Ella Johnson aspires to be a winemaker.
But like many other students majoring in viticulture and enology at colleges in California, the recent Cal Poly graduate found herself building her college curriculum around one unexpected stumbling block: her age.
The same challenge plagues the majority of the more than 350 students enrolled in Cal Poly’s burgeoning viticulture program — they can’t taste the very product they are learning to make.
The state Legislature is working to solve the problem. Assembly Bill 1989, sponsored by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, would craft an exemption to California’s prohibition of “furnishing alcohol to a minor,” allowing 18- to 20-year-old students in enology and brewing science programs to taste alcohol as part of their classes.
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“AB 1989 will ensure that students will have the same educational opportunities and they won’t be delayed” in graduating, Chesbro said on the Assembly floor on May 15. “It will guarantee that our graduates will remain competitive in our thriving wine and beer industries.”
The idea for the California bill originated with Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of wine chemistry at UC Davis, who has been concerned for many years that age restrictions on tastings detracted from students’ education.
Locally, Jim Cooper, head of the wine and viticulture program at Cal Poly, has been advocating, alongside students, for the legislation to pass.
He will soon testify before the state Senate Governmental Organization Committee, hoping to gain its support.
At Cal Poly, there are three courses that students must wait to take until they are of legal drinking age: fermentation, wine sensory and a three-quarter-long course on winemaking.
It is a perplexing problem, especially for students who do not turn 21 until late in their senior year. Essentially, they must take five years to graduate.
Cooper said some students take a year off; others pursue internships or focus on minors.
“The first big impact is on our four-year graduation rate, and the second impact is on a student’s actual education,” Cooper said.
Cal Poly student Kelly Allyn, 21, will graduate in December in wine and viticulture with a concentration in enology.
“This issue hits very close to home,” said Allyn, who turned 21 during her senior year.
Allyn said she faced opposition trying to get the classes she needed to finish her degree in a timely manner.
“There was a particular class where wine tasting was involved, and even though I was going to be legal a month into the class and be required to spit any wine tasted, I still had to challenge the administration to enroll in the class,” Allyn said. “This tasting law is the only thing holding Cal Poly wine and viticulture students from being ahead of other universities in their wine education.”
Other states, such as New York, already have legislation in place to allow students to taste alcohol as part of their classes. And overseas students do not face the same age restrictions.
Cooper said a current student, from Louisiana, is taking next school year off because she is too young.
“She wants to be a winemaker and believes correctly that you can’t be a winemaker if you can’t taste and try what you do,” Cooper said.
Luckily for Johnson, she turned 21 in May of her junior year. She was able to take the required courses her senior year and graduate on time.
However, she wishes that she could have taken certain classes — like the sensory course — earlier.
“It gives you a better understanding of what you are doing, especially hands-on in the winemaking lab,” she said.
Her age also hindered the internships that she began seeking her freshman year.
“I had to do more general, lower-end positions or be out in the vineyard, because I couldn’t be around the wine,” she said.
“This state is one of the biggest grape producers — making a ton of wine,” Johnson said. “It would benefit students coming out of any college, not just Cal Poly. If you are going to study and make wine, you should be able to taste in an educational environment.”
Cooper said one challenge to passing the legislation is the fear of some critics that college students are looking for a reason to drink. Supporters have even given AB 1989 a crafty nickname: the “sip and spit” bill.
“You are tasting and spitting out,” Cooper said. “People in the wine industry taste wine all day long but don’t drink it.”
At Cal Poly, a portion of the early curriculum focuses on the difference between being a professional and drinking and getting drunk. This year, a speaker from Alcoholics Anonymous spoke to the freshmen.
“Every opportunity for alcohol awareness in a college setting is useful,” Cooper said.
The bill’s impact
Cooper said failure to pass the law would likely result in more students going to out-of-state programs.
“It will impede our ability to attract out-of-state and international students,” he said.
Twelve states, including Oregon, Washington and New York, already have similar laws on the books.
Johnson, whose parents were raised in France and South Africa, has traveled extensively and tasted international wines alongside her parents.
In August she will start working for Gallo in San Miguel as a winemaking intern.
“We are all in this major because it is something we take seriously,” said Johnson. “It goes without saying that a big part of winemaking is being able to taste the wine and find the faults in order to remediate them.”
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this story.