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Bill by Wes Chesbro would allow underage beverage students to sip

Published: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 7:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 7:01 p.m.

Some thirsty, underage students in California soon may be able to sip on a nice chardonnay or a robust porter — legally.

The reason is newly introduced legislation that would allow students enrolled in accredited wine- and beer-making programs to take a nip.

The bill, backed by the University of California and authored by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, a Democrat whose district covers the north coast as far south as Bodega Bay and Santa Rosa, allows students 18- to 20-year-olds to test their own work.

It's called “sip-and-spit,” said Ganesan Srinivasan, Dean of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Culinary Arts at Santa Rosa Junior College.

To understand an instructor's description of wine complexities and appropriate food pairing, Srinivasan said a firsthand experience is necessary.

“They (students) need to be involved in the ... sensory revelation,” said Srinivasan, whose department oversees the school's winemaking programs. “We need a strong workforce who understand the different intricacies of wine, and it's important we teach students with hands-on experience, and also to do it in a responsible way.”

Currently, California students interested in winemaking careers and attending a two- or four-year college have to wait until they're 21 to take some of their required classes.

Republican Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Wine, said the bill “means a lot for the school in helping students to graduate.”

Achadjian's 35th district has two colleges with winemaking, or enology, programs: Allan Hancock College and California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo.

“For Mr. Chesbro, coming from an area just like mine that's heavily involved in breweries and wineries, it makes sense,” Achadjian said. “This way (schools) are protected by law and it becomes legal. How well you can enforce it so that they're not swallowing remains to be seen.”

Chesbro, the chairman of the Legislature's Select Committee on Wine, declined to discuss his bill, AB 1989, which was introduced Feb. 20, a day before a legislative deadline.

Washington and Oregon, two other states producing most of the United States' wine, in addition to New York and Colorado already have similar laws on the books.

California is the nation's leader in wine production. It's home to about 40 percent of the nation's wineries, with nearly 350 located in Chesbro's sprawling 2nd Assembly District.

In 2012, the state's wine industry accounted for 330,000 jobs in the state and generated $2.1 billion in tourist spending, according to the Wine Institute.

Internationally, the Wine Institute reports California trails France, Italy and Spain in global wine production. U.S. wine exports reached an all-time high of $1.55 billion in 2013, with 90 percent coming from California.

Educating prospective winemakers on their craft has a long history in California. The Legislature in 1880 ordered UC to establish a program providing instruction and research on viticulture and enology. Today at least seven public campuses in the state offer bachelor or associate degrees in viticulture (wine grape cultivation) and enology.

The bill is being sponsored by the UC system after having the idea come forward from the Davis campus, said Jason Murphy, legislative director for the University of California system, but it also would affect California's Community Colleges.

SRJC and Napa Valley College offer one-year certificates and two-year associate degrees in wine and viticulture, providing entry-level skills for students looking for a career in the North Coast wine industry.

Achadjian said he is looking forward to reviewing AB 1989, but that he is “pretty much neutral” on the bill.

“I support it to the point that it will help the students,” he said.

“But I'd rather see it as a pilot program moving forward, to see what the end result is going to be, to determine if we're just focusing on the need of this law, or if this law is going to turn out more alcoholics,” Achadjian said.

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