Student wine-tasting bill seen as way to break barriers

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GRANDVIEW — Javier Clara grew up near a vineyard, which later sparked his interest in studying wine.

So it was an easy decision for him to enroll in the winery technology program at Yakima Valley Community College’s Grandview campus.

There’s just one problem: At age 19, he’s not of legal drinking age.

When he took a beginning winemaking class last fall, he couldn’t taste the product. Clara said he learned a lot about the winemaking process, but wished he could taste some of the wine he made.

“The fact is, you need to taste,” he said.

Clara also will spend an extra year in school — the program usually takes two years to complete — so he would be 21 when he takes advanced winemaking classes where tasting is a more essential part of the curriculum.

Clara and other underage students interested in pursuing careers in the wine industry may benefit from a bill that would allow those under age 21 (but older than 18) to taste small amounts of alcohol as part of a wine, beer or culinary program.

The bill has passed out of committee and is proceeding to the Senate floor.

With the state wine industry’s continued growth, many feel it’s time to remove barriers to that growth.

“We virtually need every student graduating from these programs,” said Marty Clubb, owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla and president of the Washington Wine Institute, an organization that serves as a legislative voice for wineries statewide.

Trent Ball, chairman of YVCC’s agriculture department, believes if students are forced to wait until they turn 21 before they can take many of the classes in the college’s winery and vineyard technology programs, some may opt for different career paths.

“We’re competing for the best students,” he said. “If we want to have the best students in a discipline like the wine industry ... we’ve got to get them in early and get them excited.”

For Dennis Reynolds, director of the wine business management program at Washington State University in Pullman, the restriction makes little sense, since other states allow students younger than 21 to taste as part of their studies.

And WSU students, including those younger than 21, have participated in culinary and wine programs abroad in countries such as Italy, where tasting alcohol is allowed.

There’s also a key opportunity to educate all students on the proper way to consume wine and other alcoholic beverages, Reynolds said.

For example, WSU offers a culinary course where students plan and prepare lavish multi-course meals for faculty. But underage students don’t get to try the wine that is served with the meal and miss out on an opportunity to learn how certain wines match with different foods.

“You don’t go to a five-course meal and expect not to be able to drink wine,” he said. “We’re not doing our job in training our students in the sensory evaluation because of the law.”

Those who support the bill believe its wording prevents any possibility of abuse by those under the legal drinking age. Indeed, a sentence in the bill emphasizes that students older than 18 would be allowed to taste but not consume alcoholic beverages.

Ball said students in most wine-making programs are taught to use a taste-and-spit method, which involves tasting the wine and swishing it around in the mouth to get a sense of its qualities before spitting it out.

“When you’re working all day, you’re not going to be (consuming) all those wines, you’re just going to be evaluating them, then spitting (it out),” he said. “That’s what we try to teach in our classes.”

So far, the bill has gone through the legislative process with little objection.

During the first reading of the bill last month, two key state agencies, the State Patrol and the state Liquor Control Board, were neutral on the measure.

“(I) was very pleased to hear some of the steps and intended steps (college and universities) will take to provide critical oversight and supervision of this proposed opportunity,” said Rob Huss of the State Patrol during a public hearing in Olympia last month.

Huss reminded legislators that there is still a zero-tolerance policy for consumption of alcohol by those under age 21.

Clara said that although he cannot yet taste wine, he still enjoys participating in the program and learning about the science of winemaking and what makes a good wine.

He’ll turn 21 in March 2014 and plans to graduate in winter 2015, but he’s excited about the prospect of not having to wait the extra year if the bill passes.

“If the bill passes, I can try to finish as fast as possible and start working,” he said.

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