It’s hard to believe that nearly two-and-a-half years have passed since the incident of Ed Rendell vs. Jonathan Newman, which had Philadelphia-area oenophiles fretting over the future selection of wine at our iron-fist-run state stores. If your memory has faded, here’s a recap: Newman resigned from his position as chairman of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board when Rendell went “behind the scenes” to hire a $150,000-a-year CEO to oversee the statutorily mandated day-to-day operations that had been the Board’s responsibility. Thus, a large portion of Newman’s duties, for which he’d been getting paid about $65K, was eliminated. (The resignation was voluntary, and, actually, Newman could’ve kept his job for the same salary, just less responsibilities—a proposal that fell flat on him.)
Newman was with the PLCB for 7-plus years. While chairman, he gained popularity with consumers for his efforts to obtain more and better wines at affordable prices, bringing Sunday sales to numerous stores, expanding Wine & Spirits shops into supermarkets (his Chairman Select wine program was a hit), and creating a more educated in-store experience for consumers and sales staff.
When Newman resigned, his parting comments alluded to his “next thing” being something “enriching, fulfilling and entrepreneurial.” A man of his word, Newman wrote a business plan, raised capital, and launched Newman Wine & Spirits. While the company has been in operation since January 2008, we’re hearing about it in greater depth now because it has only been two weeks since he began bringing his select inventory of wines to the Pennsylvania market.
But his motivation goes beyond pleasing fellow wine enthusiasts. His real goal is to help Pennsylvania restaurateurs—who are forced by law to pay retail prices—catch a financial break and give them more affordable options that will help sales even in a down economy. This is good news for consumers who’ve developed a bad taste in their mouths over high restaurant markups.
It was interesting to learn that there is a valid cause and effect behind this. In other states, restaurants can order directly from distributors, pay wholesale prices, and have their inventory delivered right to their establishments. In Pennsylvania (and Utah), all sales must go through the PLCB. Because of this, restaurants pay retail costs with a 6-percent sales tax, another 18-percent Johnstown Flood Tax that dates back to 1936, a $1.50-per-bottle fee, and a 30-percent markup from distributor to state store.
Again, Newman’s sympathies lie more with the restaurants, which he sees as being victimized by such strict governance. “There are 18 states that have control over liquor sales,” says Newman. “But most of that is tied to the wholesale market and taxes. Utah and Pennsylvania are in a league of their own, with the strictest controls across the board.”
One of the changes he made during his stint with the PLCB was increasing the discount given to restaurants from 7 to 10 percent. “The restaurant community has been ignored for years,” says Newman. “If you’re wondering where the BYO craze got its legs, this is where. Not having any inventory overhead or needing to carry liability insurance quickly became appealing for smaller restaurants. BYOBs are great for wine enthusiasts, but you don’t want to lose your top restaurants.”
I’m pretty sure he’s talking about all those mega steakhouse chains, celebrity-chef-driven spots like 10 Arts, Stephen Starr’s and Jose Garces’ empires, the Dilworthtown Inn, georges’, and even our suburban Somboonsong dynasty, which all strive to offer customers premium wine lists—just maybe not at the most ideal price points. Which again, is where Newman Wine & Spirits comes to the rescue for both restaurateurs and consumers. The company’s reach extends to large and small wine shops in eight states and Washington, D.C. It’s also marketed through Legal Sea Foods and other high-profile restaurants with strong by-the-glass programs.
One thing that’s most unique about Newman’s business model is that he terms it the “negotiant-type” model, which can be imagined as gently beating up the wine producer just enough to transform an overpriced but good wine into a “value wine,” one of Newman’s favorite terms.
“I might not like a wine at $30 a bottle, but I will love that same wine at $10,” he says.
Because Newman Wine & Spirits operates differently than larger distributors—like, say, Diageo—who have such high-profile accounts as Chalone, Sterling and Beaulieu vineyards, Newman can “cherry pick” the “crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me” from each vineyard, rather than being obligated to take the full line.
So what makes a wine fit into the Newman portfolio? It’s pretty simple: First and foremost is taste (not just how it tastes, but also if it is “varietally” correct); price (Newman’s sweet spot is in the $10-$20 range); and background (Is there a good story behind it?). All of this adds up to Newman’s quality-price ratio, a formula he’s relied on—and built his relationship on—throughout his career as a wine specialist.
The bottom line for Newman, though, is, “Will this bottle get customers excited?” And now that Newman’s wines are available, you can answer this question yourself. The initial Pennsylvania offering features the following wines at newmanwineandspirits.com or by ordering from a salesperson at your regular spirits stop:
â€¢ 2008 Kingsford Manor Reserve Napa Sauvignon Blanc
â€¢ 2006 Mockingbird Hill Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
â€¢ 2007 Mockingbird Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay
â€¢ Rigol 1897 Cava
â€¢ 2007 Thumbprint Russian River Valley Chardonnay
â€¢ 2008 Gold Oak Hill Chardonnay
â€¢ 2007 Castlebank Old Vines Dry Creek Zinfandel
â€¢ Sonoma Acres Russian River Pinot Noir
â€¢ 2008 Sonoma Acres Sauvignon Blanc
Feel free to post comments below, particularly if you can offer the rest of us some insight on these wines or if you’re looking for a buddy to split a case or two with.
Another Reason to Cheer: Game 1 specials for the World Series at your favorite local watering holes
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Our Fabulous Phillies! I know you’ll be biting your nails over Game 1 somewhere, so if you need a few last-minute suggestions, these specials might sway you. Here’s what’s happening at a few of our local watering holes:
Gypsy Saloon, 128 Ford St., Conshohocken; (610) 828-8494, gypsysaloon.com
Inning No. 1: $2 Miller Lite Bottles
Inning No. 2: $2 Mini Burgers (2)
Inning No. 3: $1 Miller Lite and Lager Drafts
Inning No. 4: 25-cent Wings
Inning No. 5: $3 house wines
Inning No. 6: $2 Gypsy Fries
Inning No. 7: $4 Well Drinks
Inning No. 8: HOME RUN calls for a round on the house
Inning No. 9: Stay the whole game and get a $10 gift certificate to Gypsy Saloon.
The Newtown Grill & Wine Bar, 191 S. Newtown Street Road, Newtown Square; (610) 356-9700,Â italiansteakhouse.com
$4 House Mixed Drinks
$2 Domestic Beer Bottles
$4 Meatball Sandwiches
$6 Pork Sandwiches
333 Belrose, 333 Belrose Lane, Wayne; (610) 293-1000, 333belrose.com
Get a free glass of wine or beer at Belrose every time the Phils get a home run (available in the dining room only). Watch the big plays on big TVs, and enjoy a half-price bar menu every Monday to Thursday.
Susanna Foo, 555 E. Lancaster Ave., Radnor; (610) 688-8808, susannafoo.com
Susanna Foo is celebrating the football and baseball season by offering 20 percent off during all Phillies and Eagles games, whether dining in or taking out. Watch in high definition on four large-screen TVs that are viewable in the bar or the dining room.
10 Arts Bistro & Lounge, 10 Avenue of the Arts, Philadelphia; (215) 523-8273, 10arts.com
Pastry Chef Monica Glass revives her Phillies spirit—and hopefully yours, too—with a trio of decadent, cream-cheese-and-red-P-frosted, red-velvet Phillies cupcakes. Served up in yummy flavors like banana with chocolate frosting and apple cider with cider buttercream, the mini-cupcake trio will run you $10, but this is no time to scrimp on team spirit.