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Friday, March 30, 2012

Kenwood Vineyards Sold?

It's reported that Banfi Vintners will buy Kenwood Vineyards, a 500,000 case winery in Sonoma Valley, from Gary Heck. Gary also owns Korbel plus smaller wineries Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma.

During Heck's ownership he has grown Kenwood in cases produced though not necessarily in quality or status. That is, prices have stagnated, so I suppose has the bottom line.

Kenwood is tightly integrated with Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma in production and administration. I don't know if Kenwood can maintain that level of case production without the Valley of the Moon facility. Plus some of their grapes come from the Korbel property.

Rumors have circulated for years that Heck may want to sell off a piece of his wine empire. Looks like it's going to happen. It's not a done deal at this time, but there's a signed letter of intent from Banfi to purchase Kenwood with the deal wrapping up in June.

This would be Banfi's first acquisition in California. They are probably best known for Riunite wines (remember the old Riunite on Ice commercials)?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chasing after the young ladies

NO, I mean marketing directed at Millennial female consumers.

Beringer, part of Treasury Wine Estates, formally Fosters (I know, hard to keep track), has launched a $10-$14 line of "Be" white wines, such as Be Bright Pinot Grigio and Be Flirty Pink Moscato. Honestly, who else except a 20-something female would be caught drinking anything that contains "flirty" and pink" on the label?

Millennials don't want to be pigeonholed like their parents who supposedly depend on points scored and gold medals won. So instead they are being pigeonholed as "hip, adventurous and skeptical." (They forgot the part where they are constantly typing on their smart phone).

Apparently this all means young women won't drink what their parents drink. OMG they're rebelling! They certainly won't purchase in the same price range. Anyway, wine marketers are using the "adventurous and skeptical" thing to try new wines their parents would probably stick their nose up at although the marketing folks have forgotten the parents started on crap like Strawberry Hill and Blue Nun. I certainly remember Mogen David 20/20 and it's not a pretty memory...
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The marketing professionals are doing many studies on what young females want to drink. These brands are some of their "best" work:

Skinnygirl Wine -- Why does this remind me of Virginia Slims?
Strut -- Wine with legs.
La Bubbly -- "Sparkling wine for the sparkling mind."
Working Girl Wines -- makers of Rosé the Riveter.
Happy Bitch Wines -- Um, I dunno, but they're from New York.

So it's been decided: Young women want cute wine names!

Most of all someone said the Millennial women wine drinkers want to be sophisticated, but not snobby. Thank gawd for that!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Louis Foppiano

Louis J. Foppiano passed away at 101 years old. He was the patriarch of Sonoma County's oldest family-run winery. Louis was the ultimate grape farmer in a business where you mostly read about the various rich and/or famous vintners.

He was born on the same farm where he lived and worked his entire life. Louis' grandfather immigrated from Italy and purchased the land in 1896. His father took over in 1910, but passed away in 1924. From then on Louis was running the ranch with his family.

He went through Prohibition, the jug wine years, and watched California blossom as a premium wine growing region. During Prohibition they survived by growing fruit. After Prohibition ended he was one of the first to jump back into the wine business. Just before WWII he helped start the Wine Institute of California and served on its board for almost five decades. Just after the war he helped get the Sonoma County Wine Growers Association going and was its first president. He was in many ways the founder and father of Sonoma County wine.

Foppiano Winery is best known for Petite Sirah because that was his passion. In these days of flashy wineries and wines Foppiano Winery is decidedly old-style.

A couple years ago he formally gave control to his son Louis Jr and daughter Susan. The two of them had a noisy clash over the running of the winery just a few months ago and are no longer in charge (December post on Foppiano Family Feud). What will happen with this family operation isn't fully known yet.  Let's hope the family gets their act together.

Thank you sir for your years of hard work.
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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Well, Napa has gotten expensive!

Okay, so maybe that's not a hot news flash. But things haven't cooled off with the recession apparently.

I recently stopped by a winery I used to work  for in Calistoga. It's a medium-sized operation of mid-range wines and is open to the public. Five years ago we charged ten bucks to taste. On weekends we often had a reserve tasting in a separate room for twenty. And the 45 minute tour was free.

