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Walla Walla Wineries Raise the Bar

Rash of citations for serving minors brings reinforced staff training

by Peter Mitham
Duane Wollmuth
Duane Wollmuth says education isn't just needed to reinforce the importance of carding customers who look too young to buy wine, but also to help staff understand what kind of identification is acceptable.
Walla Walla, Wash.—After Washington state enforcement officers issued several citations for supplying wine to minors earlier this year, Walla Walla wineries gearing up for summer tourist traffic will be monitoring visitors more closely to maintain legal compliance.

Compliance checks at 14 licensed establishments Feb. 26 resulted in administrative violations to seven wineries—Cavu Cellars (1,100 cases), DaMa Wines (200 cases), Five Star Cellars (5,000 cases), Lodmell Cellars (500 cases), Rotie Cellars (1,200 cases), Locati Cellars (1,400 cases) and Milton-Freewater, Ore.-based Don Carlo Vineyard (1,000 cases)—as well as the Marcus Whitman Hotel’s 1928 Gift and Wine Shop—for “furnishing alcohol to a minor.”

The liquor board later reduced three of the notices to written warnings because of mitigating circumstances (industry sources described the circumstances as a customer entering the establishments with wine acquired elsewhere, giving an impression that the customer was of legal drinking age).

DaMa Wines, which had failed a previous check, was handed a temporary suspension of its license, while the others were hit with fines. Six wineries were commended for compliance: Adamant Cellars (1,500 cases), Elegante Cellars (1,000 cases), Leeveloolee Cellars (Konto Cellars, 1,000 cases), Patit Creek Cellars (3,000 cases), Walla Faces (1,500 cases) and Milton-Freewater, Ore.-based Tero Estates (300 cases.)

Still, the initial number of citations prompted the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance to step up education for local wineries and their staff. The total number of violation notices in the first quarter for the Pasco enforcement area, which includes Walla Walla, rose to seven in 2011 from four in 2010.

Duane Wollmuth, former co-owner of Three Rivers Winery and now executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, said the number of citations probably reflects the industry’s rapid growth and the need for ongoing employee training.

“When we opened our winery in 1999, there were 14 wineries. Now there are about 130 wineries that are licensed,” Wollmuth told Wines & Vines this week. “You’ve got two to eight people in each of those wineries, so all of a sudden you’ve got probably 400 to 500 people total who are serving wine; 10 years ago it was probably, like, 50 people.”

Washington state liquor laws require all staff members who serve and sell wine to obtain a server’s permit within 60 days of hire. This requires attendance at the four-hour Mandatory Alcohol Server Training (MAST) program class and successful completion of an exam on course material.

Wollmuth said education isn’t needed just to reinforce the importance of carding customers who look too young to buy wine but also to help staff understand what kind of identification is acceptable. It’s also important for them to recognize inebriation in order to prevent patrons from being over-served and reduce licensees’ liability for the consequences.

Wollmuth said local wineries have stepped up participation in MAST courses and refresher programs since the February compliance checks. “We’ve been real enthused about the follow-up from the wineries,” he said.

Three education sessions have been held in Washington state, and two sessions have been held with wineries in the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. The sessions attracted more than 70 participants.

Refresher courses for liquor servers also are planned twice per year. MAST permits remain valid for five years and must be renewed prior to their expiration date. Oregon, which was the first state to require training for alcohol servers, requires servers to participate in its Alcohol Server Education classes and pass an associated exam once every five years.

The neighboring Canadian jurisdiction of British Columbia requires anyone selling or serving liquor to have a Serving It Right certificate as a condition of employment. The certificate has no expiration date. The province recognizes certificates obtained through similar programs elsewhere in Canada. The program is seen as increasingly important given the reduction last year in the province’s blood alcohol limit for drivers from 0.08% to 0.05%.

Wollmuth, now in his second week on the job as executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, told Wines & Vines he aims to focus on creative approaches to industry issues, collaboration with industry stakeholders and open communication.

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