The big story in Washington wine earlier this month was eight Walla Walla wineries cited by the state Liquor Control Board for selling alcohol to minors. By the end of last week details had emerged that the Liquor Control Board had erringly allowed minors to be in possession of alcohol for an extended period during the compliance checks. Charges against three of the eight wineries were subsequently reduced to a written warning due to the error.

Our story begins with a message dated January 21st from LCB Captain Jennifer Dzubay informing wineries that compliance checks would be coming in the next two months. The message stated, “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.” The message also included a link to a video on responsible liquor sales. This warning is, I should note, generous on the part of the LCB. Imagine a police officer emailing you and saying “By the way, just wanted to let you know that I’m setting up speed traps on I5 this morning!” Wineries ignore messages from the LCB at their own peril.

During subsequent compliance checks in Walla Walla, 8 of 14 wineries were cited for selling alcohol to a minor (the compliance rate statewide was said to be an uninspiring 76%). However, in three of these cases, the minors involved entered the establishments with previously purchased liquor in hand.

One person working at one of the businesses involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, stated that a young couple entered the tasting room during the afternoon. After initially planning to ask for identification, he noticed that they were carrying a bottle of wine from a nearby winery and decided not to ask for ID. He subsequently sold the couple a bottle of wine. Shortly thereafter an LCB agent arrived and issued a citation. The person said of the LCB officer, “He writes me the ticket, and I ask him how it is legal for a minor to be in possession of alcohol and used as a prop in the sting. He was unable to give me a direct response.”

According to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Note: Requires subscription) the protocol during compliance checks is for the minors involved to bring the purchased alcohol directly to an LCB agent who subsequently issues a citation. This failed to occur in this case as the minors visited multiple establishments in close proximity.

After details of the compliance checks emerged (see a story in the Tri-City Herald here and a post by Paul Gregutt here; the story was also picked up by the Associated Press), a backlash ensued with some stating that allowing minors to bring alcohol into an establishment was deceptive. (I would agree but to use the old X-Files adage, ‘Trust No One!’) After a review, the LCB subsequently reduced the citations against the three wineries where this occurred to warnings.

Make no mistake. Selling alcohol to minors is a serious issue and checking for compliance is one of the LCB’s mandates. However, allowing minors to be in possession of alcohol subsequent to the compliance checks is also a serious mistake. Isn’t keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors the entire purpose of these checks? By allowing this mistake to occur the LCB both damaged its own reputation and potentially the reputations of the wineries in question. Let’s hope none of these wineries are in a litigious mood.

Surely this is a ‘teachable moment’ for all involved. While the LCB should be commended for realizing a significant error occurred, reducing the charges was realistically the least it could do. Lest it look hypocritical, the warnings should be dropped as well.