As athletic stadium seats begin to fill up this fall, the drinking culture surrounding sporting events makes its return, too. For sports bars with livelihoods that largely depend on game-day drinking, it is a welcome shift toward normalcy. But will it be enough?
On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe assess the state of sports bars and how they foresee athletics impacting the scene. Sports stadiums are increasingly opting to serve alcohol at games, too — a move that may further influence how and where fans drink.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Before we start, I want to talk about something that’s a little bit of a bummer, and that is that Joanna’s in the phone booth of the office, because we still don’t have the studio set up again from Covid. I’m in my office with the door closed, and Joanna has the phone booth. It’s so weird.
J: It’s real tight in here.
A: I’m just thinking about Joanna sitting in the phone booth right now. It’s too funny.
Z: Can we blame someone for it not being set up? Maybe Keith?
A: It’s Covid’s fault. Keith is here right now, figuring out how we’re going to bring in the panels and everything. We were in the process of building a full studio before Covid. We stopped, obviously. Now we’re doing this. We’re all coming back into the office.
Z: I miss being in a studio. Shout-out to our former engineer, Nick Patri.
A: Oh, yeah. Nick was a great guy.
Z: I haven’t talked to him in a while, but I’m sure he’s got lots of thoughts about hard seltzer.
A: He was a big hard seltzer person. So, how have you both been? What’s been going on? What have you been drinking?
J: I’ve been well. I had a really great weekend of drinking. I took my banana rum and made the Banana Justino cocktail. It came out really, really well. I can’t wait to do it again. It’s my new thing.
A: I love it.
Z: So it was worth whatever the effort was?
J: Yes. Absolutely worth the effort.
A: I kind of want to make this now.
J: You just need this enzyme, the Pectinex stuff that I talked about. It’s a quick order, and then you’re good to go.
A: That’s so interesting. What else did you do this weekend?
J: I went to the Dead Rabbit, which I had never been to. It was awesome. What a great place. I had the Irish Coffee there, which is incredible.
A: It’s famous.
J: It’s so good. I really want to make it at home. I also had a really delicious gin cocktail with vermouth and snap pea.
A: Interesting. Cool.
J: It was really wonderful, and I can’t wait to go back. That was the extent of my drinking this weekend. What about you guys?
Z: The thing that I had this past weekend that was really exciting for me was when we were celebrating one of my sisters’ birthdays. It was a small family gathering, and I brought a magnum of Prosecco from Adami, which is one of my favorite producers. It’s one of their higher-end bottlings from a single vineyard. Most of the time, when I drink Prosecco, it’s probably something like that. It’s a DOCG bottle. It’s so good. I used to think, “Prosecco. Yeah, sure. Whatever.” Maybe it’s something about — as has been the case with other wine regions for me — going to a place, seeing it, trying some of the wines, and meeting some of the people. Sometimes that makes you feel differently about it. I also think there is something about the balance of Prosecco and how it’s a little less intensely effervescent than a lot of other sparkling wines. It’s often a touch sweeter. It’s a little more fruit-driven. It’s not quite as much about long bottle aging and conditioning. It’s delicious. There’s a lot of mediocre Prosecco out there, but even that stuff is pretty good. The good stuff is actually really good. It reminded me that I should drink more Prosecco. What about you, Adam?
A: I had some fun adventures over the weekend. I went to the western Catskills. I think I’ve talked about this before, but we went to check out this new hotel that opened, called Callicoon Hills. It was a fun hotel. It was one of my last big weekends traveling, except for what I’m about to talk about for our subject this week. I had some delicious cocktails in the area. I went to this really great pizzeria and bar called Kaatskeller. I had a hemlock Negroni, which was really delicious.
Z: And you survived? Aren’t hemlocks poisonous?
A: Yeah, I think it’s supposed to be. Who knows? That was the name of it. It was a really good Negroni, very floral, and quite enjoyable. You’ve been before, right, Joanna?
J: I have. It’s a cool spot.
A: There’s a connection between the owner and his partner, or someone, who is the owner of Apotheke.
J: Yes, you’re right.
A: I think that’s who does the cocktails. That was really cool. Then, I continued to search for an Old Fashioned and continued to not be served an Old Fashioned with a large cube. I think I’m done searching for an Old Fashioned. I think I’m tapped out.
J: You just have to make it yourself, man.
