Editor's note: Lauren Glendenning works two shifts per week as a bartender at La Bottega. She was not present on the day La Bottega received its violation.
VAIL - State liquor enforcement teams have visited more than a dozen bars and restaurants in the town of Vail in two undercover operations since December, citing many establishments for serving alcohol to minors.
The Colorado Department of Revenue's liquor enforcement hit nine restaurants in Vail Feb. 15 alone - and five of those nine failed the test.
Business owners call them "sting operations," and those caught failing all accept responsibility, but they also have serious complaints about the way the state carries out these operations.
The Department of Revenue's Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement Division conducts compliance checks on businesses regularly, said Ro Silva, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue.
"They send underage kids in to see if they can purchase liquor," Silva said. "If they do, then the business is notified of the violation."
That notification comes quickly, too. Marc Keleske, owner of Chicago Pizza in West Lionshead, said it all went down at his business in about three minutes.
Chicago Pizza doesn't have a bar where people sit and drink. Keleske said his restaurant is a popular family hangout, selling the occasional bottle of beer or glass of wine. On Friday, Feb. 15, there were about six to eight people at the counter when a young girl walked in and got in line. She ordered a beer, and Keleske's wife, Vicky, told her to grab what she needed out of the self-serve cooler.
"She opens it herself, sits down, doesn't pay for it," Marc Keleske said. "Within three minutes, the enforcement people come storming in with a big binder full of paperwork. The guy was smirking, saying, 'You got busted.'"
With more than 20 years in business, Keleske said it's the first time this has happened.
At Vendetta's, a popular Italian restaurant and bar in Vail Village, owner John "Popeye" Brennen said the last time anything happened relating to serving someone underage was back in 1991, and that involved someone using a fake ID. But last December, the state enforcement sent a young woman into Vendetta's, and Brennen called the operation "totally deceptive."
"They purposely find somebody that's underage that looks 30 or older," Brennen said. "If we served them, then we did something wrong, but they make it pretty difficult."
Brennen said a girl who looked like she was in her 30s came in and started mingling with some ski patrollers who were at the bar after their shifts. She blended right in with the patrollers, who are regular customers, and then ordered a glass of red wine. Brennen said the bartender assumed the ski patrollers knew her.
"They totally drum up a way to be deceptive," Brennen said, adding that he doesn't dispute his restaurant's responsibility to check identification for alcohol purchases.
Brennen said the sting operations are detrimental to the valley.
La Bottega owner Steve Virion agrees. His restaurant received its first-ever violation Feb. 15, and while Virion said the fact remains that his bartender served someone he shouldn't have, the enforcement operation felt like a trap.
A woman came into the bar and started asking a lot of questions about the wine list, Virion said.
"It's not normal that a 19-year-old girl knows all this wine terminology - obviously they've been coached," Virion said.
In each case, the state works out a stipulation agreement with the business, Silva said. The liquor licensee has a choice between either a liquor license suspension or a fine for a first offense, she said. The fine is 20 percent of the average daily sales for the month in which the violation occurs.
The person who served the minor - the bartender or server, for example - receives a class 1 misdemeanor criminal summons.
Tammy Nagel, administrative assistant to both the Vail town manager and Vail town assistant manager, as well as the town's liquor board secretary, said there's often a perception that these enforcement operations are conducted by the town.
"We do not schedule these, we do not ask when (the state) comes, we do not know when they come," Nagel said. "They do it quite a bit. I can almost guarantee since they came (Feb. 15), they're coming again this week because there were fails, and now with a big event (the Burton U.S. Open) coming that draws in younger crowds."
There's no doubt the restaurants that have already been hit, whether they passed or failed, are more aware and cautious now, even if some of the owners are frustrated with the way these operations went down.
Virion and Keleske are talking to attorneys about their respective situations and are considering appealing their violations.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com.