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UC Food Safety
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UC Food Safety

The fine art of spitting: Allowing underage students to taste alcohol

Wine samples ready for tasting at UC Davis. (photo: Ann Filmer / UC Davis)
California's drinking age of 21 prohibits many undergraduate students from learning critical skills early in their academic careers — sensory skills that they will need when they move on to jobs in the multimillion-dollar winemaking, brewing, and food industries.

Not until students turn 21 can they taste the wine and beer they make and learn to assess its sensory quality. Learning the characteristics of a wide assortment of good (and not-so-good) wines and beers is an important component of winemaking and brewing. Having to wait until their junior or senior year to learn these skills is a disadvantage for these students.

Legislation (AB 1989) has been proposed by California Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-North Coast) that will allow students, ages 18 to 21, enrolled in winemaking and brewery science programs to taste alcoholic beverages in qualified academic institutions. The students can taste, but not consume — which means they must learn the professional practice of spitting during the tasting process.

Professor Andrew Waterhouse, an enologist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, notes that tasting is critical to the students' education.

“Winemakers taste wine daily during harvest to quickly make critical decisions as the winemaking is underway,” Waterhouse said. “Our students need to start learning this skill here, with our guidance. And, they also have to get over the embarrassment of spitting — after every taste.”

Chik Brenneman, the UC Davis winemaker, said that the bill, if passed, “will allow students to move on to the sensory program a lot sooner, before they've finished most of their winemaking classes. Earlier sensory training will help them when they go to work in the industry.”

A student, over age 21, testing wine at UC Davis. (photo: John Stumbos / UC Davis)
Waterhouse said in an interview with NBC Bay Area, “If you don't have the experience of what wine tastes like as it's being made, then you're completely missing a critical skill, which you then have to learn on the job.”

If the legislation passes, it will benefit enology and brewing students at UC Davis, which is the only University of California campus to offer undergraduate degrees in viticulture and enology and in brewing science (an option within the food science major).

While parents of college students may worry that the bill will open the door to widespread drinking, Waterhouse and Brenneman both noted that the focus of the bill is so narrow that its impact will benefit a limited number of students, and that it's unlikely to lead to excessive drinking. They say that the over-21 students routinely spit what they're tasting in a standard industry manner, and that “drinking” in class is not a problem.

With passage of this bill, which is backed by the University of California, the state will join 12 other states that have allowed this educational exemption for students.

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Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 8:38 AM

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