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Liquor Control Board directors bring conflicting tales to table

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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
 

Conflicting statements from two top Liquor Control Board officials during government hearings and interviews have kept controversy about the agency's in-house brand of wine swirling.

LCB executive director Joe Conti and marketing director Jim Short have offered divergent stories about how the LCB's TableLeaf wine came to market and who selected the company to make it.

Most people cited by both men as crucial decision-makers in the process told the Tribune-Review they had no knowledge of the project and no role in it.

“If you have something that you've truly done above-board, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that two storytellers cannot point to the same genesis (of TableLeaf),” said Jay Ostrich, spokesman for the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg-based think tank. “It's when you have a lack of integrity, a track record of malfeasance and mismanagement that you will indeed have people point in the wrong directions.”

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, sponsor of a plan to privatize wine and liquor sales, said the situation shows the LCB doesn't want the public to understand how it operates.

“If I were on the Liquor Control Board, I would tell them to cease and desist (making and selling TableLeaf),” Turzai said.

In February, Conti testified before the House Appropriations Committee that several years ago, when the wine-making market experienced a glut of grape juice, a number of suppliers approached the LCB with samples to consider for an in-house wine, according to hearing transcripts.

But Short tells a different story.

Through a spokeswoman, he said companies did not approach the LCB with grape juice samples as Conti said. Instead, Short said he was the one who approached vendors to find someone to handle the in-house brand, which debuted in March 2011 and sells for $7 to $15 for a 750-ml or 1.5-liter bottle.

Short said he shopped the wine around to two distributors, but one declined to participate and the other required an order larger than the LCB wanted.

Short said he then contacted Majestic Wine and Spirits, a Wayne, Pa.-based broker representing Bronco Wine Co. of California, maker of Charles Shaw, Trader Joe's in-house wine nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck.”

Majestic officials did not return calls for comment.

But this is where Conti's and Short's versions of events once again conflict and others begin to take issue with their stories.

Conti told the House committee that the Wine and Spirits Advisory Council, a group of consumers and liquor license holders empaneled by the LCB, tasted samples of wine submitted for consideration by a number of vendors competing for the TableLeaf brand, transcripts show.

But those council members deny being involved.

“The first I knew about TableLeaf was when I read about it in the paper,” said Dan Tunnell, a member of the advisory council since its creation in 2008, referring to a Tribune-Review article about the wine.

“More than one of us have said we did not recall that,” Tunnell said.

“There is no role (the advisory council) has in product selection,” said Marnie Old, a member of the council when TableLeaf was being developed and now a consultant to the LCB.

In later interviews with the Trib, Conti changed his story again, stating that an LCB wine educator and outside sommelier tasted samples submitted by vendors.

But Judy Carroll, a wine educator for the central region of the state, said educators don't play a role in choosing products.

“I do classes and seminars with the people who work in the (state) stores,” Carroll said.

She said her six counterparts elsewhere in the state all do the same thing: conduct classes to educate state store workers.

And Melissa Monosoff, the sommelier under contract with the LCB from December 2007 through November 2011, said she was not involved in the development or selection of TableLeaf wines “in the slightest” and had “no idea who was.”

Short said mostly, LCB employees tasted the samples submitted by only one vendor — Bronco Wine Co. He said the Pennsylvania Wine and Spirits Association, a trade group representing suppliers and distributors, was asked for its input and that he invited members to submit samples.

But association executive director Myron Waxman said the association played no role in the development or selection of TableLeaf wines.

One watchdog said the conflicting stories call the credibility of the LCB into question.

“There cannot be two sides to this story. We're not flipping a coin here,” said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg reform activist and founder of Rock the Capital. “The LCB has created a credibility gap by offering two conflicting narratives.”

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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