Dirty Little Secret Exposed in Sonoma Wine Country

Teenwine The California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control has finally brought to light the dirty little secret behind underage drinking in Sonoma Valley:


A recent decoy operation meant to the expose and stop the growing craze among Sonoma Valley minors of hanging out in winery tasting rooms and getting their drunk on before marauding over to the next boutique winery was directed and paid for by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. And it successfully netted four enabling wineries that served the two 18 year olds that entered the wineries and asked to sample wine.

And the problem doesn't stop there.

As a former and long time resident of Sonoma Valley, I can attest that Sonoma Valley minors, having been exposed all their lives to fine wine, can regularly be found in front of Sonoma Valley tasting rooms waiting for tourists to arrive, then asking,

"Hey, sir…would you mind picking up a couple of bottles of Grenache for me? I lost my ID and I'm supposed to bring a couple of bottles to a dinner party with old friends."

I can't tell you how often I've witness this depraved, but pitiful dependence of fine Grenache by Sonoma Valley teens. Something needs to be done.

Happily, Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett has announced that, again, in partnership with the California ABC, they will be putting in place a "shoulder-tap" strategy, in which decoys try to solicit legal-aged adults to buy alcohol for them."

Thank goodness, I say!!

These hordes of Grenache and Syrah-drinking Sonoma teens need to be stopped before they move on from trying to get alcohol at winery tasting rooms and start hitting the local bars, convenience stores and their parents wine cellar.

18 Responses

  1. Jeremy Spring - August 23, 2011

    I can’t tell by your tone if you’re seriously in support of these efforts or you’re being facetious. If you’re being sincere, it’s a ridiculous notion to suggest that Grenache is a gateway drug to Old English and Jack and Coke or…GASP…Chateau neuf du pape or…GADS!…’93 Cakebread Merlot. Tom, as long as the drinking age is 21, 18 year olds will find creative ways to get their hands on alcohol. The fact that they’re doing it in 1 ounce pours of fine wine rather than vodka out of plastic jugs shows a level of sophistication that, candidly, I wish I possessed as a youngster.

  2. David White - August 23, 2011

    I’m glad I wasn’t purchasing $40 Grenache from boutique wineries when I was a teenager (although I envy those kids.) The wine hobby would be completely out of control had I started that early!

  3. Marcia M - August 23, 2011

    Do you think the ‘shoulder tap’ move will give away the decoys? …Just too polite.
    I believe Tom’s got a bit of a nod Mr. Willson’s musical for Robert Preston:
    “…The first big step on the road to the depths of degreda-
    I say, first- medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
    then beer from a bottle
    And the next thing you know your son is playin’
    for money in a pinchback suit.”
    Dang! Next they’ll be peerin’ the windows at Steiner’s!

  4. Paul Moe - August 23, 2011

    Sir. The fact is that the drinking age is 21. Law enforcement agencies nationwide perform stings to find those retailers who are breaking that law. A winery tasting room is no different than your local liquor store. I find the condescending, swarky tone of this little missive to serve no real purpose other than, I guess, to make you feel superior for…what?

  5. Tom Wark - August 23, 2011

    Thanks for asking.
    For realizing that entrapping winery tasting rooms will have no impact on reducing underage drinking and for realizing, unlike the CA ABC, that the money spent on entrapping the wineries in an underage sting was a monumental waste of money.
    Finally, if you can’t tell the difference between a winery tasting room and a liquor store, then find a topic upon which you are qualified to comment.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - August 24, 2011

    Thanks, Marcia, for the Music Man reference. It’s priceless, not only in the message but in the view of the obvious nature of how scam artists operate, even when they happen to be in law enforcement.
    In America, we rarely try to deal with issues form the standpoint of reality and prevention–ours is a crisis mentality that waits for a crisis to hit and then meets it by creating a crisis of its own.

  7. Dosage Dog - August 24, 2011

    I can’t believe that the employees behind the tasting room counters haven’t been trained by the wineries to ID anyone that looks under 30. That was one of the first lessons I learned when I was put behind the counter. That being said the those scurrilous underage lawbreakers show me some class by pandering for a nice bottle or two of Grenache. When I was that age we hung out at liquor stores trying to find someone to buy us Red Mountain or Ripple. If I wore a hat I’d take it off to them!

  8. Doug Wilder - August 24, 2011

    I used to be able to rent golf carts when I was 14 when the legal age was 16. I guess the guy could have lost his job if it had been found out.

  9. John Kelly - August 24, 2011

    We do “card” at our tasting room. In 25 years in the business I have declined to pour for a few people who didn’t have ID on them who looked too young, but I have NEVER had a minor try to buy a tasting.
    I expect that this is a pretty common experience – underage drinkers simply don’t show up in tasting rooms. I’m not surprised that this seems to have led to a certain laxity with respect to “carding” everyone among some hospitality staff.
    In my opinion the sting operation was a pointless waste of resources. Worse, this entrapment was simply rent-seeking on the part of the ABC.

  10. Matt @ BoozeMonkey - August 25, 2011

    what’s “swarky”?

  11. Tom Wark - August 25, 2011

    I’m pretty sure they meant “snarky”.

  12. Matt Allen - August 25, 2011

    Tom: This is an issue that has bothered me for several years. When I have asked the ABC about why they think there is a problem, they respond that the proof is in theeffectiveness of the decoy programs at catching people. They do not seem to understand that there simply aren’t underage kids looking to spend 10 bucks on 4 ounces of wine, and that there decoys may be the only underage drinker to try this in the 20 years these places have been open.
    It is a colossal waste of time and money.

  13. DrWoo - August 29, 2011

    Next thing, they will be begging $100 Cabs! Those sneaky little prepubescent oenophiles.

  14. James Marshall Berry - August 30, 2011

    Way better ways to spend that 25K, IMHO.. I’ve been pouring for over 5 years, yes, we card everyone, never once have i had someone without an ID try to taste wine. A couple 12 packs of natural Light is a far better option for them. I dare say the only underage tasters were indeed those decoys. A larger problem is with parents from Europe with kids, who are shocked that little Johnny can’t taste wine with them, and I’ve even had to take glasses away from parents who insist on letting their kids (10 year olds sometimes) taste wine…

  15. Chicago Pinot - August 30, 2011

    I’ve always been a little curious about exactly how Law Enforcement recruits under 21 folks to carry out stings. Look, I am not crazy about the 21 minimum, and I know many in my former age group abused alcohol at that point in their lives. But what self-respecting young adult signs up to become a Professional Rat? Is this a step up from Hall Monitor? With kids about to return to school, here’s another example of that lesson: Be careful who you pick on in Junior High!

  16. Steve - August 31, 2011

    My son worked in a tasting room for many years, and I know he checked ID’s often. He also cut off those over 21 that seemed to have had too much. I wonder if 18 year olds drinking wine is a problem in Italy?

  17. Kyle Kruchok - September 3, 2011

    I’ve been working in the cellar for a few years now, and only recently turned 21. Was I te,hnically breaking the law when I took a sip out of a newly innoculated fermenter? Smh.

  18. Carol D - September 5, 2011

    This story is shocking to say the least but now I can’t help but wonder which four wineries enabled this behavior.

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