‘Sip-and-spit’ bill would allow underage winemakers to taste wines

A California red
Should underage winemaking students be allowed to taste wine as part of their college coursework? A bill to allow just that is working its way through the state Legislature.
(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re under 21 and studying winemaking, how are you going to taste the wine you are learning to make?

Right now, underage students in Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s wine and viticulture program are shut out from classes that include wine-tasting as part of the coursework. As a result, many of them end up taking five years to graduate. And with college as expensive as it is right now, that’s a huge issue for students.

Annmarie Cornejo, writing in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, has a report on Assembly Bill 1989 as it works its way through the state Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), proposes an exception to California’s prohibition against furnishing alcohol to a minor. It would allow “18-to-20-year-old students in enology and brewing science programs to taste alcohol as part of their classes.”   

Under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act as it now stands, anyone under 21 who purchases, consumes or possesses any alcoholic beverage in any public place is guilty of a misdemeanor. That same penalty applies to anyone who “sells, furnishes or gives, or causes to be sold, furnished or given away any alcoholic beverage to any person under 21 years of age.” In other words, winemaking professors are expressly forbidden from letting students taste the wine they are making.   


The proposed bill “would allow a qualified student to taste an alcoholic beverage and exempt the student and the qualified academic institution in which the student is enrolled from criminal prosecution under the above-described provisions.”

According to Cornejo, Jim Cooper, head of the wine and viticulture program at Cal Poly, is prepared to testify before the state Senate Governmental Organization Committee and advocate for the legislation to pass. Right now Cal Poly students have to wait until they’re 21 in order to take three essential classes for their degree: fermentation, wine sensory and winemaking. The winemaking class is three quarters long, so any student who turns 21 in the middle of their senior year is out of luck. It’s going to take five years to graduate.

Cooper is quoted as explaining that if the law isn’t changed to allow underage students to taste wine in their enology classes, “it will impede our ability to attract out-of-state and international students.”

Viticulture students aren’t looking to get drunk. Part of learning to be a wine professional is learning to sip and spit.


Twelve wine-producing states, Cornejo asserts, already have similar laws on the books, including Oregon, Washington and New York. Why not California?

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