Wine brings out flat sales, dry humor


May 26, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

In major-league baseball, Camden Yards vendor Curtis Bolton stands alone.

Among legions of beer peddlers, hot dog hawkers, purveyors of peanuts, popcorn and soda pop, Bolton works the stands shouting a pitch all his own: "WHITE WINE, WHITE WINE HERE."

The cry is not heard in Seattle, New York, Toronto or the wine-country of Oakland and San Francisco. Baltimore, of all places, is home to the only grandstand wine vendor in the majors.

Alas, the distinction earns little respect for Bolton, who faces wisecracks, derision, even scorn from spectators, many of whom view Bolton as a living symbol of creeping yuppiedom on Baltimore's baseball scene.


"GOT ANY SPRITZERS, MAN?" asks another.

Some fans just look at him and laugh. Some shake their heads as if witnessing the end of civilization as they know it. Then there's the fellow who hears the cry "WHITE WINE HERE" and looks at Bolton as if examining some alien life form.

"White wine?" he asks. "Why?"

Why? Because 1994 is the year of the Great Camden Yards Wine Experiment, in which wine is sold in the stands for the first time since the ballpark opened in 1992. For most of this young season, the job of peddling the $4, 6-ounce bottles of Gallo Chardonnay, a white, and White Zinfandel, a blush wine, has fallen to Bolton. It's not exactly what he had in mind.

"I never thought about selling wine anywhere," says Bolton, 44, who came to Baltimore this spring from the South Bronx with eight years' experience as a vendor at Yankee Stadium. He sold beer there and figured he would sell beer at Camden Yards, or perhaps hot dogs, pretzels or soda.

But as the last vendor hired two weeks into the season, Bolton landed dead last in the pecking order of 131 vendors. That means when the vendors pick their product to sell before the game, Bolton chooses last. Those not advanced enough in the hierarchy to rate beer, the most profitable item, would rather sell pretzels, hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn. Anything but wine.

"It just has not been a seller," says vendor supervisor Miriam McKenna, adding that the average wine sales per game has been about 48 bottles, on which the vendor makes $28.80 in commission.

Vendor Dave Torres said he sold wine "just one game and I crashed and burned. I made the mistake of taking it on a Sunday. Alcohol doesn't sell well on Sunday."

He says he schlepped a tray of 48 bottles around the park once, sold about six of them and "called it a day. . . . Most people looked at you and laughed and asked where your Grey Poupon was."

Vendor Calvin Smith claims to have sold about four 48-bottle trays on his best day. But he dropped wine for hot dogs, saying the wine tray is too heavy and that one must work virtually the entire ballpark to make a decent night's pay.

So far, the president of the concessions division for ARA Services, which runs Camden Yards' food service, says he is satisfied with wine sales. Hugh Gallagher says ARA decided to introduce wine to the grandstands for the first time this year after the idea was proposed by its local liquor distributor.

Gallagher says ARA officials will look at wine sales totals at season's end and decide whether Ernest and Julio stay or go. McKenna recalls that the last local attempt to introduce wine at the ballpark failed after one dismal season at Memorial Season about eight years ago.

A survey of all major-league concessionaires finds that wine is offered at either concession stands, lounges or club level restaurants in 17 parks. Ten ballparks offer no wine at all, and none has a vendor selling wine in the stands.

At the Metrodome in Minnesota, an effort to have vendors peddle wine in the stands this season was scrapped after the first series, says Steven Bantle, the assistant general manager for concessionaire Volume Services. Wine is sold in concession stands only, and Bantle described sales so far as "terrible. . . . People come here with preconceived notions about what they're going to eat and drink. Wine is not on that list."

Day 21 of the Great Camden Yards Wine Experiment. Boston Red Sox in town. Bolton has moved up one notch in the rankings as another vendor has just been hired, but he's staying with wine.

"I going to take it anyway," he says. "I'm going to get it so people know me."

Following his usual practice, Bolton is working the lower boxes between the bases. He's resting the wine tray on the visiting dugout roof and pouring Chardonnay into two plastic cups, each marked with the diamond-shaped Camden Yards logo. He has two customers in the seats right behind the dugout, a lobbyist for independent television stations named Jim Hedlund and an economic analyst named William Lilley III, both from the Washington area.

"In San Francisco I would have believed it, but . . . " says Hedlund. "I would think a place like Baltimore, this would be the last place."

Lilley, a wine aficionado, doesn't think much of the selection. He sips, and compares it unfavorably to the wine served on Delta's Washington shuttle: "I think it's an April vintage."

Their friend Shaun Sheehan, seated behind them, doesn't think much of the whole scene.

"WHO'S THE PRISS IN THE FRONT ROW?" shouts Sheehan, a lobbyist for the Tribune Co. "BRIE MAN, BRIE MAN HERE."

Pressed for a sober comment, Sheehan observes that the Experiment may prove to have profound implications for the sports world.

"I think tennis is dead," says Sheehan. "If the wine crowd is at baseball games, clearly tennis is in trouble."

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