Well, it ain't that way anymore!  The standard tasting is $20. A reserve tasting at the bar is $35 for three wines. That's three for thirty-five. Tours? Twenty dollars including two tastes. Whoa.

When I mentioned where I work now is ten dollars (to taste more wines btw) and it's refunded if you purchase the reply, half as a joke, was, "Well, you're over there (Sonoma) and we're Napa!"

I guess they are more interested in selling the experience than the wine.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reflecting on the California Wine Industry

This is my 300th post on this wine blog and it's had over 30,000 hits according to the counter. You guys should get out more. It's not like I know what I'm talking about!   :)

It's a good time to reflect on the general state of the California premium wine industry.

The recession had a major impact for a couple of reasons.

(1) People cut out or cut down on luxury goods if they feel financially insecure. Considering most premium wines run between twenty and fifty bucks that's definitely something you can cut out. When the recession first hit in 2008 I received lots of calls to cancel wine club memberships as that was something people could easily do without.

(2) Travel was down as that's also a luxury especially if it involves air travel, hotel rooms, and dining out every day.

Since last summer this has turned around as hotel occupancy is up. The number of visitors is up (day travelers and those on vacation). Wine club memberships are growing again. Wine sales are doing well.

California wine shipments and exports are up by several percentage points. This is partly because we're coming out of the recession and also because the value of the dollar makes overseas sales a better deal. And, of course, there's China. Everybody is looking to increase sales of everything from wine to cars to the new Chinese middle class.

Marketing to the Millennials (21 to 34 year olds) is still going strong even though they tend not to buy much premium wines as they shop more in the under $15 range. Still, wineries wish to cater to them because they are the future. There's great hope down the road as the current crop of 20-somethings is much more into wine than any previous generation was at that age.

The number of wineries continues to grow substantially though the rate slowed during the recession. There's been consolidation as wineries or corporations that own wineries have bought mostly smaller operations in financial difficulty. This will continue for a while as there are more over-extended wineries that won't be able to survive on their own. The folks doing the buying may turn out to be the ones in the best position when this recession finally ends.

Americans drink relatively little wine per capita compared to much of Europe, but it is increasing while other countries are dropping. Part is due to the good press about the health benefits of moderate consumption and part is an overall trend towards higher-end goods--not just wine, but microbreweries, coffee, tea, etc.

The growth and strength of the wine industry in California is quite a entrepreneurial success story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Harvest Moon & Sheldon -- Rebels With a Cause

Plenty has been said about the ever-rising level of alcohol in California wines.
Along with this comes soft (low acid) wine. A couple local folks are bucking the trend. You can actually sense the acid in their wines! Some people aren't gonna like that (I'm one that does).

What does acid do for a wine?
Balance - Makes the wine bright, refreshing, and interesting, rather than dull.
Food pairing - Acid stands up to food.
Stability and ageability - Acid will give a wine a decent shelf life.

One of the beauties of higher acid wines is that they are good now and will still be good a few years down the road. This is different than tannic wine that has to age for awhile as the tannins need to mellow out before the wine is ready to drink.

If the acid is too high the wine can taste tart or even sour. People have different tolerances for acid levels and the same wine can be perceived as refreshing by one person and bitter by another.

Don't be turned off by a wine that seems a little acidic on with the first swallow or might even make your eyes water. If you plan on drinking more than a few sips and maybe even plan on having it with dinner than perceptible acid is good!

Here are a couple small wineries that understand this and will even forgo the chance at gold medals (judges seem to like the soft, fat, low acid wines).

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Harvest Moon Winery

Your first impression as a California wine drinker (like me) is, "Wow, not as fruity as I'm used to and you can really taste the acid."  They specialize in Russian River Valley Zinfandel--it's not pink and it hasn't got 16% alcohol. It's an ageable food-friendly wine.

They are a bit experimental as they even grow Gewurztraminer (when any sensible person knows you should rip that out and plant Pinot Noir)! They make sparkling wine out of their Gewurztraminer and Zinfandel. They freeze Gewurz grapes to make an ice-style wine.

