It’s the premier wine growing region in the United States. Every year, millions flock to Napa and Sonoma counties, but as investigative reporter Elyce Kirchner and the Investigative Unit discovered, the area is dealing with a high rate of drivers getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.
Bob Jones’ 77-year-old mother Beverly was killed by a drunk driver in Sonoma.
“Last thing in the world I expected,” Jones said.
Lyndsay Murray-Mazany was wine tasting in Geyserville when she slammed into Beverly’s car, killing her and her friend, Nancy “Sue” McBride. Lindsay was supposed to be the designated driver.
“It is so finite when somebody dies, I mean you don’t get them back,” said Jones.
Murray-Mazany was convicted of two counts of felony DUI and two counts of vehicular manslaughter.
According to the Department of Motor Vehicle’s 2012 California DUI Management Information System report, Napa and Sonoma counties posted the highest rate of driving under the influence arrests in the Bay Area in 2010.
In Napa County, there were 1.2 arrests per one hundred licensed drivers, while Sonoma County averaged one arrest per one hundred licensed drivers. Both counties are above the Bay Area average of 0.7 arrests per one hundred licensed drivers and California’s average of .08.per one hundred licensed drivers.
“I think a lot of that is our aggressiveness in dealing with drunk drivers,” Sergeant Paul Paniagua from the Napa Police Department told NBC Bay Area.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, we rode along with Sgt. Paul Paniagua to discuss the department’s efforts to combat drunk driving. Within twenty minutes of starting the interview, he received a call for a possible DUI off of Highway 29 in Napa.
Authorities administered a breathalyzer test and said the breath analyzer reading was at a .14 blood alcohol level, which is nearly twice the legal limit in California.
Other passengers in the vehicle told NBC Bay Area that they visited five wineries before the driver was pulled over. V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena was the last stop the group visited.
“I think there is concern on the part of all wineries, in particularly ours, that people drink responsibly,” said Robert O’Malley, manager of V. Sattui Winery.
His winery is one of dozens of local wineries where staff members voluntarily complete the Responsible Beverage Service training program.
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control offers RBS training at a state approved site. The training is designed to teach alcohol servers techniques that will help them recognize when a customer has had too much to drink. O’Malley believes the training is effective.
In fact, the majority of those arrested for DUI in wine country are not tourists visiting wineries.
According to the Napa Police Department, 82 percent of those who were arrested for DUI over the past three years were Napa County residents. In Sonoma County, 80 percent of those arrested in Sonoma County are also local residents, according to the California Highway Patrol.
“The wineries want to blame it on the locals and the locals want to blame it on the wineries,” said Megan Dominici. Dominici is the chair of a local alcohol prevention organization called the Clear Coalition.
She believes the problem of drinking and driving is infused in the culture of wine country. Clear found that around a third of those busted for DUI’s had their last drink at a licensed business such as a bar or winery.
“All of us are at risk if there are people out there drinking and driving,” Dominici said.
Even though the DUI arrest rates are high in the wine county, more people are killed or injured in drunk driving accidents in other Bay Area counties. According to the California Office of Traffic Safety, 114 people were injured or killed in an alcohol related accident in Napa County in 2010. OTS found that there were 332 victims of drunk driving accidents in Sonoma County. Both Napa and Sonoma rank in the bottom half of Bay Area counties when compared to larger counties such as Alameda (823 injured or killed) or Santa Clara (938 injured or killed).
DUI defense attorney Paul Burglin gets at least two new DUI cases a week from Sonoma or Napa.
He says the reason for the high DUI rate is not because more people are drinking and driving, and argues it’s because local law enforcement agencies are tougher on drunk drivers.
“To punish them more harshly when you’re not doing more on the side of discouraging drinking and driving to me, that is hypocrisy,” Burglin said.
According to DMV, in Napa and Sonoma counties, more than 95 percent of first time offenders will spend time behind bars. That’s 21 percent above the state average of 74 percent. In nearby Marin County, 18 percent of first time offender will serve jail time. However, most other Bay Area counties require jail time for more than 90 percent of first time offenders.
“They have a choice themselves to be responsible and to not over indulge and to have a designated driver, to get a cab, to get a limo,” said Paniagua.
However that doesn’t provide comfort for Bob Jones, whose 77-year-old mother was killed by a drunk driver in Sonoma County. “It is so finite when somebody dies I mean you don’t get them back”, he said.
To help prevent drinking behind the wheel, the Clear Coalition wants to make ABC’s Responsible Beverage Service training mandatory.
The average cost for a first time DUI offense in wine country is more than two thousand dollars. Part of that money goes towards funding alcohol abuse prevention programs.