A: I tried, multiple times, after listening to the first episode of “Cocktail College,” and every place basically did chunk ice.
Z: Did you never ask for a big cube, or did you just take it how they gave it to you?
A: Yes. Let me be clear. The first few times I just took it and thought, “I guess this is what we’re doing again.” The last time, we were at dinner at a place that was having some issues. They were newer. I think they were having some service issues, still getting their sea legs, and had only been open for a few months. They had a bottle-aged Old Fashioned on their list. I thought that was interesting, and that they had to serve it over a big cube. The server comes over. I said, “I’m looking at your cocktails and trying to choose between one thing or the bottle-aged Old Fashioned. It sounds really delicious. How do you guys serve it? Over a big cube? Orange twists?” The server was very enthusiastic about it. Then, it comes out over chunk ice. Anyways, I did have two service issues that I was curious about. One happened at the same restaurant, and another that happened later in the week. As our resident hospitality professional, I wanted to ask how to handle these situations and what you would do.
A: I’m going to give you both scenarios and let you talk about both of them. In scenario one, we ordered cocktails that took forever to come out because the bar was backed up. They were having a huge party outside, which I always understand. Make that money. There was one bartender behind the bar and the dining room was full. It just totally sucks. When you first go out to eat, you’re craving that first cocktail when you sit down. We ordered cocktails and starters. We ordered our mains, and the cocktails came out. The starters still hadn’t come, so we figured we had some time. They placed the starters down and saw that our cocktails were a quarter full. They asked if we wanted wine. We ordered glasses of wine for our entrees. They walk back. The starters had just come out. Then, the entrees came out.
Z: Oh, man.
A: Naomi literally said, “Excuse me, could you please send those back to the kitchen?” They were really surprised and taken aback by that. We had literally just gotten salad and were sharing an appetizer. I could tell they were caught off guard. Then, of course, when the entrees came out, they were cold. That was really a bummer. I’m curious how we should have handled that and how you would handle it. I didn’t know what to do, because either way they were going to get cold. They were going to sit to the side of us and get cold while we ate the starters. I’m just curious what they should have done. The other question I have for you was a situation where we went out to dinner and ordered wine. There was a somm. We went to a nicer place in New York that has a Michelin star. The somm asked if we were interested in red or white, something funky. I told him what we’re looking at and mentioned a wine that was around $80. He recommends this producer and says we have to try her. I look at the list, and it’s $150. That’s a lot more than the $80 bottle I told him I was looking at. He walks away and Josh and I are looking at the menu. Both of us realized we had never had a Cabernet Franc from Anjou before.
A: There’s one on the list at $85. We ordered that. He comes back and is pouring the Anjou. I taste it and say, “This is so cool. It’s such a great Cabernet Franc. I’ve never had a Cab from Anjou before.” He said, “Yeah. My favorite Cabernet Franc on the list is from Saumur. It’s amazing. It’s a better deal at $70.” He literally said that to me.
Z: After he’s already poured you the wine?
A: I was so taken aback. I was like, “What? I don’t know what to do here.” I wondered if he was pissed that we didn’t take his original recommendation? Did I do something wrong? Am I right? Was this bad behavior, or should I have done something better? What’s going on here, Zach? And, Joanna, would you be just as shocked as me?
J: Oh, my God. Yes. I think like in the first instance, I probably would have just let them give us the entrees and eaten it all together. That’s not great, though. With the second, I truly don’t know what I would have done. What a wild thing to do. He should’ve said that when you ordered. You were clearly looking for recommendations and his input on wine, if you’re ordering this Cab Franc, then he says, “Actually, this is a better deal.”
A: Maybe he thought I was very assertive. Then I thought, if you thought I was very assertive, there was no reason to say something else to me after you poured that wine.
J: Right. Just say, “This is a really great wine. You’re going to love it.”
Z: OK. Let me try to put this together. With the entree thing, I’m generally in Joanna’s camp that I would rather get the entrees, even if it’s way too early. I can try a couple of bites while it’s still warm. It’s not a great situation. Having worked service for many years, timing food out of a kitchen, especially a busy or new kitchen, is really hard. It may be the case that the server is new. It may be the case that the chef is a tyrant, and if the server goes back to say the table isn’t ready for their entrees and they need to be re-fired, the server might get screamed at. I don’t blame the server, totally. But, it is true that part of what you pay for when you go out to a meal is pacing. When I make dinner at home, all the food gets made at the same time because I want to sit down and eat it. I don’t get up and make multiple courses, generally. We all accept that as a given. When you go out to eat, you are hoping to get a lot of those things done for you, including proper coursing. That’s just a bummer, but that’s a bummer that happens, right?
