cheap shot

Monday, March 07, 2011

The buzz in Walla Walla about 10 days ago, was that the Liquor Board was hitting the town (again) and out to bust as many wine tasting rooms as possible. Washington is a control state, which means that hard liquor (anything over 20% alcohol) can only be sold in state stores. Wine shops and grocery stores can sell wine and even Port, but nothing more. And the rules don't stop there. In 25 years of covering wine industry news and reviewing wine for dozens of publications, I have never been able to make much sense of the rules.

Be that as it may, the state is hopelessly, terminally conflicted. On the one hand, the state operates a revenue-generating business – liquor and wine sales. It also collects handsome taxes on booze, and hefty fees from anyone who has a license to dispense liquor. On the other hand, given the moral hypocrisy that runs deeply through American politics, the state feels obligated to enforce Prohibition-era regulations on the owners of small businesses that dare to serve alcohol.

So, for example, if you are a new parent, with infant in tow, and want to join some friends for a cocktail and a snack at a friendly bar, guess what? You cannot. Unless the bar has spent extra dollars to cordon off an area where the infant can be allowed to rest, presumably so the infant won't order a Mai Tai and get wasted.

The "enforcement" of these often obscure laws comes in the form of sneak attacks on tasting rooms and bars, when the secret agents of the Liquor Board masquerade as customers and do their best to snag a bottle of wine or a cocktail without the proper ID. The depths to which these agents will descend are somewhat inscrutable, but the recent attack on family businesses in Walla Walla provides some illuminating examples.

According to a variety of sources, agents of the state came into a number of Walla Walla winery tasting rooms and deployed this little gambit. They sent an underage female into at least one winery carrying a bagged bottle of wine from a different tasting room. The staff assumed that if she had wine from somewhere else, then she was of age. Busted! Should the staff have done the ID check? Of course. Should wine be served to minors? Of course not. But how low does the state have to sink to "prove" that someone is breaking the law?

Another scam that was pulled during this latest sweep was to send in an older man with a young woman. The older man indicated that he wanted to purchase some wine; then, suddenly, found he'd "forgotten" his credit card. But guess what? The young woman happened to have a credit card! And so would it be OK if his wine was charged to her card?

The obliging staff said sure, let's do it. Busted!

Such tactics are all very legal. But can it get any sleazier, or more stupid? In a terrifically difficult economy, with small wineries struggling to make ends meet, and an entire town (and region) increasingly dependent upon wine tourism to bring customers to a wide range of small businesses – does Washington state really need to spend its dollars harassing and fining and basically criminalizing people who for all intents and purposes are simply trying to earn an honest living?

Such stings may be necessary when going after pimps and prostitutes – people who are intentionally breaking the law. But small business owners who are running tasting rooms are law-abiding, tax-paying folks who are doing everything they can to comply with a set of laws that would send Perry Mason scrambling for help. Is it really serving the public to set up these clever little stings that are specifically designed to turn them into criminals?

FYI, most customers have no idea when they are inadvertently breaking some obscure liquor law. The parents who bring the baby into a bar don't have a clue that it's illegal, and that if some minion of the state happened to waltz in at that moment, the bar owner could be subject to a three figure fine and possibly closed down.

It's time for a reality check WSLCB. How about giving small businesses a break? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Isn't that important any more?


Anonymous said...

A Portland area wine shop got busted with another sneaky variation. A young looking woman came in and engaged the proprietor in a lengthy discussion in which the young woman displayed a significant knowledge of wine. The proprietor did not ask to see i.d. after being lulled into the belief that this young woman was well over 21 if she had the breadth and depth of knowledge that she displayed. Bang, not just an OLCC issue but a misdemeanor.

Anonymous said...

Paul, we passed with flying colors here in our Woodinville tasting room. The WSLCB agent came in with his under aged person and told the tasting room staff to look at his ID and told us we passed! Apparently some agents think this sting is a joke and some take it more seriously...

Anonymous said...

But, Paul, I'm you know if the WSLCB operates under guidelines known as RCW's created by the legislature? I don't know, but I believe they do.

I've maintained for over a decade now, our complaints as consumers and indeed as small business people is not so much with the WASLCB as it is with our elected representatives and senators in Olympia.

