busted flat in... walla walla!?!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Last Monday’s blog post (entitled "cheap shot") generated a tremendous amount of interest and feedback. Much of it ran on my Facebook page. Wineries are understandably reluctant to stick their necks out by posting comments here on the blog – though anonymity is guaranteed for those who seek it. But among the 50+ Facebook comments are some that speak directly to the main issues I was raising.

First of all, are the tactics being used to “enforce” the liquor laws themselves illegal? Second, how serious is the problem of wine service to minors in boutique tasting rooms?

As a result of the initial post and subsequent comments, the Liquor Board did their own internal investigation and found that at least one of the allegations of unfair tactics was in fact true. This led to a decision to rescind the citations in three instances. The email I received from their Communications Director explained it this way:

“Paul, following up your email. A lot has transpired since Monday. We looked more into how the compliance checks were carried out in Walla Walla. We found areas of concern at three locations that failed a compliance check and received a violation.

We learned that a bag holding a wine bottle, in some cases, was likely carried by our 19 year old investigative aides from one location to the next at the Marcus Whitman Hotel and the Walla Walla airport. This was an unusual practice for a compliance check. While ID should be checked when a young person is attempting to purchase alcohol, we understand the perception that the shop employee may have believed the aide was of age.

We want to be fair. Because of this, we are going to downgrade the penalty at the three locations where the wine was used in the compliance check from a violation to a written warning. Written warnings do not result in fines or suspensions. The three locations that will have their violations reduced to warnings are: Lodmell Cellars, Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center (gift shop), and Locati Cellars.

In your blog, you also wrote about credit cards and an interaction where one person purchased for another. We talked with the enforcement officers and both investigative aides. They confirmed that this did not happen. Our aides only carry cash provided by the enforcement officers and they did not give each other money during any transaction.”

PG: I want to give credit where credit is due. The WSLCB did not have to follow through, admit a problem, and take the action they have taken. Hopefully, there will be an internal review of all sting tactics, both for their legality, and also for their appropriateness. As I wrote last week, these tasting rooms are not being operated by criminals intentionally breaking the law. They are law-abiding, tax-paying, family-owned businesses that are doing their very best to follow the rules.

Several of the comments I received on Facebook, from people with a lot of tasting room experience, seemed to indicate that the enforcement arm of the LCB seems bent on tackling a problem that doesn’t actually exist. A sample quote:

“I agree with others that have commented about this - of all the ID that has been checked at our winery we've never had anyone underage try to do their illegal drinking there. Why so much focus on it from the WSLCB?”

Good question. I am happy to remain a forum for discussion, and for sharing information about specific incidents, tactics, and fines. Hopefully, this will ultimately lead to enforcement that does not create criminal activity in order to find it.


Anonymous said...

I tend to be a fairly "law and order" type, and am far less cynical than many about the motives of law enforcement. But in this case, it's tough... I do believe that alcohol age laws should be enforced in general. But I find it very hard to disagree with the statement that it isn't really a problem in tasting rooms. Even if it were a problem, it would be so small compared to other problems (like adults buying for minors) that it doesn't warrant more than a tiny amount of effort.

Is it being enforced in tasting rooms because that's easier than tackling the really challenging (but also more significant) issues? Is the WSLCB trying to justify its size and/or existence by inflating violation numbers? I don't know. Like I said, I'm not usually cynical about this kind of thing, and I tend to get annoyed when people ascribe these kinds of motives to officials who are trying to enforce the law. But these cases push it even for me....

Bob Neel said...


Thanks for "leading the charge" on this issue. Much appreciated. On your FB page, several comments were related to whether by law everyone "must" be ID'ed. I got a kick out of Andy Plymale's satirical post, suggesting among other things that the WSLCB might prefer us to buy our wine from them...? Got me to thinking:

I can't remember if I have EVER been ID'ed at a State liquor store BEFORE they've rung me up. I virtually always pay by CC and need to produce an ID for that, but it's never been in the spirit (pun intended?) of seeing if I'm of age (at 65, there's not much doubt). Wouldn't it be fun to organize a sting operation on them?

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the time I was working the Newport seafood and wine festival. OLCC sent a minor over to try and purchase alcohol. We all knew it was a sting, so the other person at the booth went and found the sheriff and insisted that the sheriff arrest this minor for attempting to purchase alcohol. That was very funny to see the argument that ensued.
"You cant arrest this person he works for the OLCC"
"I don't care who he works for, he tried to by alcohol, he's a minor, he broke the law, and I want him arrested"

PaulG said...

Anon - don't stop there! What happened after that?

Anonymous said...

Another OLCC story.

I used to work at a wine shop in Oregon. During a busy Friday night tasting, I had an "undercover" sting attempted on me. It couldn't have been more obvious. The "mole" just looked completely lost, as if he had never been in a wine shop before (he probably hadn't.) His "handler" was equally lost and pretty much was directing him. I was surrounded by about 10 tasters (who were regulars) and he interrupted my conversation about the wine I was pouring to demand that I ring him up. I first glanced over to his "handler" then asked him to see his ID, even though I was a half a room away from the cash register. He was stunned and fumbled for his ID which was conveniently in his shirt pocket (oops, no wallet). I took one look at it, saw the bright red "minor until" bar on it and grabbed the wine from his hands. I calmly walked to the front door (to block their exit) and in front of everyone (who had witnessed this charade) I let into a 5min tongue lashing of these two idiots.
They were frozen. I explained to them how moronic they were, their tactics couldn't have been more obvious, how much they were wasting my time, how they were rude to my customers, how they should be "busting" places where underage drinking might actually occur. A wine shop? I explained to them how they were wasting my tax dollars and I educated them on the blatant hypocracy of their employer. The OLCC takes in tens of millions of dollars a year in alcohol taxes. You'd think that they would have a more educated and refined 'sting' routine. I explained to them that I was going to call the police first, my lawyer second, and the head of the OLCC third. I then stepped away from the door, my customers clapped and they ran (yes, ran) out of there. See ya!

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, first let me say that this may be my favorite of the many pictures you have posted.

I can only say from personal experience that I had a lot of beer and some hard liquor back in the day. Can't say I ever had any wine. I can't imagine that there is a significant problem that needs solving here. Worse, all the LCB has done in this case is point out to minors that if they want to buy some liquor, having some in hand will help. Thankfully this generation isn't said to read newspapers or blogs or anything else at this point so they probably haven't noticed!

Anonymous said...

The LCB , should beheld accountable? What no suspensions for the agents? These actions are spinning out of control. The Wine & beer tasting in Grocery stores, the rules are idoitic! I agree with 4/1oz. samples, but The mom's with kids in the cart are breaking the law! if they taste ,Hey but the states phone survey on the LCB stores "what a Farce"

Anonymous said...

Hey man let's raid dad's liqour cabinet. Forget about the Tequila and vodka. Let's go for his bottle of 82 Margaux! Yeah he'll never notice. that stuff is so old.

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