Linda Bisson, a professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, says that for her students to successfully judge a wine, they need to appraise its color and hue, assess the “nuances of the aroma” and taste the wine for its sweetness or acidity.
But Bisson said students enrolled in UC Davis’ top-ranked winemaking program can earn a degree without ever sampling the alcohol they make for course credit.
That may be changing soon if legislation by Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, chairman of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Wine, is approved. Dubbed the “sip and spit” bill, the legislation would allow underage students in wine programs throughout the state to taste, but not ingest, alcohol in their classes.
There are seven schools offering viticulture and enology degrees in California that would be affected by the bill, including UCD, Fresno State and Santa Rosa Junior College — which lies in Chesbro’s coastal 2nd District. With a 12-acre vineyard adjacent to its campus, UCD is the largest program of the seven.
The bill is sponsored by the UC system and supported by the CSU system and the Community College League of California. No opposition against the legislation has been filed.
“Being able to judge the quality of the wine is essential in wine production, and our students really need to start learning those skills early to prepare for their first jobs,” said UCD enology professor Andrew Waterhouse. “It also hurts our students because most of them need to put that class off until their last year although it’s a class they really should be taking earlier.”
Adrian Lopez, director of governmental relations for UCD, said he hopes the bill also will help hasten the pace of graduation, particularly when a growing number of UC students spend more than four years earning their degrees. (Of the 5,000 students entering UCD in 2007, 1,250 took more than four years to graduate.)
“For some students, it can be a time-of-degree issue,” Lopez said. “Some students wait around, taking other classes until they turn 21. It would be better for the students if they could take those classes earlier.”
UCD offers two wine-tasting courses. Although neither of the classes is required for graduation, Bisson said both are very popular among students and are critical to the curriculum. Currently, Bisson teaches a wine-production class — not restricted to students of drinking age — where she lets students smell, but not taste, the wines they make.
“Students smell and can assess the wines visually, but if something needs tasting we’ll usually have a lab manager do it and report back to the class,” Bisson said. “Obviously, the students aren’t very happy with that.”
To supplement the curriculum, some students meet monthly to sample wines outside of the classroom, although this doesn’t benefit students like Connor Bockman, 20, and others who are still underage.
“I know a lot of people who can’t make the meetings because they aren’t of age yet, and it’s really a pity because we really are learning a lot,” said Jean-Sebastien Calvet, a third-year student in UCD’s wine program.
California is far and away the highest wine-producing state in the country, generating more than 87 percent of all wine in the United States, according to figures published by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Waterhouse says UCD students are already “very desirable” among the state’s 8,800 wineries, adding that the Chesbro bill will only make them more employable.
Still, California is late to the game in passing “sip and spit” legislation. Twelve other states already have laws allowing underage wine-production students to sample alcohol in class, which may put students in programs like Oregon State’s ahead of the curve.
“Oregon State has a wine program that does engage more in tasting and food pairing,” Bisson said.
Bisson and Waterhouse said there are no immediate plans to change UCD’s curriculum, although if the bill is passed, Waterhouse would encourage students to take the university’s tasting courses earlier in their college careers.
The Chesbro bill passed unopposed on the Assembly floor earlier this year and is scheduled to be heard in the state Senate committee on governmental organization Tuesday.