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DRINK UP, KIDS, MOM AND DAD SAY WINE IS FINE

Malia Llerena happily sips chardonnay, zinfandel, Champagne and merlot. She knows red wine goes in the larger glasses and Champagne gets the long, skinny flutes.

And of course, she can identify a corkscrew. After all, she's already 5 years old.

"We're a very gourmet family," says her father, Patrick Llerena, who owns boutique California winery Iridesse Wines. "Educating her about wine is a part of life training. I am not advocating it for everyone, but it is part of our life."

As American foodie culture has evolved, parents like Llerena have adopted the southern European custom of offering young children small amounts of wine, hoping to remove the forbidden fruit appeal and teach an appreciation for fine dining.

Many parents and health officials are appalled by the practice, citing concerns about alcohol's effect on developing brains. And the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that giving children any amount of alcohol is a poor parenting choice, pointing out that the substance is a neurological toxin.

Proponents argue more harm comes from diets of processed foods and soda pop than from a few sips of wine.

And in some parts of the country, the law is on their side. While the legal drinking age is 21, exceptions in some states, such as Texas and Minnesota, allow parents to serve alcohol to their own children.

There is no evidence the practice is widespread, but it certainly exists, some food experts say.

"I wouldn't label it a trend, but I do hear about it at school," says Einav Gefen, a chef and instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. Gefen teaches cooking classes to parents, children and career chefs and has three children under the age of 6.

Among Gefen's parenting peers, she says giving small amounts of wine is not uncommon. "It is done in good taste and not on a regular basis - maybe with fancier meals," she adds.

Parents say they consider the practice educational.

"The proud parent in me would hope she would become knowledgeable about wine and be able to isolate flavors," says Llerena, who claims his daughter's first coherent sentence was "May I have more Champagne, please?"

"We also know enough about dangers inherent in drinking that we aren't going to give her a full glass of wine," he says. In fact, her wine is often watered-down. "It's not like were giving her shots of tequila!"

But alcohol is a neurological toxin, says Janet Williams, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Substance Abuse Committee; it can adversely affect a child's developing brain.

There also is the issue of how to say no to children who develop a taste for wine.

That was the case with 21-month-old Summer Sorensen of Chesterfield, Mass. Her parents used to give her a tiny amount wine with dinner. Until she started demanding it. Now Summer drinks water from her wine glass.

"We had a hard time explaining why she could drink all the milk she wanted but could only have a small amount of wine," says her mother, Tina Cornell.

But Llerena, the winery owner, isn't worried that serving Malia wine will adversely affect her growing brain. There are other things in childhood to worry about. "Malia chewing on her Chinese toy is going to be worse than that," he says.

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