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Princeton seniors OD on 'highly rated' Cabs; DA holds media responsible

Wed April 1 2009 2:44:00 ET

Authorities in Princeton, New Jersey, are dipping their toes in uncharted legal waters after yesterday hinting that individuals at Wine Spectator magazine may face questioning about an unusual drinking incident at a Princeton University eating club.

With nearly three-quarters of the Ivy League school’s upperclassmen taking their meals at eating clubs, the stately club mansions along Prospect Avenue form the veritable backbone of the campus social scene. The incident in question occurred last Saturday evening, at the long-established Cap & Gown Club, which was hosting its first-ever “All 94 Points & Above Wine Tasting.”

In organizing the affair, the Cap & Gown beverage chair, Princeton senior Chip Beauchamp, secured 25 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines that had received ratings of 94 points or higher from critic James Laube. He also went to great lengths to recreate an actual Wine Spectator tasting session, and he hired campus security guards to ensure that every guest was of legal drinking age.

“I don’t know what went wrong,” Beauchamp later told Princeton police. “We had five flights of five wines lined up blind, plus spit cups, water and not a crumb of food—just like they do it at the Spectator. This was supposed to be our senior members’ grand introduction to the upper echelon of red wine…. But something went horribly wrong, and we never even got to the flight with Caymus and Araujo!”

Police reports filed early Sunday morning painted an eerie picture: a solid two dozen well-dressed young men and women passed out “old school,” according to the officers who arrived at the scene. “Some were sleeping like babies,” wrote Officer James Ryan, “but most were just snoring up a storm.” No arrests were made, as the police were able to confirm the identities and ages of all participants in the tasting. They also notated that guests appeared to have been spitting, rather than swallowing, the wines. Samples of the wines were also sent to the Princeton medical examiner, who found no signs of tampering or foreign substances.

The police report also indicated that at around 10:00 p.m., a male (age 21) was seen outside the Cap & Gown dining hall, vomiting into some shrubbery. The student in question is alleged to have wretched immediatley after being told that a wine he just tasted had actually scored only 79 points (a statement that turned out to be false).

When Princeton District Attorney Carson Butler, who also happens to be one of Princeton’s leading oenophiles, received the police report Monday morning, most officials expected him to close the file and congratulate the eating club for ensuring that the tasting was hosted responsibly. Instead, however, Butler unfurled a spreadsheet documenting that the range of 25 California Cabernets chosen for tasting not only had impressively high ratings, they also had extraordinarily high alcohol-by-volume levels.

So instead of chalking the entire incident up to undergraduate foolishness, the district attorney turned his crosshairs on the root of the apparent problem: the critic and publication behind the incredibly potent wines. Here is the statement released Monday afternoon by the district attorney’s office:

As a subscriber to Wine Spectator for the past 15 years, I have become intimately aware that critics at the magazine have developed a pattern of awarding their highest ratings to wines that have significantly higher alcohol by volume. We are talking an average of 14.78% across the 25 wines being sampled at the Cap & Gown Club on Saturday evening. Even with spitting, a tasting of such big red wines is apt to induce intoxication; based on the scene our Princeton police arrived to find, this was exactly what transpired.
No doubt this incident falls into the category “Stupid, Anticlimactic College Drinking Stories” rather than “Underage Drinking Tragedies,” but this office is committed to the well-being of Princeton residents. We see this as a quality-of-life issue. The students, by all accounts, were aiming to emulate the so-called professional critics employed by Wine Spectator.
It is our reasoned view that by not publishing the alcohol-by-volume levels for each wine they review, the Spectator editors are withholding information that is critical to the wine decision-making process of the students at the Cap & Gown event. We are hereby demanding that Wine Spectator begin including legal alcohol-by-volume levels—as printed on every wine label—in their wine reviews. Should they fail to comply, we will pursue charges of general dereliction.
It is our hope that provided with this data, Princeton residents will be able to see the blatant correlation between these bloated red-wine bombs and ratings of 94 points or higher. This de facto declaration that such wines are the pinnacle of quality has led to a vicious cycle via which marketing types—chasing higher and higher scores—push winemakers to start with riper and riper fruit, which leads to more sugar in the grapes, and ultimately higher alcohol in the wine.
It is time to cut this vicious cycle off, before Wine Spectator’s reckless behavior further erodes the pleasure inherent in the wine experience.

District Attorney Butler then invited a reporter from the Bergen Record to try sampling and spitting 25 full-throttle Cabernets without food. The reporter proceeded through three flights before requesting time for a power nap.

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