Walla Walla wineries caught up in liquor sting

Eight of 14 wineries were cited for selling to minors in a state Liquor Control Board operation over the weekend.

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WALLA WALLA -- Eight of 14 wineries were cited last weekend for selling or providing wine to minors during a compliance check conducted by the Washington state Liquor Control Board.

Those found in violation face fines and possible license suspensions, based on previous history, said Anne Radford, spokeswoman for the Liquor Control Board. Dama Wines is the only one facing a seven-day suspension because of a repeat offense from a similar check last May.

The action is serving as an industrywide reminder about the importance of asking customers for identification -- particularly in businesses that rarely encounter underage consumers in search of the higher cost product.

Devin Stinger, owner of Adamant Cellars and the interim executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, said the alliance may be able to offer refresher training to winery operators about when to card customers.

"From an alliance perspective we can be looking at ways we can provide educational service," Stinger said.

His winery was one of the six that did not sell to a minor in the compliance check.

What took place over the weekend is similar to the compliance checks that take place at convenience stores and retail outlets, Liquor Control Board officials say.

In this case, Radford said a 19-year-old male and an 18-year-old female worked in conjunction with the Liquor Control Board on the checks. The underage consumers were directed to enter the tasting rooms, peruse the items and attempt to buy a bottle of wine. A Liquor Control Board officer waits outside. If the sale is made the operation is cited.

In all cases but one, the consumers were attempting to buy a bottle, Radford said. But one winery had started a tasting and reportedly had intended to serve the minors, she said. In that case, even though they didn't consume the wine, the action counts as an offense because it was presented to them, Radford said.

She said the minors must have their own Washington state identification. They can tell the merchant they're 21 if asked, but if the ID is requested, they must present it. They also are not allowed to carry a fake ID, Radford said. The purchases are made through the Liquor Control Board's investigative fund. The minors are not allowed to pay with their own money.

The visit over the weekend fueled conversation about whether the Liquor Control Board had used appropriate tactics. At CrossRoads SteakHouse, owner Kim Kelly-Frank said someone visiting the restaurant exhibited odd behavior Saturday night, keeping a watchful eye on patrons and even checking identification of some diners with alcohol.

She said staff members called her that night to say they believed someone from the Liquor Control Board had been in the restaurant. He arrived with another male and eventually dined in the bar portion of the Main Street business. However, throughout his stay he reportedly kept a visual monitor on the dining room, glowering at customers. At one point, he approached a family at a table and asked a woman with a glass of wine to show him her identification.

Kelly-Frank said the man never identified himself as being with the Liquor Control Board. But he reportedly told a server that the Liquor Control Board was in town. The incident, Kelly-Frank said, wouldn't have been bad if the person had identified himself. But it ended up making people uncomfortable, she said.

"I know we're going to be more cautious when people approach tables," she said. "There's just too many strange things that happen anymore."

Whether the man was really from the Liquor Control Board is not entirely clear. Radford said that type of action would have been known as a "premises check," which the state organization is known to conduct. However, she said this morning the visit last weekend was a "compliance check" and was not expected to include ID checks at restaurants. She said she didn't know anything about it. CrossRoads was not included on the Liquor Control Board's list of places visited.

Those cited after failing to check identification include: Cavu Cellars, Dama Wines, Five Star Cellars, Lodmell Cellars, Rotie Cellars, the 1928 Gift Shop, Locati Cellars and Don Carlo Vineyard.

Tasting rooms commended by the state for passing the checks include: Adamant Cellars, Elegant?© Cellars, Leeveloolee Cellars, Patit Creek Cellars, Walla Faces and Tero Estates.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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