Taste of Trouble

By Karl Klooster

We’ve heard it said how “the devil is in the details.” No words could be more true than with a recent case in which the Oregon Liquor Control Commission sent a snazzily dressed 19-year old into a Dundee Hills winery tasting room to determine if she could get served.

Remember that tasting rooms are considerably different from bars or taverns. In the first place, you don’t come to drink but to sample. Secondly, if there is a tasting fee, you don’t pay until the very end of sampling a flight of wines.

One could cite the analogy that regular customers occasionally run tabs at a bar, but the conditions and circumstances in this situation are quite different. Pay particular attention to the payment part.

At approximately 3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, two stylishly attired young women entered the tasting room at Torii Mor Winery.

For those who have not been there, to reach the winery’s tasting room you must negotiate a gravel road, relatively smooth but gravel, nonetheless, for more than a mile.

Torii Mor’s tasting room is an intimate space handsomely executed in a serene Japanese motif with an light, airy and open feel. Torii Mor translates to “Gate to the Earth” or “Earth Gate” in English.

Not a likely place for an undercover decoy operation; yet, there they were, two young women looking more like they were dressed for dinner in downtown Portland than for an afternoon in wine country.

The older of the two — she was 26 and a Yamhill County employee — did the talking. She told the server they would like to have the white wine flight at $10, which would start with the Pinot Gris.

As the server was in the midst of pouring one-ounce tastes of the Pinot Gris in two glasses, she gave the two another look and decided to ask both women for their IDs, which they supplied.

She hesitated momentarily when looking at the younger woman’s ID, and then handed it back. Reportedly the server asked, “Are you 21?” To which the younger woman replied. “You have seen my ID.”

At this point, the server says she felt the woman was playing games by refusing to answer the question directly. So the server replied, “Yes, and you were born in 1993. So you are not 21?” The woman responded the same: “You have seen my ID.”

The server says she told the woman sarcastically, “Sorry, it’s been a long day,” and as she was about to tell the other woman that she could not serve the younger of the two — at this point, the under-aged woman had left — a police officer entered. 

It turns out the older woman texted a McMinnville police sergeant who had accompanied them to the winery and was waiting outside. She indicated that a “sale” had taken place. The officer entered the tasting room and cited the server for serving an alcoholic beverage to a minor. The Yamhill County employee then moved the glass intended for the underaged decoy to the center of the bar so it could be photographed.

On Nov. 16, 2012, the OLCC issued a Notice of Proposed Suspension/Civil Penalty to Torii Mor Winery, LLC, Donald R. Olson, Managing Member.

Dr. Olson protested the notice and requested a hearing. He then hired Portland law firm Lane Powell PC to represent him, given that the penalty could be as severe as license suspension, which would be quite damaging to the business.

Seven months elapsed before the case came before a state administrative law judge. In the transcript of that hearing held on May 2, 2013, testimonies from involved parties were entered into evidence.

They included the Yamhill County employee, the minor decoy, the McMinnville police sergeant, the Torii Mor tasting room server and a Torii Mor worker who happened to be in the tasting room the entire time.

Perhaps the single issue that proved most pivotal was whether the minor ever took possession of the wine glass. The preponderance of testimonial evidence indicated the minor never touched the wine glass and no sale actually took place. Both findings were strong factors in the final ruling.

In the end, the administrative law judge recommended dismissal of the case without penalties. He noted that the testimonies of the five witnesses included many differing recollections, but one fact seemed clear: “The wine glasses were never moved from the server’s side of the bar.”

So, despite the disparities, the conclusion that any reasonable, thinking person would reach in regard to this case won the day. There was no intent to sell to a minor and the server questioned her age.

This is one of those times when “right” actually prevailed. The OLCC decoys were overeager to catch someone, anyone with their sting operation, and they blew it. However, had the decoy actually taken a sip before the server could prevent her, the scales of justice might well have shifted the other way. And that would have been wrong.

If a legitimate business were to be heavily fined or even forced to close, however briefly, the damage to its operations, not to mention its reputation, could prove quite severe.

In retrospect, or Monday morning quarterbacking as some call it, you can think of all sorts of things that might have been done differently to avoid the situation or even turn it around. But given what actually took place, this is yet another example of how the heavy hand of the law in relation to alcoholic beverage service can hang over the head of any licensee.

The proposed order from the judge calling for dismissal of the charges was finally received at the offices of Lane Powell attorneys on June 26, 2013. In other words, for eight and a half months, the owners and employees of Torii Mor Winery were left in legal limbo awaiting word as to the final decision. This is not to mention the outlay in legal fees.

The lesson to be learned here is simple and painfully clear. Wineries may offer an appealing atmosphere far removed in feel from other places serving alcoholic beverages, but the reality is they are still serving an alcoholic beverage. And before doing so, the server must make certain everyone being served is over 21 years of age.

If you have any doubts about someone’s age, verify first, serve after.

Karl Klooster is the associate editor of the Oregon Wine Press and writes a wine column for the News-Register in McMinnville. He became professionally involved in wine in 1972. 

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