Casino gambling's introduction boosts Pennsylvania liquor sales
By Kari Andren
Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 8:44 p.m.
When Pennsylvania lawmakers approved casino gambling in 2004, few proponents touted the effect the new wagering halls would have on state sales of wine and spirits.
But seven years after the first casinos opened, records show the 11 gambling venues purchased nearly $9 million in alcohol last year from the state Liquor Control Board, whose overall sales topped $2 billion during that same time.
Four of the top 10 liquor buyers in Pennsylvania are casinos: Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Harrah's Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack, Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh's North Shore and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
Lady Luck casino, which opened July 1 at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, is not included in last year's figures.
“I don't think that was part of the equation” when casinos were debated, said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist with Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “I don't think they ever thought of what that would mean.”
The four top-buying casinos collectively purchased nearly $5.4 million in wines and spirits last year from the state LCB and accounted for almost half of all sales by the top 10 purchasers.
Other top buyers include high-end restaurants, an exclusive club and a large entertainment complex in Philadelphia and the Nemacolin resort in Fayette County.
“Since casinos have been in play, alcohol has been an aspect of their business. Given their size and the volume of individuals that go there, it's not a surprise at all they are on the top of the list,” said Chris Borick, a political analyst with Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
As the largest buyer in Western Pennsylvania and the fourth-largest statewide, Rivers Casino purchased about 73,800 bottles of wine and liquor last year.
“We're quite busy,” said Jeffrey Dietz, a wine buyer for Rivers Casino who manages the in-house Andrew's Steak & Seafood.
“When people go to a casino, it's usually a way to get away from life for a while,” he said. “It's a break to ... just enjoy yourself.”
The casino's more than 2.9 million annual guests can order off Andrew's 250-plus variety wine list from anywhere in the casino, Dietz said. About 35 wines are available by the glass or bottle. Prices range from $25 to $1,000 a bottle.
Offering free drinks can run up a casino's bar tab.
According to the American Gaming Association, casinos in 13 of the 23 states with commercial casino gambling are permitted to offer free alcohol to patrons.
Casinos in Pennsylvania are permitted to offer free drinks, but how they handle them is an individual business decision by each casino, said Doug Harbach, spokesman for the state Gaming Control Board.
The 8 million annual visitors to Sands Casino, just outside Allentown, are offered free drinks while playing on the casino floor, said Julia Corwin, director of advertising and brand marketing for the casino.
Corwin said the venue's 10 restaurants and four bars, along with special events such as wine dinners and private player parties, drove them to be the top liquor buyer in the state. The casino bought about 116,000 bottles of wine and spirits last year, records show.
“We did know the casinos would be big buyers, but no, we didn't do anything different to our system” when casinos came online starting in 2006, said Stacy Kriedeman, an LCB spokeswoman.
Casinos and other liquor licensees can place their orders at one of about 10 “licensee centers” across the state, including one in the Strip District and one in Bridgeville. LCB employees pull the products and set them aside for licensees, Kriedeman said.
“We have wine deliveries all week because it constantly turns over, and you never have enough storage space,” said Rick McMaster, managing partner of The Capital Grille on Fifth Avenue, which orders from the Strip District center.
With more than 33,000 bottles of wine and spirits purchased last year, the restaurant is the third-largest buyer in Western Pennsylvania.
“The public today has gravitated toward wine more than ever before in my career. They're more educated, more traveled, (and) they've been exposed more” to wines, McMaster said. “I think it's all worked together in a positive way.”
At Del Frisco's of Philadelphia, the top-buying restaurant in the state, a 32-page wine list with close to 1,300 wines drove the steak house's purchasing, said wine director Henry Greenly.
The 24,000-square-foot restaurant in Center City Philadelphia typically has about 16,000 bottles on hand in its iconic three-story glass wine tower, three cellars and back-house storage.
Bottles range from $40 to $6,000 a bottle, and wine sales alone are on track to top $3 million this year, he said.
“Some come in to spend; others just want to come in and have a good time,” Greenly said.
The LCB posted record sales for the 2012-13 fiscal year, bringing in nearly $2.2 billion, a 4.5 percent increase. Sales to licensees, such as casinos, hotels and restaurants, rose 1.7 percent, the agency said.
Retail wine sales increased almost 6 percent while spirits sales grew about 3.7 percent.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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