Underage winemakers seek alcohol exception

Underage winemakers seek alcohol exception

Editor's note: Due to a production error, this story carried the wrong byline in an earlier version.

(Calif.) Most policies dealing with alcohol consumption by underage students focus on keeping the two apart. One state lawmaker backed by the University of California, however, sees a scenario where the two could – and should – come together legally.

Under a new bill introduced by North Coast Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), students 18 and over would be free to taste the alcoholic beverages they’re crafting in pursuit of a college wine- or beer-making degree.   

“Allowing 18- to 20-year-olds who are enrolled in an enology or brewery science program to taste the beverages they are producing is really about trying to maximize their opportunity to learn,” said Jason Murphy, legislative director for the University of California system, which is sponsoring the legislation.

“Winemaking has always included a large measure of chemistry – there are steps along the way that you take to monitor the components of the wine and make decisions on how to proceed,” Murphy said. “For those students who can’t taste, they’re at a disadvantage.”

Chesbro’s AB 1989, if adopted, would exempt “qualified” students and academic institutions from criminal prosecution under state law that prohibits the consumption, sale or provision of alcoholic beverages to anyone under the age of 21.

Although initiated by the University of California system with its UC Davis viticulture and enology program in mind, the legislation will cover students enrolled in similar programs across the state. Between UC Davis and Fresno State University, which also offers a large viticulture and enology program, some 300 students take courses each year, according to the schools' websites.

But food science education, which includes winemaking and beer brewing, is a growing field of interest -- driving creation of additional postsecondary programs in recent years. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture began offering courses for a bachelor’s degree in wine and viticulture in 2004; Napa Valley Community College and Santa Rosa Junior College both have wine and viticulture programs designed to provide entry-level industry skills as well as prerequisite courses for entry into four-year degree programs.

UC Davis, in 2010, opened a $20 million, 34,000-square-foot teaching and research complex that includes a winery, brewery and food-processing plant.

Winemaking, in particular, requires a foundational understanding of such subjects as botany, chemistry, soil science and microbiology. The sensory skills of smell and taste are central to a winemaker’s ability to determine the appropriate outcome of his or her finished product.

AB 1989 would allow a “qualified student” to taste an alcoholic beverage while enrolled in a “qualified academic institution’s” associate or bachelor degree program in enology or brewing.

The bill defines a qualified academic institution as a public college or university accredited by a commission recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. A qualified student is defined as being at least 18 years of age and enrolled in a qualified academic institution.

The legislation even defines “taste” as meaning to “draw an alcoholic beverage into the mouth, but does not include swallowing or otherwise consuming the alcoholic beverage.”

Students taking a viticulture or enology class but majoring in another field would not be allowed to taste under terms of the bill, Murphy said, and it’s not likely that students would take classes in an attempt to drink alcohol.

“It’s not like you’re popping open a can and it’s what you would be drinking if you had purchased it at a grocery store,” he said. “These are from vats and it’s not a finished product.”  

Chesbro’s bill may have its first committee hearing on March 23, according to the state’s website for legislative information.