The wines are refreshing, juicy, and are lighter in color and taste than many wines, especially their Zinfandels. They are aged in mostly older, more neutral oak barrels, so you never get hit with a blast of oak, just fruit and spices and floral aromas.

If you visit you'll probably be talking with the winemaker. You'll know because you will hear his passion for his style of "not so ripe" wines.

I'm a fan of his Zins. I've tasted the Russian River Valley bottling and the Pitts Home Ranch Zinfandels. Both have alcohol levels in the mid-13 percent with just an iddy-biddy touch of residual sugar left in to help balance the acids. Two words:  Food friendly!

Sheldon Wines
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If you're looking for the usual oaky Chardonnay and soft Cabernet then go elsewhere. You want to be a bit of an adventurous type because they have wine blended with Grenache and Petite Sirah and other less popular varieties. They get their grapes from all over the state.

The wine is made and the entire operation is run by a young couple (well, young to me anyway) that shares an obvious passion for wine.

If you visit their small urban tasting room in Santa Rosa you'll find the place a bit "edgy" but very friendly. They started with producing just a few hundred cases not too many years ago and are on their way up.

I've been a fan of the Vinolocity Rhone-style red blend plus I recently discovered the Cabernet and Petite Sirah blend, the Weatherly Cuvee. The wines are lighter, more floral, and maybe a bit tart. From what I've seen they age well and are beautiful accompanimentto a meal. I had their 2005 Vinolocity at a Grenache tasting a few months ago and found it near perfect at that stage of its life.

These are wines, not soda pop. It might take some getting used to!

Enjoy and Experiment

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Real History of Merlot

As told by the fun-loving folks at Gundlach-Bundschu Winery (the same folks who "held up" the Napa Wine Train years ago).

GB video

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Barrel Tasting Changes Needed?

Image from
Sonoma County's Wine Road Association

The Wine Road is the best winery association I've had dealings with. They are great people and they do an exceptional job of promoting northern Sonoma County (mostly Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys).

Their key fundraising event is the Barrel Tasting on the first two weekends of March. Many years ago this was actually a free one weekend event where people attended in order to taste young wines still in the barrel before they were bottled and buy futures on the ones they liked. "Futures" means you buy now at a reduced price, but don't get the wine until after it's been bottled and released.

Changes in the Barrel Tasting

This event got very popular and the Wine Road started charging a nominal fee that has now risen to what is really a fair price of $30 in advance or $40 at the door.

For many wineries this affair has gone from a chance to sell futures on their wines or at least meet potential new customers to a huge party especially for the under 30 year old crowd. Why? It's been a relatively cheap weekend for drinking (it was $15-20 dollars for an entire weekend up until recently). The bigger issue has been a few wineries promoting this as a big party.

Current state

A few years ago I was in the town of Healdsburg on a Saturday afternoon during Barrel Tasting weekend. This town has dozens of tasting rooms in a small area. It looked like Mardi Gras on the streets with groups of younger folks carrying their glasses around while shouting, screaming, singing, etc. between tasting rooms. OK, they're not doing anything wrong as long as they're not driving, but anyone can see the potential for problems. (You can read my earlier post about Healdsburg here).

It's not just the young folks having a good time as this year late one afternoon I overheard a group of 50-somethings singing the Mickey Mouse theme song, "M-I-C...K-E-Y..."  No, I don't know why either.  LOL

Dry Creek Valley on Saturday afternoon is known as party-central--the place is crawling with cars and limos. They first weekend of Barrel Tasting this year there were a couple minor incidents with tipsy customers where the State Highway Patrol was called in plus there were numerous occasions where wineries refused service to groups.

The complaint that got me laughing were the quotes from a person at Armida Winery in Dry Creek complaining about the hoards of young drinkers partying and maybe keeping out the "serious buyers."  I find this really funny as Armida is the original party place for Barrel Tasting. They, as much as anyone, have turned this event into more of a big college frat party than a futures purchasing weekend.

