The Wine Guy - Greg Walter

An update: the wake-up call and lessons learned…

About four months ago I shared a very personal experience with you all. It was an experience that has been a part of my daily life ever since and has changed my life in some very significant ways. Now that I’m nearly at the end of the final chapters, I think an update is in order.

For those of you who are new readers to this column, a little bit of background is probably necessary.

In March of this year I was arrested for DUI over in Napa. It was late in the evening and I was driving on Highway 29 like I’ve done thousands of times before. My BAC (blood alcohol concentration) was .10, .02 above the legal limit of .08. I was handcuffed and transported to the Napa County Jail in downtown Napa where I spent the night. I was released around 4 a.m. the next day and had to wait until after 8 a.m. to get my vehicle out of the towing company’s impound lot. It was an expensive bill, as it was a Saturday morning. Nearly $400 later, I was on my way home to Sonoma still in shock over what had happened the night before – I was still thinking that it had to be all a bad dream.

The shock wore off rather quickly as I started to realize what lay ahead.  Things had changed for me. The first change immediately apparent was the fact that I no longer had a driver’s license. It had been confiscated by the arresting CHP officer and replaced with a temporary license, good only for 30 days. In the next week, as I waded through an impossibly confusing maze of the things I needed to do, I realized very quickly that there were two very different tracks I needed to pursue. The first involved my driving privilege and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The second was the preparation for my arraignment to face the criminal charges.

In early May, both of those tracks came together. My first court appearance resulted in a continuance so that I could have the opportunity to retain and meet with an attorney. Meanwhile, the DMV-imposed license suspension also took effect. That suspension would last for a minimum of four months, the first 30 days of which were a “hard” suspension – no driving at all for any reason. For someone who has had the freedom of driving for all of his adult life, this was a big adjustment for me and for my family. Even the smallest thing became a huge inconvenience.

In mid-June I was able to apply for and obtain a restricted driver’s license that allowed me to drive to and from my work and also to and from the DMV-required DUI education classes I signed up for in Napa. I began attending the weekly two-hour classes in mid-July – my “first offender” program called for 15 weeks of classes. I am still attending these classes and will do so through October. I did retain the services of an attorney and went to court again to enter my “not guilty” plea and set my case for trial. Trial was set for Monday, August 27.

My trial was a truly surreal experience. Most of us have been in courtrooms before – I had been on numerous juries. But I had never sat in the defendant’s chair and let me tell you it is no fun at all. For the first time in this whole experience I really felt like a criminal. I was on the witness stand for what seemed like forever, counting cross examination and redirects – it was grueling. My attorney was awesome. The jury received instructions and began deliberating in the middle of the third day of the trial.

When you are charged with DUI, there are actually two separate offenses you are charged with: 1.) Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; and 2.) Driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or above. The jury had its verdict later that third day: “not guilty” on the count of driving under the influence and “guilty” on the count of driving with a blood alcohol level above .08 percent. The net result was for me was “guilty.”

The judge thanked and excused the jury and imposed the standard “first offender” sentence on me: two days in jail (with credit for my overnight stay), a substantial fine, five years of summary (unsupervised) probation during which I can’t drive with any measurable alcohol and am subject to testing at any time (penalties for a second DUI are far more severe). The conviction stays on my driving record for 10 years. Plus, now that there has been a conviction, I am not looking forward to what will happen to my insurance rates.

So what’s the lesson here? The obvious one is don’t go where I went – do not get a DUI. I think that the more subtle lesson here is about choices. I made the wrong choice on that night back in March and now I will live with the consequences of that choice. Fortunately, those consequences are mostly measured in dollars and inconvenience. For a staggering number of people each year, those consequences are far worse. We’re talking serious damage, horrific injuries to oneself and others, and even death.

Wakeup call received. Lesson learned.

I’m hoping that by reading this, you will say the same thing.

As always, you can email me with questions at

Greg Walter has been a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years. Greg has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter ( and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (

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