Richard Mendelson has spent the last 30 years helping shape the appellations of Napa Valley, and has now written a book about the history, personalities, and protection of America’s most famous wine region, with the unique perspective of an insider.
“Appellation Napa Valley - Building and Protecting an American Treasure” (appellationnapavalley.com) is woven with a host of colorful characters, illustrations, maps and photographs. The book depicts the evolving New World system of appellations, one that promotes Napa’s emerging wine industry and at the same time builds and protects the valley’s agricultural and cultural wealth.
As one of the preeminent wine lawyers in America, and a leading expert on appellations, Mendelson has worked with legends in the wine industry including vintners, grape-growers and policy makers. His work devels deep inside the key issues -- legal, commercial, social, and environmental -- that the Napa Valley pioneers wrestled with as ambitious entrepreneurs and as equally ambitious custodians of the land, soil, and natural resources.
“This is about my home, my experience, a living history of modern Napa,” he said.
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, including the Stag’s Leap District. He also assisted the California legislature with the drafting of legislation to protect the world-famous Napa Valley geographical indication.
“The appellation designation affects land values, grape prices, wine prices, and the reputation of the particular vineyard or winery. Vintners and growers take the appellation proceedings seriously not only because of the importance of the outcome, but also because they know that the AVA names and boundaries, once established, may never change,” he states in the book.
Fifty years ago, the Napa Valley was a sleepy, inward-looking farm and ranching community, with two dozen wineries, very little art or music, and nowhere exciting to eat, Mendelson writes. With innovation, intelligence, and a unique spirit of cooperation, intrepid pioneers built the Napa Valley into a world-renowned center of top-quality grape-growing and wine-making, earning a place alongside Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Tuscany as one of the great wine-producing regions of the world.
What distinguishes Napa Valley appellations from Old World appellations, Mendelson says, is their innovations and sharing of knowledge. A spirit of cooperation is what accounted for the rapid rise of the Napa name.
“No one wanted to follow the controlled appellations of the Old World. We created the rules as we went. Innovation and sharing knowledge openly, those became our ways. All were well-intentioned in a nascent endeavor,” he said. “We were all learning as we went. We were allowed to experiment, and supported by the Agricultural Preserve we were able to preserve the land.”
Mendelson credits the creation of the Napa County Agricultural Preserve in 1968 with protecting the fertile land from being paved over for a burgeoning population. In writing the book, he wanted to find the intelligent, forward-thinking person who came up with the idea for it and what he found was not one person but a group of individuals.
“There were vintners, environmental advocates, and politicians with faith that protecting their main asset, the land, would stand them in good stead,” he said.
Mendelson discovered wine while attending Oxford College in England, and spent time in France. He earned his law degree from Stanford and moved to Napa. He heads the wine practice at Napa’s Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty law firm, and directs the Wine Law and Policy program at the University of California UC Berkeley School of Law. This is his fourth book.