Underage Drinking? New California Bill Might Let Winemaking Students Sip Their Work

We all know the drinking age in the United States (right?). But in some cases, the rules against underage drinking seem just a little odd. For example: if you’re a college student enrolled in a winemaking course and you can’t taste the wine that you are trying to master the creation of, how do you know that you’re doing a good job?

While California leads the way on winemaking and academic courses that teach the science of turning grapes into vino, not to mention the state’s growing craft beer culture, yet in one major way the state is quite behind: students taking college courses in winemaking or beer brewing aren’t allowed to taste their work until they are 21.

But is tasting the fruit of your labor really underage drinking? If anything, it’s definitely an impediment to the learning process. “By not being able to taste, they miss a huge part of the experience of learning.… They do pick it up but usually on the job as an intern after they graduate,” Andrew Waterhouse, a UC Davis professor of enology who led the legislation, told the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks to a new bill however, those restrictions might change. The bill would “lift the underage ban for students enrolled in tasting courses that are required for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.”

“Winemakers taste wine daily during harvest to quickly make critical decisions as the winemaking is underway,” Waterhouse said in a UC Davis blog post. “Our students need to start learning this skill here, with our guidance. And, they also have to get over the embarrassment of spitting — after every taste.”

Now granted, that doesn’t mean the college winemakers and brewers can start chugging by the barrel. We’re talking tasting here, not underage binge-drinking. In fact, the bill has been coined the “sip and spit” bill, and having passed the California Assembly in May, and now it’s headed to the Senate floor. Supporters are hopeful that it will pass, putting California on a list with a dozen other states that already have such legislation in place.

Remember (way?) back before you were 21 and looked to all those progressive European countries with envy? Your 20 year-old self was happy to get on that study abroad program to Italy and drink wine freely. Well, aspiring winemakers feel the same way. “I have friends who study in France, Brazil and different European countries, and there is an advantage they have in going into the wineries, getting into the fields,” UC Davis student Jean-Sebastien Calvet, age 22, told the Los Angeles Times. “Part of being a winemaker is being able to taste and distinguish certain aromas and varieties, and they have an early start.”

Which means if you’re frustrated about the system, you can always go study in Europe to be ahead of the game. Educators in California however hope that this won’t be the only option, and that their students will be able to start tasting at the beginning of their training (as opposed to the end, when they’re of age) and be able to take part in, and celebrate, the communal spirit of wine. Cheers to that.

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Image: Faisal Akram