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Taste but Don’t Drink: Bill Would Let Students Under 21 Take College Wine and Beer Courses

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
February 2, 2023

The hospitality program at the University of New Hampshire’s Paul College of Business and Economics offers a number of courses, from event planning to finance. But one of the most sought-after courses is available only to its oldest students. 

Students seeking to study International Wine and Beverage learn about “the wide world of wine, beer, and spirits,” including their storage, purchase, and serving needs, the university’s website states. But they also must be able to taste the wine and beer – and that means being 21 or older.  

“I get a lot of students (who) request they would like to take this course,” said Markus Schuckert, a professor and the chairman of the hospitality program. “And they cannot take it because they are not 21.”

To Schuckert, it’s a little baffling. Originally from Bavaria, Germany, he’s taught at Heilbronn University in Germany and the University of Applied Science of the Grisons in Switzerland, both countries where college students can drink wine and beer legally. And, he said, New Hampshire students are already working around alcohol. 

“They come to me and say, ‘Markus, I’m working already in a bar. I’m working in a supermarket. I’m working in the hospitality industry. I’m serving drinks. I’m making drinks. I’m selling drinks or I’m selling beverages,’ ” Schuckert told the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday. “This – let’s say this makes the situation complicated and shows the obvious gap.” 

State Sen. Dan Innis, a Bradford Republican, is hoping to change that this year. 

A bill submitted by Innis, Senate Bill 194, would exempt New Hampshire students who are under 21 but over 18, from criminal prosecution for underage drinking for tasting wine or beer, provided they were doing so as part of a class at an accredited college or university. 

Students would need to be enrolled at a college or university that offered an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in either enology – the study of wines – or brewing. And under the bill, students under 21 would still not be allowed to swallow the wine or beer; they would only be permitted to “taste” it, allowing them to sip it and spit it out later.

Beyond students, the bill would also shield colleges and universities from prosecution for serving alcohol to minors, as long as the same conditions were met.

Should the bill pass, New Hampshire would follow in the footsteps of California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Washington, and Vermont in creating “sip and spit” exemptions for underage hospitality students. Vermont passed its law in 1985, partly to aid the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, according to Wine Spectator.

Innis sees the bill as enabling an “educational experience” that could enhance the usefulness of the hospitality courses in the state. Knowing how to taste, differentiate, and recommend wine is a key part of the hospitality industry, Innis said.

“It’s an important part of the dining experience, and it’s an important part of many people’s lives,” he said.

Supporters of the exemption argue wine education is more than just tasting wine; it involves knowing regions, varieties, and histories. They say attempting to teach the differences between wines without letting students taste them has created disadvantages.

Innis compared it to a lab. “If you were (studying) a hard science, you’d go to the lab once a week. It’s a similar situation here where you want the students to be able to experience what they’re learning about.”

Schuckert likened it to a cake. 

“If you are a chef or if you like baking, and you like creating a cake, but … you are not allowed to taste the cake and see how it tastes, you cannot learn from your mistakes,” he said. 

And supporters also pointed to hospitality students who already work behind bars or as servers in restaurants and who can’t make informed recommendations to their customers.

“We allow a lot of latitude to 18- to 20-year-olds in our state when it comes to (serving) alcohol,” Innis said. 

But the New Hampshire Liquor Commission has concerns. Aiden Moore, legal coordinator for the commission, said the proposed carve-out would make enforcement difficult.

Officers with the commission would not be able to attend every tasting on every campus, Moore said, meaning they would have to trust the schools. 

“I think it would be challenging at best to … put the responsibility on an instructor to survey the students to make sure that all the alcohol is spit out rather than swallowed,” he said. 

Moore also said the bill provided little opportunity for the commission to take action against the colleges and universities that might be violating the new rules. The bill does not provide campuses a liquor license, so there would be nothing to suspend or abolish if the commission identified problems, he said.

“If this were potentially abused, how would we address this?” he asked. “… The chances of us ever making a case in the event of something like that are almost nonexistent.”

New Futures, a New Hampshire health care advocacy organization, also voiced opposition. Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy, argued it undercuts the country’s thoughtfully crafted legal limit. 

“The minimum legal drinking age of 21 has saved lives and protected health,” Frey said, noting that the limit is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There’s no doubt about it as far as evidence-based public policy (goes).” 

Frey raised questions about enforcement as well, and said she worries the Legislature might later move to create carve-outs to other types of alcohol beyond beer and wine. And she said she was unconvinced by the arguments that hospitality students working in restaurants could benefit. 

“While I understand the serving discrepancy, I do think it’s a little bit different when you’re sipping alcohol as opposed to serving it,” Frey said.

Commerce Committee members had their own questions. 

Sen. Denise Ricciardi, a Bedford Republican, asked whether students who had participated in wine-tasting lessons could face legal trouble if they later got in an accident after class. Innis replied that he doubted there would be lingering alcohol on a student’s breath if they spit the wine out and drank water, and argued the blood alcohol levels would be negligible.

Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican, had a different concern. “Here I am, I can just see my kids: They’re going to swallow the wine,” he said.

“Not in the class they won’t,” Innis replied.

This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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