Not everybody or every winery falls into this category. Many people are out to find new wineries that aren't usually open to the public or are looking to buy futures on wine. Many of the younger crowd are there to learn about wine. Unfortunately, these wineries and tasters appear to be a smaller and smaller minority every year.

Participating wineries

It's a lot of work to partake in an event like this especially for small wineries. If you might normally see a couple dozen visitors a day this time of year and now see hundreds during Barrel Tasting there's lots of work to get set up. Staffing, parking, having barrel samples, etc. all can be issues. Not to mention having to be a bouncer. Winery personnel are in the hospitality business and don't want to have to say "no" to anyone especially someone who might be a bit boisterous or even belligerent.

Just after the Barrel Tasting event ended I talked with a few winery people--sometimes the tasting room person, sometimes it was an owner/winemaker. The folks at the larger wineries often said, "This is the last year we are participating in the Barrel Tasting." I laughed and said, "Maybe you'll forget about the problems nine months from now."  Or maybe not. The small wineries seemed to appreciate the opportunity to meet so many new potential customers--and the smaller ones didn't have to deal with the groups in buses.

Changes needed?

Should people be stopped from having a good time? Not necessarily, but you just don't want a major incident like a fatality on the road because someone was drunk behind the wheel. Even the folks that take a limo have to eventually drive unless they're being picked up at their hotel.

So what do you do? The Wine Road members talk about this every year. So far they've come up with raising the prices in order to cut the crowds, but that hasn't happened yet as the visitor count is up. That is good, of course, as long as the "drunk count" isn't also going up.

Other things that could be discussed are:
  • Limiting the number of tastes per winery. Right now crowds are descending on certain wineries and hanging out there and drinking for most of the day.  If you keep people moving on to the next stop they will consume less over the course of the day and they will experience more wineries. That should be good for everybody.
  • There should be no other drinking allowed on the property--no wine by the glass sales, for instance. 
  • The event stops at 4 pm. Some wineries are normally open to 5 pm or later, but all should stop serving at 4 pm.
  • It would be great if limo and bus drivers in this event agreed to not have any other alcohol in their vehicles. Unfortunately, they don't have, or at least don't feel they have, any responsibility for the behavior their clients. Perhaps as fewer and fewer wineries allow these groups they will get the message.

Press Democrat article on the first weekend of Barrel Tasting.

Update: Press Democrat article on Healdsburg business owner's problems

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The 2012 season begins!

The grape growing season in Sonoma/Napa is off and running. Okay, not exactly running or even jogging. The first sign of life in the vineyards is underway with bud break on the vines in a few of the warmer areas.

Bud break
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This is a couple weeks early due to the relatively dry and warm weather. Lots of plants are early this spring, not just the grapes.

This means nothing as far as the quality or quantity or wine grapes this year. What it does mean is a long frost protection season as the tender shoots can be damaged by cold nights. The most common means of protecting the vines is with wind machines to move the air or with sprinklers.

The good news is we're in a week long rain storm that should delay bud break in other vineyards and will supply much needed water.

The vineyard folks are pretty much on constant watch from now through October.

The seasonal cycle looks something like this (dates approx):

Bud break   late March
Bloom        June 1st
Fruit set     June
Verasion    late July-early August
Harvest      Sept-Oct

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Who will be the new wine expert?

Most any wine enthusiast knows Robert Parker has been the most influential person on wines for a long time. I use past tense because ol' Bob is pretty much retiring from telling you what to drink. Yes, he's gotten a lot of flack--when you're #1 at anything that's what happens--others will criticize. In the last year the U.S. because the largest wine-consuming nation on the planet in a large part because of him.

So now there's a vacuum. Who will fill it? Maybe no one. No single person that is. The Internet with wine forums and social media has changed many things from Egypt to wine. Everyone can offer opinions and be the expert and why not? Everyone has a palate that's just as good as anyone else's because you like what you like. 

