Golden State, Virginia urge winery visitors to drink responsibly
By Sally Voth
As Virginia government officials more actively promote the commonwealth's wineries, a California transportation safety official cautions there is a correlation between wine regions and fatal alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.
Earlier this year, the governor's office announced a sign program that would promote various wine regions around the commonwealth, which ranks fifth in the U.S. in the production of wine grapes.
California, of course, is one of the most well-known states when it comes to vineyards.
According to wineinstitute.org, in 2010, 44 percent of America's bonded wineries were in the Golden State. Of the 7,626 wineries, 3,364 were in California.
Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety which administers grants to make that state's roadways safer, offered data showing a link between California's wine region and more people driving under the influence.
"Napa County, which is the most famous wine region and probably has more wineries and wine tasting rooms than many of the other areas, is ranked No. 9 out of 58 counties [in California] as far as alcohol-involved victims killed and injured," Cochran said.
That ranking is based on daily vehicle miles traveled, he said.
"Certainly where there are areas with a lot of tasting rooms, especially those that don't charge for tasting ... we will have people that don't have a designated sober driver, going from place to place to place. It only takes three, four, five of those visits to have enough tastings to make somebody pretty drunk," Cochran said.
The city of Napa has an even higher percentage of people killed or injured in DUI-related crashes than the county does, according to statistics provided by Cochran. Out of 103 like-sized cities, Napa was No. 7 when it came to population, and No. 10 when miles traveled were factored in, he said.
Amador County, a rural wine-growing area in the Sierra Nevada mountains, has a high number of alcohol-related vehicle deaths and injuries, according to Cochran.
It had the third-highest ranking out of 58 counties based on miles traveled, and was No. 4 when it came to population, he said. In contrast to Napa County, which has well-established multi-lane roads running along each side of the valley, Amador County has many rural, one-lane roads, according to Cochran.
Earlier this week, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore unveiled the Shenandoah Valley American Viticultural Area's first wine region highway sign. When Gov. Bob McDonnell announced the program last spring, he noted in a news release that the signs are a way of attracting additional tourists to Virginia's more than 200 wineries.
Haymore said in an interview last week that the signs were paid for by the Federal Transportation Enhancement Program and the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
The funding goes to the Virginia Department of Transportation to make and erect the signs, said spokeswoman Tamara Rollison. She said the cost of that is $20,000.
"This is not our program," Rollison said. "We're part of state government, and our resources were needed to help erect the signs because the signs are being erected in our right-of-way along the roadways that we manage."
According to Cochran, the state of California doesn't fund signs that promote the wineries. It's up to the winery owners.
Hayward noted that potentially drunk drivers leaving the vineyards is "always a concern."
"Nobody's condoning drinking and driving," he said. "The owners do an outstanding job of monitoring the consumption of alcohol, and certainly will not serve someone who appears to be intoxicated. We very rarely hear of situations where drivers have been arrested for driving impaired [after having] left the wineries."
At a recent event, Haymore said there were just as many designated drivers as wine sippers present.
"I think there's a recognition if you're not aware of driving under the influence these days, you're not a smart driver, you're not a smart consumer, you're not a smart anything," he said.
The secretary said the wineries have even spun off new businesses - bus, limo and van services that transport tourists to them. And, he said, many of the vineyards are selling locally grown products to pair with the wine.
"We do not see any downside to the continued growth and promotion of the wine industry and Virginia wine tourism," Haymore said.
In California, limos and bus tours of wineries are common, but, Cochran said, "We've found with that keeping all those people off the roads is great, but what happens when they are delivered back to their cars?"
"That can be a problem for wherever your car is, so it may not even show up [in the DUI statistics] in the wine-growing region," Cochran said. "It may show up a county away."
And, some California wineries don't allow the chauffeured tasters in "because the people who pour off of these tend to be just sloshed and create a problem ... just being a lousy drunk," he said.
In Virginia, wineries are required by law to limit consumption if people appear to be drinking too much, said Shenandoah Wine Growers Association President Randy Phillips, who is also chairman of the Virginia Wine Distribution Co.
"Most of us, I would say all of us, are very sensitive to wine consumption and public safety," said Phillips, who is owner and winemaker at Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mt. Jackson.
He, too, noted new transportation companies springing up to serve wine tourists.
While there are dump buckets in tasting rooms for people to spit out their samples, they're rarely used - at least by lay people, according to Phillips.
"A lot of the judges, especially if they're evaluating a lot of wines, won't consume them," he said.
The California Office of Highway Safety has funded TV commercials focusing on wine tasting safety.
"It may only be a sip at a time, but you do those 1-ounce sips at X number of places, you've just had four glasses of wine in two hours," Cochran said.
He said his office has started to put table toppers at vineyards with tips about using a designated driver.
"The wineries themselves, while they're promoting their brands, certainly they don't want to have the responsibility, No. 1, of serving somebody who's drunk and gets in a wreck because they could be held liable and, No. 2, they don't [want] the publicity of a fatal DUI crash down the road.
"By and large, they've been pretty receptive to us suggesting that they have these things in their wineries and they're signing up for that. They want people to - in the words of the alcohol industry - 'drink responsibly.'
"Our whole reason for being is to promote traffic safety and in this case, what we're always saying is plan ahead and designate a sober driver ... That doesn't mean the least-drunk driver, but an actual sober driver," Cochran said.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org