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No, you can't chug it

At Maine college, wine tastings replace the keg

Josh Kahn swirls the ruby-red wine in his wineglass, puts it up to his nose and breathes in deeply. He watches how the 2002 Fairview shiraz from South Africa clings to the inside of the glass, then takes a sip.

This is not a tasting at a wine shop. This is Colby College, a private liberal arts school where students 21 and older get together on Friday nights in a school cafeteria to learn about and drink beer and wine.

The get-togethers are intended to teach students how to imbibe well and in moderation. The emphasis is on savoring, not swilling.

Seated next to Kahn on a recent night was fellow student Maureen Sherry of Massachusetts, who was drinking a sauvignon blanc. The gatherings have taught her to not be intimidated by wine.

“I always thought I hated wine. But now I realize that what I hated were the $3 bottles of wine I bought at the grocery store,” she said.

The drinks-with-supper soirees on the 1,800-student campus have met with disapproval from some experts at a time when colleges around the country are trying to stop problem drinking among students.

'Ironic'?The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says drinking by college students contributes to about 1,400 student deaths each year, along with 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault.

At Colby, Waterville police this month issued summonses to 14 students for underage possession of alcohol or displaying a fake ID. And three students were taken to a hospital after drinking too much.

Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, said colleges should not be in the business of providing alcohol to students, who already have plenty of drinking opportunities at fraternities, bars and parties.

“This free flow of alcohol is one of the problems around binge drinking,” Wechsler said. “It’s ironic that giving more alcohol should solve the problem.”

Colby officials say the program is just one component of the college’s alcohol education efforts. “There are some who say the college should take a just-say-no approach, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” said Janice Kassman, dean of students.

It was the notion that college life seemed to include just two types of alcohol consumption — too much or none at all — that prompted Catherine Welch, the student government president, to suggest the get-togethers. College administrators gave the OK.

In a room off a dining hall, an average of 30 to 50 students come and go from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on select Fridays. It is a tasteful affair, with white tablecloths and $1 drinks served by a bartender in a tuxedo shirt and black pants.

Learning the detailsThe students can learn about the beer and wines by reading handouts or talking to wine distributors and brewery owners who may show up. Featured wines have come from Argentina, Chile, California, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, Sicily and South Africa. Beers have included ales, porters, stouts and Belgian-style varieties from breweries in Maine, Vermont, New York and California.

On a recent night, most of the students came simply to enjoy a drink with friends over dinner. Some said they now feel more informed.

Katie Lucas, a junior from Milwaukee, said knowing a chardonnay from a pinot grigio from a sauvignon blanc will help at business dinners for her summer job at an investment firm. “It’s good to know your preferences so you can sound confident,” she said.

Cornell University has a for-credit course on wine, and the University of California-Davis has a department that focuses on vineyards and winemaking. But the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators said it was not aware of any other programs like Colby’s.

Ralph Hingsen, a Boston University professor who works at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said he does not know of any scientific research on the effect such undertakings might have on students’ drinking habits.

Kahn, a senior from St. Louis, said it is no big deal having a drink with dinner. He drank wine with meals with the family he lived with last year while studying in Chile, where it was viewed as a complement to a meal, not as a way to get drunk.

As for Colby’s drinks-with-supper experiment, “it was nice to come back and have an option,” he said.