Okay, there still is room for other so-called experts. Sommeliers may be the next wine rock stars. "Soms" (I call 'em Soms because who the hell can pronounce Sommeliers)?  Anyway, Soms are trained wine professionals who often work in restaurants to help customers with their wine choices. This seems like the perfect background as food and wine together is usually what consumers care about. If you're just looking to party then shop the under $10 section at the market and don't worry about gold medals and points.
OK, maybe if they want our
respect they'll have to stop
wearing that funny cup
around their neck.
Image from

Like any profession there are good ones and bad ones. Just because you have a good memory and learn about wine doesn't mean you know that much are tasting wine (and food). And some Soms are better at upselling customers than worrying about giving them what they want.

So might a sommelier or maybe just Soms in general become the people wine drinkers turn to for their expert opinions? It's a bit difficult if they are scattered around different restaurants. Perhaps a few who make their living off wine judging and writing might fill the Parker void.

There are dozens of other wine experts: wine writers for newspapers, blog authors, magazine critics, distributors or restaurant owners, but I would think only a very few of these will have the knowledge and the respect of some of the best sommeliers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"I don't like Zinfandel"

I hear that occasionally as some people either don't get Zinfandel or have had a bad experience or two.  Zin is a fantastic wine and can go with anything from spaghetti and meatballs to BBQ to slightly spicy foods to just having a glass of it by itself.  Zinfandel is probably California's most versatile wine, but if you believe you don't like it that doesn't matter.

For the less familiar folks real Zinfandel is red, not pink and sweet. Zin can be described as jammy and chewy with raspberries, blackberries, with pepper and other spices. It can also be described as hot--and not in a good way. For some reason many winemakers believe Zinfandel requires at least 15% alcohol to be a wine people want to drink. Besides tasting the heat of the alcohol most of the great characteristics of Zinfandel are lost as you are left with simple, bright red fruit. But there are people that like this style of wine or it wouldn't be selling, right? Unfortunately, they are missing the real reasons Zin is such a great, versatile wine.
Another great, hard to find,
Sonoma County Zin
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The best thing for you to do is to sample a wide variety of Zinfandels and decide on your favorite style. After all I'd hate to see you miss out on California's best wines because of a bad choice or two. These listed below are all from Sonoma County grapes. Other areas in California known for producing Zin are Amador County, Lodi, Napa Valley, and Paso Robles.

Since Zinfandel ranges from fruit-forward, jammy, higher alcohol styles to lean, tannic, ageable styles I'll list some suggestions by three categories. There is, of course, some overlap as it's difficult to pigeon-hole them all, but give a try to at least one from each grouping. Fire up the grill or get some raviolis and enjoy!

Lush, concentrated, fruity

Carol Shelton Karma, $33
Carol names most of her wines by style rather than location.  The current release of this one is from the well-regarded Robert Rue Vyd in the Russian River Valley.

Hartford Court Highwire Russian River Vly, $55
High alcohol, unfiltered, new French oak. Huge wine, huge price.  If you can't find the Highwire look for their Russian River Vly Zin.

Mauritson Rockpile, $35
Mauritson makes several different Rockpile appellation Zins as they are also growers in Rockpile.

Pezzi King Dry Creek Valley, $18
Full-bodied and ripe beefy wine

Seghesio Sonoma County, $24
A bold Zin that's considered the "standard" Zinfandel for Sonoma County.

Wilson Diane's Dry Creek Vly, $60
Wilson has single vineyard Zins running from $35 to $60.  They win lots of awards for these wines.  Diane's is my favorite of the ones I've sampled recently (and the most expensive, go figure).

In betweeners

Nalle Dry Creek, $35
Around 13.5% alcohol--very low for a Zin so this is a great food wine.

Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone, $15
About the best value in Zin you'll find.

Preston Dry Creek, $35
Outstanding balance and fruit.  Bad news: Hard to find outside of the winery.

Quivira Dry Creek, $20
Raspberries and bramble, pepper. Classic Dry Creek.

Trentadue Old Patch Red, $14
A Zinfandel-based blend and a good price.

Leaner, ageable

Dry Creek Vyds Sonoma County Heritage, $19
Another lower alcohol Zin blended with a good bit of Petite Sirah. Needs to age a bit.

Kenwood Jack London, $25
Classic style--cherry, pepper, tannins, rustic, requires ageing.

