by Martin Meeker
Oral History Center Interviewer (retired)
“When we drink a glass of wine, we may enjoy its aromas, consider where it is from, and ideally, care about how it was made and who created it. We might think about the winemaker, along with the vineyard and winery team, and perhaps the brand owner. We most likely don’t consider the people beyond that circle who also play a role in a wine’s existence, ensuring its authenticity, making it more meaningful for consumers, and meanwhile, protecting some of the most sacred places to grow grapes and create wine. For those who are reading this, you are about to meet such a person, one of the most exceptional people in the wine world, and someone who has more passions and layers than the most complex glass of wine you have ever enjoyed,” Linda Reiff, President and CEO of Napa Valley Vintners.
Richard Mendelson is in fact the person about whom Linda Reiff writes, and the Oral History Center is pleased to release this major life history interview with the man. Mendelson is an attorney who has played a pivotal role in creating the field of wine law through his legal practice, historical research and writing, and international leadership on the issue over the past four decades. Moreover, he is a Lecturer in Wine Law at UC Berkeley, School of Law, where he directs the Program on Wine Law and Policy. He also lectures on a variety of vineyard and wine law topics at UC Davis Graduate School of Management and has taught at the University of Aix-Marseille and the University of Bordeaux.
A graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and Stanford Law School, Mendelson has handled legal matters involving almost every aspect of the wine business, including liquor licensing, environmental challenges to vineyard development, grape purchase agreements, winery use permits, representation of winery clients before the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, state and federal label approvals, distributor appointments and terminations, and import-export contracts. Mendelson has a special expertise in geographical indications and has been responsible for obtaining recognition for some of the most well-known American Viticultural Areas. He assisted the California legislature with the drafting of legislation to protect the world-famous Napa Valley geographical indication. Subsequently, he successfully defended that law on behalf of the Napa Valley Vintners in the case of Bronco v. Jolly, which he argued before the California Supreme Court. Of his legal work, famed vintner Bill Harlan writes, “His legal mind, business judgment, negotiating skills, discipline, and commitment to his clients are first rate. With great integrity and knowledge and an abiding commitment to be fair and clear, he is able to gain the respect of all parties in practically any setting.”
This oral history is a globe-trotting one, with meaningful stops in England, France, India, and China, but the focus here, as with Mendelson’s work, is California’s Napa Valley. According to Harlan, Mendelson serves “as Napa Valley’s unofficial ambassador, he truly upholds our agricultural heritage and promotes our special place in the world of wine.” Linda Reiff, head of the Napa Valley Vintners, writes, “He helped make Napa Valley one of the most iconic wine regions in the world by mastering groundbreaking initiatives and complex legal challenges. He authors, refines and defends regulations to protect consumers and to ensure a more sustainable wine industry. He is a thinker and a problem solver, a deal maker, a broker.” This oral history goes a long way to explain how over the course of a few short decades “Napa Valley” came to signify and to exemplify environmental stewardship, preservation of agricultural resources, American ingenuity and achievement internationally, and, of course, quality wine.
In this interview, moreover, Mendelson discusses his family’s heritage and his own upbringing in Jacksonville, Florida; his early employment on Capitol Hill; and his attendance at Harvard University, Stanford University, and Oxford University, where he first became enamored with wine in Magdalen College’s wine cellar. Mendelson goes on to discuss his career in wine and wine law, beginning with Bouchard Aîné in Burgundy, France, and continuing in America with the establishment of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Other topics discussed in the interview include the research and writing of his books (From Demon to Darling, Law in America: Law and Policy, Spirit in Metal, and Appellation Napa Valley: Building and Protecting an American Treasure), California cannabis law, yoga, tai chi, Hinduism, artistic sculpture and metalwork, and wine law instruction.
Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria.
About the Oral History Center
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library preserves voices of people from all walks of life, with varying political perspectives, national origins, and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.