A: Talking to both of you, I think we should have just let them place it. We were just so taken aback, but we should have just let them drop it on the table.
Z: You’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t in that situation. If you’re at a one-star Michelin restaurant, you would reasonably expect that not to happen. I think you would be well within your right to say, “We just got our appetizers, can you hold on to these?” If they can’t keep them at peak condition, warm, then they should remake it. That’s just the reality of that kind of restaurant. I’ve certainly done that plenty of times in my career. It’s not fun, but that’s the deal. That’s how it works. If you don’t get the timing right on your end, that’s not the guest’s fault. As far as the somm goes, what blows me away here is that I don’t think it’s totally outlandish for them to have recommended a wine that’s significantly more expensive, but only if they also recommended other wines that were in your price range. If they had said, “Hey, you’re looking at this wine, so maybe you like lighter-to-medium-bodied reds. I’ve got this great Cabernet Franc from Saumur. I’ve also got this really cool other wine.” Give the cool story behind the situation with this wine. When people asked me for recommendations, or say something they’re interested in, often I would throw wines at them that were at or below their price range, and above. You never know when someone might be willing to spend $120 or more on a bottle of wine if you can give them a reason to do it. That’s the somm’s job in many cases: to upsell.
J: You can always say, “If you’re looking to splurge, here’s an option.”
Z: Exactly. Or say, “If you want something really special.” As a customer, you can say, “That sounds great, but maybe not for tonight. The thing that you were more turned off by, and understandably, is him saying that afterwards. Maybe they felt like you were really sure that you wanted this Cab Franc from Anjou, and they didn’t want to tell you no. What they could say to you is, “If you really liked this, next time you come in, there’s this other great Cabernet Franc on our list from Saumur that I think is also really good. It’s in that price range. Definitely keep your eye on that next time.” They can tell you about it and it still may be a little odd, but they wouldn’t have made you feel like an ass. Why do that? There’s just nothing in it for them, other than getting to lord it over you that you made a bad choice. That’s on them. Their job is to not let you make a bad choice, if at all possible. It sounds like you enjoyed your wine.
A: It was great. It was super cool.
Z: No harm there. If that was me — and that $70 Cab Franc from Saumur was my favorite wine on the list — and someone ordered a different Cab Franc in that price range from a nearby region, I’d let them know that this other wine is my personal favorite so they could consider that. The truth is that some somms are weird about it. They don’t want to down-sell. You already turned down the up-sell. I don’t think they have an obligation to talk you out of your $95 bottle of wine, but they do have an obligation to not make you feel like a moron for having bought it as you’re tasting it.
A: It was literally at the very beginning of the glass.
Z: I’m sorry. That’s no fun.
A: Thank you. It’s just funny. Maybe we’re just all getting our sea legs back in terms of going out to dinner. I don’t want to hold it against the somm. I was just very taken aback by it. Josh and Naomi were, too. When he walked away, they were like, “Did that just happen?”
Z: Adam, you are a weird magnet for strange interactions with sommeliers.
A: I think I just share them more.
Z: You do have a podcast. That’s true.
A: I just share them more because I’m curious about them. I also want people to know this stuff happens to all of us. I want to understand how we should handle it. That’s sort of where the intimidation comes from.
Z: For sure.
A: When you’re talking about beverage especially, it can be really intimidating. It feels easier to talk about the menu and say, “I definitely don’t want the $195 prime ribeye.”
Z: Imagine if you did order a steak, the server brings it, you take one bite, and they say, “Oh, by the way, do you know what’s way better?” The flatiron steak for two-thirds the price. It doesn’t matter the context. That’s just terrible service. That’s unfortunate.
A: Totally. So, I thought we would have a really fun conversation this week.
Z: We did have a really fun conversation. This already was one.
A: We’ll keep this one fairly brief. This weekend, I’m doing something a little bit crazy.
