Getting juiced at wine tastings

Times Staff Writer

The man did not seem to be a serious student of wine. Disheveled, unshaven and reeking of booze, he demanded a glass, rested his head on the tasting-room counter and loudly moaned. Knocking over a “wet floor” sign and lurching into displays, he stumbled into eight wineries in one afternoon last week, and six refused him service.

It was a decent outcome for the undercover deputy from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, who had gone to the lengths of gargling with Jack Daniels and spritzing it on his clothes. He didn’t issue any citations, but his sting operation was part of a broad effort to address a growing concern in the wine industry.

While buses and stretch limos cruising through wine country keep tipsy tourists from driving, wineries in California and across the nation blame them for bringing boisterous, inebriated crowds to venues that would sooner draw quiet sippers and lavish spenders.


“It’s a pervasive problem,” said Craig Root, a tasting-room consultant based in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena. “The limo crowd appears to have great demographics on the surface, but some of them tend to -- and there’s no polite way to put this -- they tend to just get juiced.”

The latest buzz in the industry comes from the Temecula Valley, where 21 winery owners have imposed stiff new rules requiring that transportation companies police the hordes of customers they bring to the valley on a typical weekend.

Before the rules took effect in November, the scene was becoming increasingly raucous, officials said. Bachelorette parties and birthday celebrations would devolve into loud, obnoxious group binges.

“People would show up in costumes,” said Tomi Arbogast, director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Assn. “It was a telltale sign their mission was a little different.”

Throwing up in the shrubbery, shouting, singing, flinging off garments -- these are not signs of exuberance over the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Things like that happen in Vegas,” Arbogast said. “We don’t want them happening here.”

The Temecula growers were not the first to aim the grapes of wrath at companies driving drunks to their doorsteps.

In Napa County, a number of wineries have simply put out signs announcing: “No limos.” Unfortunately, the signs have a tendency to disappear, said Michael Korson, an investigator for the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The owners “assume they’re taken by people who don’t agree with the concept,” said Korson, whose five-county area contains about 900 of the state’s 1,200 wineries.

Some tasting rooms in the Napa area now require reservations and charge as much as $50 for a few sips of their choice vintages and a plate of artisan cheese. Most California wineries charge about $10 for a “flight” of five or six wines, and a few still offer free tastings.

“Those higher prices are going to eliminate the party crowd,” said Veronica Barclay, a wine marketing consultant in Napa County, “unless they’re dripping with money.”

In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, wineries have banded together to hand out yellow warning cards and red expulsion cards for customer infractions.

The no-nos, listed beside check boxes on a form given to limousine and bus companies, include “excessive profanity, littering, intoxication, theft, public urination” and, in a nod to the infinite variety of bad behavior, “other.” A red card bans the offending tour group from any of the 50 or so participating wineries.

Under the new Temecula Valley rules, drivers must keep clearly intoxicated passengers in their limos or buses and leave immediately with any passengers who have been disruptive. Violations can result in companies being barred.

“It’s really worked well,” said Arbogast, the winegrowers association director. She cited one bus driver who made “zero attempt” to keep his plastered passengers from dumping beer on passersby and making degrading comments to women in a winery parking lot. Rather than face exile, the company agreed to send only its top drivers to wine country.

As part of the Responsible Partners program, drivers must also “highly discourage” passengers who want to down liquor or beer as they cruise.

John Kelliher, the owner of a Temecula-based company called Grapeline, bans booze on his tours but sometimes sees loud, tequila-fueled guests stagger out of limos.

“This is not supposed to be about getting drunk,” said Kelliher, an architect of Responsible Partners, who transported 21,000 visitors through Temecula wineries last year. “There’s a big difference between pleasantly intoxicated and falling-down drunk, and if you don’t know what it is then you shouldn’t be in the business.”

About 90 transportation companies have agreed to the rules, but not all of them are happy about it. They say it’s tough to police passengers who, after all, are trying to do the right thing by not driving drunk.

Mark Pondoff, whose Orange County-based Party Lounge buses feature mega-sound systems, cocktail waitresses and stripper poles, said he’s thinking about directing his guests away from the Temecula Valley, where he does only a small fraction of his business.

“People want to go where they feel wanted,” said Pondoff, whose nom de bus is Capt. Marky Mark. “Why should I bring them customers if they treat us like dirtbags?”

Some wineries say they’d rather lose the business. Rowdy limo groups “have a history of not being really great buyers,” said Root, the tasting-room expert. “My hunch is they’ve blown all their money on the limo.”

Wine enthusiasts often make their treks on weekdays to avoid the weekend roisterers.

“We have serious aficionados who come here to taste, to meet with the winemakers, to see what’s new and exciting coming out of the Santa Ynez Valley,” said John Tomasso, an oenophile who lives in Buellton.

“But for others -- it might be a limo full of women from a bachelorette party -- it’s kind of a Disneyland day, and they want to consume as much as they can, as quickly as they can.”

When Tomasso spots a limo at a tasting room, he tends to drive on. “You hope your luck is better at the next one,” he said.

To be sure, most buses and limos carry the mildly buzzed rather than the majorly blitzed. And most tasting rooms aren’t Party Central, especially off-season or on a weekday.

In an hour at the Fess Parker winery in Los Olivos one recent Saturday , there was pleasant chitchat and spirited conversation but nothing approaching even a heated argument about the merits of screw-tops.

At a winery a few miles away, though, a Bakersfield man who had just turned 40 was enthusing -- loudly -- about the limo he had rented for the occasion.

“If I didn’t get a limo, I’d be DUI from Day One,” he said. “I like to drink, I like to party, and no one can tell me I can’t.”

Winery managers and law enforcement officers say that’s not exactly true.

The local sheriff’s office gives classes to winery employees on, among other things, how to cut off insistent drunks. It’s a skill that comes in particularly handy on busy summer Saturdays, when traffic can clog the area’s narrow, winding roads and high-volume high jinks can boom through the wineries.

Safety is a concern as well. Last week, the California Highway Patrol announced a $658,000 effort to curb drunk driving around the wineries in Santa Barbara County.

Jim Fiolek, director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Assn., said his region continues to feel the effects of “Sideways,” the 2004 movie about two buddies and their drunken week at the local wineries.

Even four years later, crowds want to have the rowdy good times portrayed in the film. “At least three times, we’ve heard of people drinking the dump bucket just to get pictures of themselves doing it,” Fiolek said.

Still, “Sideways” also has brought newcomers willing to pay for good wine.

“Look what it’s done for Pinot Noir,” he said. “Try to find a cheap one anywhere.”