Some elected person needs to tackle this issue at the source. Rewrite the legislation and spell out in precise detail the duties of the LCB and provide detailed job performance guidelines for them.

I work in a tasting room of a small winery; my goal is to help the customers enjoy the wines they are about to taste. Of course I attempt to avoid serving or selling alcohol to anyone under the legal age of 21. I've not been caught in a trap yet...but I confess that on occasion, I don't ask to see IDs, especially if I'm serving grey headed elderly people who are obviously over 65.

Todd said...

When I pour wine I'm always very careful to ask for ID if anyone looks under ~30. I have never encountered anyone who was underage trying to taste or buy my wine. Not even an "Oops, I forgot my license."

When you've asked hundreds and hundreds of people for ID and never encountered anyone who was underage, you begin to wonder - Is this really a problem? I suppose the only reason I still ask is because I'm afraid of a sting!

If the WSLCB were acting in response to complaints it would be one thing, but if they are running a sting operation to stomp out a crime that never seems to occur except when they are the instigators (with the aid of clever tricks), their motives become suspect.

Bob Neel said...

To their credit [BOY! is it hard for me to say that!] the LCB sent the following to all wineries:
"Please be advised that for the next two months we will be conducting Compliance Checks at winery and brewery premises. All compliance checks will be conducted with a youthful appearing minor operative, ages 18 to 20 years of age, using their valid WA state drivers license.
We conducted this last summer and had a 46% non-compliance rate."

However, NOBODY has reported that the "sting" operatives were "youthful appearing" unless you call 30-something youthful. Those of us in the biz shrug our shoulders and long for European-style enlightment w.r.t. consumption rules...

PaulG said...

I don't think it is practical to expect the legislature to put out detailed guidelines for how to do liquor board stings. See my Facebook page for much more commentary on this issue.

Don Phelps said...

I wonder how many of the wineries "caught" in the sting bothered to inform their employees that the WSLCB was conducting compliance checks and to make sure they checked ID's on anyone looking under 30. I know we shared it with our staff so they would be extra vigilant.

Anonymous said...

This blog really illustrates how far the US is behind the rest of the world and I can't help thinking that this attitude makes a significant contribution to our current economic woes. Fundamentally it's the old story of being old enough to die for your country but not old enough to drink. I first tasted wine in the cafeteria of my lycee in France at the age of 13. Admittedly this has changed but the European attitude to wine is so much more civilsed.

As for not being allowed into a tasting room with an infant, this is just plain idiocy.

PaulG said...

Anon - you are quite right. The Euro model seems much more sensible to me and many others. Just to correct any misimpression - in Washington at least you can bring a child into a wine tasting room, but not into a bar. Why the difference? Who knows?! Maybe children don't like wine, but are really into booze.

heath said...

I have worked in the wine industry for the last years in that time (with the exception of the two "stings" by the WLCB) I have not had one, not one person under the age of 21 even try to buy or taste wine from me at either at events or through the tasting room.
The way I see it the kids who are trying to buy booze that are underage are looking for quantity over quality. Should the wineries have checked IDs,yes. Should the WSLCB resort to down right underhanded tactics, no.
The problem they are trying to prevent is real, and should be monitored but I would love to see the high school or college party at which underage people are consuming alcohol, that the primary source of booze is $20-$80 bottles of wine. These are just thoughts take them as you will.

Rick said...

In response to Don, we did get notice this year from WLCB, and our employees were notified, and we did not get caught in the sting.

However, we did get caught last year when there was no notification from the WLCB. Last year I asked the LCB people why they were going after the tasting rooms in Walla Walla. Our typical tasting room clientele ranges in age from 30-70+. I can't remember ever having a minor come in our tasting room to try and drink, except the LCB agents. I believe Todd and Heaths statements above verify that a wine tasting room is not where a minor goes to try and get alcohol. I brought out this point to the LCB and was told that they are having a real problem with minors drinking at tasting rooms in Woodinville. I do not know if this is true or not, but didn't follow the LCB logic that they needed to jump on Walla Walla because of a problem they may or may not be having in Woodinville. But then again, I have never followed the logic of the LCB and its regulations and requirements.

PaulG said...

I have received an update from the WSLCB. To their credit, they have looked into these allegations and admit that at least some of them are verifiable. Three citations have been dropped and reduced to warnings only. I will post full details and a further update on Monday 3/14.

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