A: I promise I’ll get a PCR test when I’m back. Those of you that are loyal listeners know that I am originally from Auburn, Ala., and I’m a huge Auburn Tigers football fan. They are playing a White Out game, primetime ABC, on Saturday night at Penn State. I have tickets. I’m going with my friend Ryan. We are going to a sporting event. I’m really curious to see what sporting events are going to start looking like as we’re coming out of Covid and the drinking around sporting events. Last weekend was the first weekend of NFL football. I know lots of people that went out to watch the games. There are lots of brands that are really hopeful that this happens. These are great entertaining occasions where people love to grab cans of seltzer, bottles of beer, make cocktails, drink wine, et cetera. I’m curious what you guys think the fall holds for drinking and sports. Right now, it feels to me like a lot of people are acting like we’re getting back to normal in that regard.
Z: Well, Joanna is our biggest sports fan. You should go first.
J: What is a White Out game?
A: Penn State’s tradition is that, at their biggest night games of the year, every single Penn State fan wears white in the stadium that holds 80,000 people. Apparently, it’s very intimidating, because all you can see is this bright white. I think Georgia does a Black Out game. Because one of Penn State’s colors is white, it has become very famous in college sports as this thing that happens.
Z: I assume you will not be wearing white?
A: I’m going to wear orange and blue on purpose and hope that I don’t get beat up. I think we’re sitting deep in the Penn State section, so it’s going to be a little freaky. It’s going to be interesting. Joanna, what’s your opinion here? How do you feel about sports and drinking?
J: I have a few thoughts on football, specifically. I have been to a few professional sports games recently. I’ve been to a few baseball games. I actually went to the U.S. Open, which was also fun. I have a feeling that they’re tamer than what I imagine college football to be.
A: Yeah. I have a theory of why that is, but we can get to that in a second.
J: I think it’s actually going to be really interesting to see, like you were saying, Adam, the sports bars. I’m curious what that situation is like, because college football has started already. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of our local sports bars pretty packed with people watching games. I will not be participating. I do not care for football.
J: I think it’s so boring. I have no allegiance to any team. This is a fun fact about me. I am married to a very lovely Canadian man who, when we first met, had no interest in the NFL. He has subsequently joined a fantasy football team. It’s so dreadful because now he cares to watch the games.
Z: We’ve corrupted him.
J: Yeah. It’s horrible. He spends hours at night on his phone, setting his draft. It’s so horrible.
A: It’s so good. Naomi hates when I do that, too. Zach, how is it in Seattle? You guys have, at least, a very famous quarterback. I don’t know how the Seahawks are this year.
Z: Oh, they’re good.
A: Is it full? Are people going out to the bars and watching the games? What have you heard? What are you seeing?
Z: Really good question. The Seahawks have not played at home yet. They started their season on the road. They’ll be at home over this coming weekend, so by the time this podcast airs, that game will have happened. I was recently reaching out to a contact who works for the Seattle Mariners because I’ve been interested in what they’re doing about beverage service. My wife and I went to a Mariners game a few weeks ago. It was interesting to see how, even in the couple of years since I’ve been to a game, the product mix and how things are done at the games has changed. Some of that may be Covid-related. Some of that is just due to changes in the market. It was definitely a little different than it had been in the past. The University of Washington’s football team appears to be dreadful, but they are serving beer and wine at games for the first time in a long time. Last year the Seahawks played, but they did not play in front of fans. A huge part of the game- day profitability for these franchises are concessions, and beer in particular. Alcohol is a big driver. There’s certainly a lot of hope that things will be back to normal. Stadiums are at full capacity. There are vaccines and mask mandates here in Washington for these events. People can be in the stands drinking, obviously. To the question about sports bars, I think that what you’re seeing is a little bit of a mixed bag, from what I can gather. Around the stadiums, you’re definitely seeing bars that are game day spots being pretty busy. What I’ve heard of more, just anecdotally this year, is what you were getting to in the intro, Adam, which is that a lot more people are doing stuff at home. A lot of people have decided they may not be comfortable going out to a sports bar with strangers and spending hours eating and drinking, unmasked. They are comfortable having 10 to 15 people over in their house. People may feel a little more comfortable with their own entertaining chops because they’ve had to do so much more at home as of late. Overall, I think you’re definitely going to see a real uptick in the sales of light beer or seltzer. Those things are already doing well. If I was a sports bar owner and not near a stadium, I might be a little concerned. Those things revolve around the big NFL Sundays and college football Saturdays. They’re not necessarily super profitable on a Wednesday night. I think we will see. In Seattle, we’re just transitioning weather-wise from summer into fall. What are people going to do when it’s dark, gloomy, rainy, and cold? Do you really want to be at home again? Maybe Sunday seems like a good day to go out to a sports bar because it’s just something to do.
