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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wine tasting and driving

The wine crowd usually isn't a problem

Visitors and locals alike sometimes wonder if 5 pm on a weekend in the wine country is anything like 2 am everywhere else -- this is when the drunks are on the road.

Wineries generally do a good job of educating their staff to police any potential situations. It's easy to get training by the state alcohol control people and highway patrol in how to recognize intoxication and what to do about it.

Unfortunately, people don't believe in being responsible for their own actions and, realistically, alcohol can make it pretty damned difficult to think about personal responsibility.

There are very few problems with drunkenness related to wine tasting which is why law enforcement has a sort of hands-off approach in looking for people after the wineries shut down for the day. After all, it would be really easy to set up a road block after a big event and throw lots of people in jail. It would also ruin the local industry and destroy the cooperation we enjoy between the wineries and law enforcement. Without this cooperation the situation may actually get worse.

Recent highway deaths

A couple days ago a young lady killed a couple people because she missed a curve in the road and slammed the side of an oncoming car. She was out with a small group wine tasting for the day and was supposed to be their designated driver, but her blood alcohol was over the legal limit. She faces 20 years in prison.

What happens now

What the California Highway Patrol will do is go back over her day's activities to find out if anyone served her alcohol, how much, and when. Can the last winery to serve her be held liable?  Not likely.

Looking for signs of intoxication isn't an exact science. Just being loud, laughing and having a good time isn't considered intoxicated. Winery staff is taught to look for things like being unable to walk, slurred speech and similar obvious signs. Not everyone displays these signs at the same level of intoxication. Since this woman was only slightly over the limit it may be she didn't display any obvious clues.

What I'm guessing will happen is a lot more people will be turned away, especially at the end of the day, if the server has the slightest suspicion of intoxication. This is difficult when your job is in the hospitality field and you've probably just lost a customer for life.

What should happen next

Another thing I hope will happen is regulating tasting room hours. At one time the typical hours were 11 am to 4:30 pm. Wineries began staying open later and became essentially wine bars. Some are open as late as 7 pm. I'm of the opinion no one should be served after 5 pm.

Another possibility that never gets talked about is to encourage spitting rather than swallowing. I've sometimes taken my own plastic cup to winery events so I can try more wines rather than cutting myself off too early. I assume one of the issues is sanitary in dealing with the spit out wine, but they should figure this out.

This has become more of a problem as the number of tasting rooms increases. At one time you had maybe four or five wineries in a given area where there now are 15 or 20. It's much easier to get drunk in a two mile stretch of road.

Personal experience

I have several years experience working in tasting rooms. I've had only one ugly experience myself when a group of guys came in and one was way over the line. I asked them all to leave. The three sober ones were willing, and even a little embarrassed by the situation. The drunk was belligerent as drunks sometimes are. He was in my face and threatening. His friends pulled him away and got him in the car. I took down their license number and called the CHP. Not a good day for me. I don't like being put in the situation of having to be "inhospitable."

I have great respect for what bartenders put up with on a nightly basis. I sure as heck wouldn't do their job.

October 19th update on the drunk driver
The defendant has plea bargined to a lower sentence with a maximum of seven years in prison.  

Dec 18th update
She was sentenced to 3-1/2 years in prison.