.

Wine specialists can choose four bottles of wine, up to $40 per bottle each, to offer at tastings, Metallo says. His email blast goes out to some 700 customers who have signed up.

“It's a great way to keep up with customers who are really involved with what we do,” says Metallo, 43, of Aspinwall. As a struggling actor, Metallo worked in a wine store in Manhattan before moving back to the Pittsburgh area, where he worked for a winery and later ran a wine bar in Wexford.

When he's not assisting customers, Metallo says he's deciding what premium wines to order and writing display signs with wine ratings and tasting notes.

“You order what you can sell, what your customer base will go for,” Metallo says.

Shoppers at his store are diverse. He says he recently had a young Croatian couple come in looking for Croatian wines and, luckily, he had just been to a training and tasting organized by the LCB where he selected some Croatian wines for his store.

When customers come back to say a wine Metallo recommended made their date night or party, it makes it all worthwhile, he says.

“On a small scale, I feel like I'm doing some good,” Metallo says. “I'm not curing cancer ... but I like coming to work every day.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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