A: Yeah. In Seattle, are they requiring vaccination proof to come inside?
Z: Not yet for all restaurants, It’s required at all of the sporting events, including the outdoor events. Somehow, the Mariners are not implementing it until October, which is convenient for them because their season is going to be over in October. I have not been tracking it ultra-diligently, in part because we have a small child and another one due any day. We are not going out to eat much right now. If there isn’t a vaccine mandate yet, though, it will be coming soon. I think they’re just trying to get everyone on the same page, which is tricky.
A: I wonder if part of the reason there is more excitement around sports bars in New York is just because the vaccine is required. When you’re in the sports bar watching the game with people and drinking Truly, White Claw, or Bud Light, you know you’re there with other vaccinated fans. It might feel a little safer. To go back to your original point, Joanna — about college seeming crazier — I think that all has to do with the fact that college has a real problem admitting that its of-age fans drink before the game and would like to drink at the game. I think we’ve had this conversation before, Zach. There are still so few college stadiums that allow the legal sale of alcohol, so a lot of fans smuggle alcohol in and drink to oblivion before. Both are very bad. These are not things that should happen.
Z: I mentioned that the University of Washington is allowing alcohol sales at games now. One of the reasons they cited was basically that. They think they can decrease people getting blackout drunk before they even get in or smuggling stuff into the stands if the stadium can provide them with an option. Cynically, I don’t know if that’s true. It’s obviously a cash grab. There is something to the idea that, if a lot of these games are dry, people aren’t going to just be sober. That’s just not how people are going to behave.
A: I do think that it’s different when you attend a sporting event in New York or any professional sporting event. I also went to the U.S. Open this year. When I did, I got on the train and I hadn’t had a drink. I got to the stadium and had two beers.
J: You paid $40 for your drink.
A: That’s why I only had two beers. It’s cool to have a beer and watch tennis. I think if I wanted to have a beer but I couldn’t, something psychologically happens for people. There’s the mentality that “you’re not going to stop me from being less than sober for this.” That’s why I think college is crazier. More universities are starting to think the way that University of Washington is. There’s a very easy fix here: Sell alcohol and continue to ban it in the student section, because they probably should. Only one-quarter of the student section population should be of age. In the rest of the stadium, allow adults to buy beer and wine. In the places that have done it, they’ve seen some success. A lot of times, in these stadiums, the people who have the worst behavior are the older people, to be very honest. It’s really depressing to see an older person get taken away because they’re been confiscated for illegal booze. It’s never a good look.
Z: That’s one thing you can roll with when you’re 21. It’s a little harder to roll with when you’re 51, I’d imagine.
A: That’s embarrassing.
Z: All that to say, what do you anticipate drinking at this Penn State and Auburn game? Rolling Rock?
A: I don’t know. My friend Ryan, who lives in New York, too, is actually an alum of Auburn. I’m from the town and my parents are professors there, but I didn’t go to Auburn. He was invited to the alumni tailgate. I think they’re providing alcohol. It’ll be beer. I don’t know what it will be. We’ll go. He was allowed to bring a guest. I think they’re providing beer and barbecue. Then, we’ll go into the game. Normally, I’d check out one of the local bars beforehand. I’m definitely not going to do that this time. I feel pretty safe because Ryan is a doctor in New York at Mount Sinai, and he’s been very involved in Covid. If he feels safe to go, then I feel safer to go as long as we stay outside and wear our masks. But, I’m not going to go downtown, try to go into a few of the college bars, and check out what’s going on. We’ll go to this tailgate. We’ll have a few beers. We’ll go in the stadium.
Z: Give us a prediction. What’s the final score?
A: I think it’s going to be 35 Auburn, 21 Penn State. I think we’re going to run up the score. I think we have a better quarterback. We have a new coach. I think we’re the better talent. Road games are hard. Being the away team is not easy. This is why I’m a little scared, as is Ryan. This is the first home game for Penn State since Covid, and it is a White Out game. They are going to be rocking. It will be a very live crowd. This has been a great conversation. I’d love to hear what some of the listeners think. If you’re attending any sporting events this fall, tell us what sports bars in your area look like and what you think the fall holds for drinking and sports. Zach and Joanna, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: See you.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: September 21, 2021