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," says Llerena, of Healdsburg, Calif. 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.




"You could be affecting a child's intelligence and ability to function in the world," she warns. It isn't clear whether young children accustomed to drinking wine will develop a dangerous habit as a teen or adult, she says.




"People can become connoisseurs of alcohol as adults. It's not something that you get better at because you started at — or 13," she says,




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.




David Hanson, a sociology professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol for more than 30 years, says giving children small amounts of wine is common elsewhere in the world.




But he says the cultural taboo in the U.S. prompts otherwise proud gourmet parents to keep quiet.




"I find there are a lot of people who think it's a good idea (serving children wine) but don't want to say so publicly," he says. "There are people who are reluctant to admit it."




In countries where wine plays a strong cultural role, it is natural for children to become familiar with it at young ages.




"In the Mediterranean, especially in Greece, many people make their own wine and children partake in the process, learning the agricultural side of it in a village setting," says Athens-based Greek food writer Diane Kochilas.




"Offering a sip of something that is sanctioned culturally, religiously and even scientifically &

a glass or two of red wine is good for us &

in the Mediterranean is hardly akin to setting a child on the path to alcoholism," she says.




Fourteen-year-old Trey Wark, of Glen Ellen, Calif., was 4 or 5 when his father gave him his first sips of sweet wine.




"We taught him how to swirl the glass, bring it to his nose and then take a sip. And we always ask what it tastes like," says his father Tom Wark, who wants his children to revere good food and wine, and think about what they are ingesting."




"In addition, hopefully when they turn 16 and 17 and are out at night with buddies, they won't be so taken by the idea that they need to drink," says Wark, who writes a wine blog and runs a public relations firm specializing in the wine industry.




For the moment, however, Trey's 12-year-old sister, Hayley, has rejected her father's plan. Wark says she won't taste wine anymore and "has bought into our culture's message that there is nothing positive about alcohol."




Stanton Peele, psychologist and author of "Addiction Proof Your Child," thinks the U.S. sends the wrong message by forbidding alcohol until 21. He sees no problem with serving young children small amounts of wine with a meal.




"Those parents are importing a whole different cultural experience," he says. "And while it may seem alien to many Americans, it is actually quite a positive experience."




"Let's try to teach kids to drink in a normal setting," he says.