WALLA WALLA -- Three wine businesses cited recently by the state Liquor Control Board for selling alcohol to a minor will have their violations reduced to a written warning after an internal investigation revealed a questionable enforcement tactic, an official said this morning.
In the midst of the agency's routine compliance checks at tasting rooms throughout the Valley last month, one of the underage aides helping in the sting carried a previously purchased bottle into three of the businesses, said Brian Smith, communications director for the state Liquor Control Board. Beyond giving tasting room operators the impression the aide would have already been ID'd, it would have been a violation of state law for the juvenile to have possession of the alcohol to begin with.
"That's not our standard of doing these compliance checks," Smith said.
To avoid the perception that the agency purposely allowed the aide to mislead tasting room operators and trick them into selling the wine, Smith said the agency will reduce the violations at the three places where wine was carried in and operators made a sale: the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center's 1928 Gift Shop, Locati Cellars and Lodmell Cellars at the Walla Walla Regional Airport property.
Smith said the violations and citations will stand at all other places where a bottle was not carried into the facility and a sale was made.
"It took a lot of internal discussions to get to the bottom of this," Smith said. "We feel that we want to do the right thing."
Smith said the goal of the compliance checks is not to catch someone in the act of selling to a minor but to make sure businesses selling alcohol don't make the sale.
"From our perspective, we would hope that any place that's selling alcohol would card people that they think is potentially of age or underage. We check ourselves, too," he said referring to the twice yearly compliance checks at the state-run liquor stores.
Rumors about possible unscrupulous tactics on the part of the state began to swirl, however, after the Feb. 26 compliance check, when eight of 14 wineries were caught selling or providing alcohol to minors.
One accusation Smith said is false is that a minor entered a tasting room with a person of age. When the person attempted to make a purchase, the person claimed to have forgotten money. In, allegedly, stepped the minor offering to pay. Smith said that never happened.
He said money for the compliance checks comes from an agency fund. All transactions are made with cash, he said. Afterward, the minors are instructed to exit the business and deliver the purchase and receipt to the compliance officer waiting outside. From there, the compliance officer issues the citation.
In the case of these three particular businesses, the deposit was not made. Because of the configuration of tasting rooms at the Marcus Whitman and the airport incubator complex, the aide went from one facility to the next carrying a purchase from the initial stop.
Two 19-year-olds, one male and one female, worked in tandem with the liquor board to conduct the February checks here. Initial reports were that the one aide was 18 and one was 19. The minors are required to 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.
Liquor enforcement officers are empowered to issue Administrative Violation Notices to businesses that fail compliance checks, Smith said. Fines or temporary license suspensions can be issued depending on the severity of the infraction or the frequency with which a business has been cited. Clerks who sell can also receive a criminal citation. Liquor enforcement officers review the past two years when determining fines or license suspensions.
Walla Walla was not the only community where tasting rooms were checked. The agency conducted compliance checks all over the state, Smith said. He said warning notifications were sent to 700 licensees that enforcement officers would be in the area.
The checks resulted overall in 76 percent compliance, a worrisome figure, Smith said. "That means one out of every four kids has alcohol," he said.
The Walla Walla wine industry has already responded to the violations with refresher education courses, said Devin Stinger, interim executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and owner of Adamant Cellars.
He said about 25 people packed into the alliance's conference center Wednesday for two sessions on mandatory alcohol server training. The timing coincides with the Taste of Walla Walla event in Seattle. About 50 wineries are expected to be pouring on the west side of the state this weekend.
The training had already been scheduled, but Stinger said attendance likely increased because of the Liquor Control Board operation that took place. More training is expected at the end of this month, he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.