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Bringing common sense to wine drinking laws



Some years ago, I was working out at my gym when I saw a newcomer. He was doing bench presses. What struck me were his pe’ot, or sidecurls of hair, and the fringes of talllit–the Jewish prayer shawl–sticking out from under his sweatshirt. Surprised by the incongruity of seeing an ultra-Orthodox Jew (and a very young one, at that) in my downtown Oakland YMCA, I introduced myself, thus beginning a friendship.

Matt wanted to be a winemaker, he told me. The only problem was, he was deep into his rabbinical training, and didn’t know whether or not he’d be permitted to taste (much less drink) non-kosher wine. When he learned what I did for a living, he asked if it was important for a student of wine to taste widely.

“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. “How can you understand what great wine is all about, if you can’t taste it?”

He agreed–but the matter was out of his hands. His local rabbis, undecided as to the answer of such a Talmudic question, had referred the matter to a bigtime rabbi in Israel for the ultimate ruling. Alas, as things turned out, the big rabbi declared it would not be possible. Matt simply was not allowed to let non-kosher wine touch his lips, and with that, my new friend abandoned his winemaking aspirations.

I was reminded of Matt yesterday when I read this article in the Napa Valley Register that described how, under current law, California winemaking students under the age of 21 are not allowed to drink or taste wine! Our federal minimum-age drinking law thus puts the U.S. among only six other countries in the world (Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka) that have a 21-year age requirement for the consumption of alcohol. As you can see from this listing, most other countries have no minimum, or allow drinking between 16-18 years of age.

This high-minimum age reflects, of course, our nation’s long and convoluted history with alcoholic beverages, the product of a residue of Puritanism that still courses through our cultural bloodstream. This ambiguity peaked with the disaster of Prohibition; Repeal came officially in 1933, but not everyone accepted it. My mother’s home state of Oklahoma, for example, stayed “dry” until 1959. And even now, Oklahoma (and several other states, mostly southern and border states) continue to maintain “dry” counties.”

It’s odd and ironic that in California, where wine is a $51.8 billion industry, a young student studying enology at a school like Napa Valley College or U.C. Davis is not allowed to taste wine. That would be like prohibiting a culinary student from eating! Makes no sense, which is why I welcome the bill from Democratic State Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who represents California’s North Coast, that “would allow students who are at least 18 years old and enrolled in a winemaking or brewery science program to taste an alcoholic beverage and be exempt from criminal prosecution.” You’d expect California’s Legislature to pass it, since it’s so logical on the face of it; and I’m sure that, if the Legislature did pass it, Gov. Jerry Brown would happily sign it.

But, as the Napa Register article points out, there are people out there who don’t like alcohol and are likely to oppose Chesbro. “Opponents of the bill argue that students will use the class as an excuse to drink or become drunk.” (Sacre bleu! An excuse to drink!!! As if they can’t obtain alcohol anyway.) The article doesn’t say who these “opponents” are, but their names hardly matter; we know these neo-Prohibitionist types are always lurking at the fringes of the culture, hoping to do again what their spiritual ancestors did in 1920: make alcohol illegal for anyone to drink, with only limited exceptions.

If you, like me, are in favor of Chesbro’s bill, which is AB 1989, and you live and vote in California, I invite you to contact your own state Assembly members and Senators and urge them to support this common-sense legislation.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    It’s interesting to note that, in recent years, several Presidents of major universities including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State have called for a lower drinking age and have argued that the move to a 21 year old drinking age was a mistake that has led to an increase in binge drinking.

  2. In “dry” Oklahoma in the late ’40s/early ’50s, nearly every home I visited had a “secret” bar in a closet or behind a wall panel, and nightly family cocktails (I tasted my first highball there at about age 10) were a ritual. More routine at-home drinking in Oklahoma than ever I saw in New York, where people of similar ages and ethnic/social/economic groups drank cocktails only on special occasions, rarely at home.

  3. The drinking age in CA has been 21 since the end of prohibition. Other states had 18, but in the 1980s the federal govt. began coercive measures to get them to raise the number by threatening to withhold highway funds. Soon it became 21 everywhere. This was the same binge of conservatism that brought us warning labels on wine.

  4. Barbara, I remember visiting my relatives when I was a young kid, and my uncle Herman also had a bar. He sure did love his “bourbon and branchwater.”

  5. Keasling says:

    It’s hardly a big deal if you can have it. The fact we couldn’t have it, made us want it more. And you’re right Steve, we always had ways to get it. Oh the days of high school parties, kegs of Natural Light and “Strawberry Hill” Boone’s. Our exchange student friends thought we were obsessed.

  6. pawineguy says:

    Patrick, your history is wrong. It was a single bill (actually an amendment to another bill) that raised the age, lest the states lose highway funds. It was introduced by Democrat Lautenberg of NJ, and passed with bi-partisan support. The few opponents were split between very liberal and very conservative Senators. MADD was just becoming a political force and drove the passing of the legislation. Reagan threatened to veto but relented and signed the bill.

  7. You’re right, pawineguy, that it was a single bill. It required states to get into line with a succession of legislation. Even though the bill was proposed by a Democrat, it’s still part of a cultural retrenchment in a conservative direction.

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