PITTSBURGH - Michael DeMartinis tips a glass of pinot gris to his nose, notes its fruity aroma, studies its pale yellow color, then takes a sip.
His assessment? A lot of fruit. A lot of character. A good balance of acid and sugar.
DeMartinis, a wine buyer for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, is part of a team of nine experts who decide what products end up on the shelves of the state's 620 wine and spirits stores.
After nearly flat wine and spirits sales in the months after the 2008 recession, the buyers now face a healthier market for the products they're tasting. Shoppers spent more than $1.9 billion on wine and spirits in Pennsylvania during the 2010-11 fiscal year and are on pace to spend 4 percent to 5 percent more this year, according to state records.
The experts convene at least weekly - with each other or vendors - to sip, swirl and sniff their way to decisions. They examine sales data to determine what products might appeal to Pennsylvania customers. And they look at prices, hoping to find the perfect mix of affordable and high-end items.
Each team member - paid between $41,428 and $62,964 - brings a vast array of experience to the tasting table.
DeMartinis is an expert in wines from Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. He's worked as a buyer in Washington, as a harvester in New Zealand and as a taster in Australia.
Stephen Pollack, who chooses monthly Chairman's Selection wines - highly rated wines sold at least 30 percent off the national retail price - is a self-made expert, taking wine courses, reading extensively and working his way from a store wine expert to the LCB's luxury products division. Chairman's Selections are sold at the state's 72 premium stores, which carry broader selections and more high-end products.
A similar selection process is used in Utah - the only other state with a fully government-run liquor store system. Two buyers there select inventory for stores that last year had $330 million in sales, said Tom Zdunich of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Many days, the LCB experts are standing at tall cocktail tables or sitting around a boardroom table in black leather chairs in the "REC Room," named for the agency's Harrisburg Retail Education Center.
A cross between a country club bar, a lounge and a board room, the room is designed to offer a noise- and odor-free atmosphere in which to sample products. The room is also used for meetings with vendors and video conferences, according to LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.
The state spent nearly $35,000 to outfit the room with two big-screen monitors, a wine rack and wine cooler, a black leather couch, four leather arm chairs and other accessories, Witalec said. A $5,000 pub-style bar and hutch are modeled after the bar in the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States' tasting room in Washington.
By comparison, Utah's small, 8-by-10 foot tasting room features a simple design and standard office furniture and is used by tasters just once or twice a month, Zdunich said.
David Beckwith, a partner at New York-based Grand Cru Wine Consulting, said that, ideally, buyers should conduct tastings in a clean, neutral environment, free of smells.
"You don't want to be somewhere ... like a rusty warehouse, or you're not getting the full experience," Beckwith said.
There are rules in the REC Room. You can taste, but can't swallow. And no tasting is permitted after 2 p.m. as a safety precaution, even though tasters use spittoons.
One recent morning, DeMartinis and four other buyers sampled more than two dozen wines, some of which were unsolicited samples sent by wineries hoping to break into the state system.
DeMartinis decided to order 24 cases of Milbrandt Vineyards' 2010 Traditions pinot gris, specifically requested by a Philadelphia-area customer. He'll test the market before committing to a larger order. The LCB already stocks six other wines from the vineyard.
"Our goal is to give customers as broad a range as possible. That's educating them. The whole point is to educate your palate," DeMartinis said.
Even proven companies face challenges.
"It's very strict guidelines as to what they'll bring in," said Heather Price of Washington state-based Milbrandt Vineyards. "Even if your wine could be one of the top-selling wines in a category across the rest of the country, they sometimes will say...'We already have too much in that category.' In a free market, you're able to get your product in and sell it where people want it."
Jennifer Brown, a California wine specialist, said that after tasting wine for 20 years, she knows precisely the order to sample: driest to sweetest, lightest to heaviest and lowest acid to highest acid. Her palate is so discerning that she can select the best of the bunch in a few minutes.
"I have 10 shelves of samples. That's the kind of efficiency you need," Brown said.
Sometimes buyers act as consumer watchdogs. DeMartinis would not order bottles of one, 2-year-old wine because "to me, (the owner) is trying to dump this on the state," he said. Customers typically prefer the latest vintage of white wines, which tend to be bright and fresh, he said.
In the past 12 months, the LCB bought about 22 percent of the wines it was offered, or 2,840 of about 13,000, said Witalec. Even fewer spirits gain approval in a year: about 10 percent of roughly 200 submissions.
Prentiss Orr, co-founder of Glenshaw-based Boyd & Blair Distilleries, said getting his potato vodka into state stores was time-consuming, but not difficult. He and co-founder Barry Young met with LCB officials several times in the year before officially making a presentation in March 2008. Five months later, Boyd & Blair vodka was in about 125 state stores.
"Like everything else, when it comes to working in the spirits industry, there are so many regulations, so many taxes that have to be paid, so many procedures. ... As long as you know what the game plan is, it's pretty easy," Orr said.
Keeping track of the expanding liquor market is the job of John Wagner, the LCB's spirits buyer.
The market has exploded with the growth of flavored vodkas and, most recently, whiskeys, Wagner said. Stores already devote swaths to whipped cream, cake and gummy-flavored vodkas and may soon designate a section for flavored whiskeys.
That expansion won't mean stalwarts lose real estate.
"Our stores are obviously not unlimited in size. We obviously want to get the most profit per square inch of shelf space," Wagner said. "Were not going to cut space to Jack Daniel's ... to list flavored vodkas that we think will sell well."
Many shoppers say they're pleased with the selection of wines and spirits in the stores.
"I love the Chairman's Selection (wines)," said Susan Bielo of Mars, as she shopped in the Wine & Spirits store just outside Monroeville Mall. "They're good deals economically and the description teaches you about the region it came from and the grapes used to make it."
"One thing I would like (the LCB) to do is be a little more consistent in the better wines they order," said Malcolm Balfour, 73, of Donegal, while perusing Chardonnays in the Westmoreland Mall store. He said the premium stores have "some excellent wines," but you don't know if they'll be available from one year to the next.
Some shoppers said they had no idea the LCB went to such great lengths to select products.
"I never thought about it," said Carolyn Cuba of Monroeville. "I figured they just had a checklist and checked stuff off."
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com