Underage students pursuing winemaking degrees at Napa Valley College may finally get the chance to taste their work.
Assembly Bill 1989 would allow students who are at least 18 years old and enrolled in a winemaking or brewery science program to taste an alcoholic beverage and be exempt from criminal prosecution.
The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-North Coast, may have its first committee hearing next week.
Napa Valley College’s Viticulture and Winery Technology Program offers winemaking instruction “from grape to table.” Students may complete a one-year certificate or two-year Associate of Science degree.
Instructor Bryan Avila said each of the winemaking courses has at least three or four students who are under 21 — and those students are at a disadvantage, he said, because they cannot taste their own product.
“You can smell it all you want, but until it gets in your mouth, you have no sense of the flavor,” said Michael Baldini of the Napa Valley College board of trustees. Baldini has also taken the college’s winemaking courses.
Opponents of the bill argue that students will use the class as an excuse to drink or become drunk. And while college students and drinking often go hand in hand, Avila said that winemaking programs teach students to view alcohol from a completely different perspective.
“Here, you’re in the company of professionals,” Avila said. “You’re learning to appreciate it for more than just a buzz.”
During a tasting, students are given spit cups; they are not allowed to actually drink the wine. Avila monitors the students but also expects the students to police themselves. He said it would take only one student to ruin the department’s reputation.
“Any sign of intoxication, and you’re out,” Avila said. “There’s nothing cool about drinking wine here.”
Avila, who has taught winemaking courses at the college since 2008, said he has never had a student become intoxicated during class. He has had students show up intoxicated, and they were asked to leave. Most are too embarrassed to return to class, he said.
Roughly 200 to 250 students are enrolled in winemaking courses each semester, Avila said. Many of the program’s students are older — they work for wineries or the hospitality industry.
“It’s a very professional group,” Avila said.
The Napa Valley College teaching winery was the first bonded winery in the California Community Colleges System and released its inaugural 2008 vintage in the spring of 2009, according to the college website.
College facilities include classroom and laboratory buildings, vineyards and a teaching winery. All program instructors are experienced wine industry professionals.
The courses are designed to prepare students for entry-level positions and to help professionals advance in their careers.
Baldini said graduates of the program help maintain the vitality of the Napa Valley wine industry.
“At the end of the day, this is all about workforce development,” Baldini said. “The guy running the pump should be able to taste the wine quickly and spit it out.”