There was a time, back when Joe Montana was leading the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl Championships in the 1980s, when rival football fans around the country would deride the 49er faithful as “chardonnay drinkers.” They weren’t tough enough to tailgate was the inference of this “insult.”
It was a slur that most in the parking lot at Candlestick Park, then home to the 49ers, wore with pride. After all, they liked a little chardonnay with their fresh crab. And five times they raised chardonnay glasses to toast Super Bowl wins, as the team took home a handful of Lombardi Trophies — the ultimate revenge — before leaving San Francisco for their current home in Santa Clara.
Football season, as you likely know, begins this week. And that also means that tailgating season is fully underway. Traditionally, and appropriately, football has been thought of as a sport that pairs best with beer. Bud, as in Budweiser, and Miller Light for years were the brands that came to mind as fans pitched tents, lit charcoal grills and hung out in parking lots hours before kickoff. Eating cold hot dogs and drinking warm beer while wearing team colors built a sense of camaraderie and helped define football fandom.
That was then. Today, following the “foodie-fication” of America and coupled with the astronomical rise in ticket costs, the act of being a fan has gone upscale. And wine, though still outstripped broadly in sales by beer — craft beer at that — is a big part of the sports experience. In NFL stadiums from Mile High to Miami and Foxboro to Phoenix, you can buy glasses of fine wines (for an elevated price, of course) inside the plush luxury boxes and even in the stands.
NFL teams even celebrate with wine. The New York Jets partnered with Joe Wagner, who makes Belle Glos pinot noir for Copper Cane Wines, to produce a special bottling for their “Jets Uncorked” label, which honors the 1968 team that 50 years ago became the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl. And in Santa Clara, which has more than 1,000 wineries within 100 miles of its parking lot at Levi’s Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers pour a broad spectrum of wines. They created a wine program called Appellation 49 (get it?) and a number of California wineries pour wines within the stadium.
And let’s not forget the Oakland Raiders who, as you already know if you are a regular viewer of “Hard Knocks” on HBO, hold their training camp in Napa Valley, literally among the vines. Next year will see the unveiling of the new Raiders Stadium in Las Vegas along with a multi-billion dollar football palace in Los Angeles that will be home to the Rams and the Chargers. Both will no doubt be pouring fine wines in their mezzanines.
On campus, a number of collegiate temples of football are including beer and wine sales in their game day experiences. The board of trustees at Oklahoma voted to allow beer sales at Sooner games this season for the first time. And in the Southeastern Conference the sale of beer and wine has been approved for the 2019 season, but left monitoring it up to schools. Alabama and Auburn are refraining from the practice for now. The uptick in revenue may be too big for even the most conservative programs to pass up in the future.
Of course, the trend of drinking trendy wines is not confined to the cozy confines of stadiums. At parking lot tailgates, not just in the NFL but outside at college stadiums as well, wine flows like beer. And that is partially fueled by the rise in sales and production of canned wines. Wine in cans is one of the fastest-growing segments of the wine industry and the trend is tailor-made for ballpark bacchanalia.
Today’s tailgate experiences are a long way from the kettle-and-a-cooler days of the past. Most stadiums have designated parking lots for tailgaters and they are often reserved months, if not years, in advance. Look around the lots at places like Green Bay’s Lambeau Field or the University of Mississippi’s famed “Grove,” and you’ll see RVs and party vans that are used exclusively for game day tailgating. Period. And any self-respecting fan today will have a fridge full of quaffable low-alcohol wines for those whose palates prefer wine to beer.
There was a time when chardonnay drinkers at the stadiums were outliers. Today they are champions.