Ridge/Lytton Springs Geyserville, $35
Ridge has so many great Zins with the East Bench, Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Pagani, and Ponzo being some of them.  Some are leaner and more classic Ridge such as the Geyserville bottling while others are higher alcohol Zins like the East Bench.

Non-Sonoma Zinfandels 

Some Zins from other areas you may want to check out:

Fruit-forward and higher alcohol:
Biale (Napa), Bogle (Clarksburg), Klinker Block (Lodi), Rosenblum (several locations in CA)

Grgich (Napa)

Structured and ageable:
Storybook Mtn (Napa). The best Zins from outside of Sonoma County.

Sonoma Appellations

Dry Creek Valley is Zinfandel-central.  Dry Creek made Zinfandel famous and vice versa.  The other great regions are Rockpile and the warmer regions of the Russian River Valley.   You'll also find some good ones from Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley.

Old Vines

What is old vine Zinfandel?  Most importantly there is no legal definition for old vines. Some will say the vines have to be at least 40 years old or 50 years, but you can say whatever you want. Generally, it refers to lower production vines with more concentrated fruit (and the resulting higher price).

One of the best vineyards in Sonoma County is Maple Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Tina's Block in Maple Vyds is over 100 years old. The downside is the wines are generally low production therefore hard to find and expensive.
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Aging Zinfandel

Some I've listed above with notes saying "ageable" -- and there are a lot of conversations around aging Zinfandel. I've found the plush, higher alcohol Zins do not age well (not just Zins, but most high alcohol , non-fortified, wines). These should generally be consumed within less than five years of the vintage date.  As you get towards a leaner, tannic, lower alcohol style you can age these wines--most I would say for five to eight years. As with aging any wine it will change as it ages. One of the best wines I've ever had was a '81 Lytton Springs Reserve Zinfandel at 15 years old, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Food Pairings

The riper styles of Zin go best with richer foods such as a rich style of tomato sauce or beef, such as ribeye steak, or ribs. The leaner you go in style the more you can go with a classic tomato-based sauce that's more acidic or spicy or a heartier beef dish. I also like Zinfandel with grilling when basting any meat, even chicken or pork, with a slightly spicy BBQ sauce.  And, of course, sausages and pizza are great with Zin. If you're going for a glass of Zinfandel without a meal try one of the "in between" wines listed above.

Once you find the style you like and who produces your favorites you may find that Zinfandel has become one of your favorite wines as it is mine!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sonoma County's Wine Road Barrel Tasting

Or reason number 173 Sonoma County rules!

David Coffaro Winery in Dry Creek Valley
Image from

The first two weekends of March northern Sonoma County (Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander Valleys) host a barrel tasting event. It's a chance to try wines before they are  bottled, maybe buy futures and to visit wineries you've never heard of before.

The first weekend this year the weather cooperated in a big way with temps in the 70s and lots of sunshine. And lots of people having a great time. I saw a lot of people from out-of-state that timed their trip for this weekend event.

Overlooking the Russian River Valley--March 4th

Check the Wine Road website for more info.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Random Wine (and Booze) News

Current news can  be pretty funny especially when people get weirded out by their concerns with everyone else's alcohol consumption. And you don't have to make it up--some people actually made this stuff happen!

A Canadian study on wine-buying habits shows that people will pay more for a wine with a name that's hard to pronounce. So German wine is that overpriced?

Drew Barrymore has decided to get into the wine business. She has put her name on an Italian Pinot Grigio. Yeah, Drew, that's what "getting into the wine business" is all about!

Utah has a state government that's quite unfriendly to alcohol sales. (Jesus told them to lay off the stuff and have three wives instead). As in other states there's a state Alcohol Beverage Commission governed by a board. Utah has a new bill in the legislature that would now require at least two of the five board members be drinkers.

Speaking of state laws ...

West Virginia just passed a law allowing free samples of one once shots of liquor. Whiskey tasting rooms are coming!

Pennsylvania, a state known for tight liquor control, there's an "oopsy" loophole in the law. The state took away the liquor license of a York County nightclub for various problems in the club. The license allowed them to sell booze. Now they can't sell it so they give it away. PA says they can't make them stop.