When Richard Mendelson first visited the Napa Valley in 1979, the wine industry was well into a glorious revival after the debacle of Prohibition. Ahead lay the arduous task of defining and preserving this tiny valley, which had been named the crown jewel of American wine regions.
Mendelson, a young lawyer in love with wine, plunged into the work. Now, nearly four decades later, he has stepped back to tell the story of a place in “Apellation Napa Valley, Building and Protecting an American Treasure.”
He recounts the story of Napa Valley as no one else ever has in a stunningly beautiful, intelligent and insightful book published this month by Val de Grace Books.
Mendelson grew up in Florida, studied at Harvard, and discovered wine in, of all places, England, when he spent two years at Oxford University.
England, he notes, provided “a wealth of opportunities” to learn for someone whose wine-drinking had been limited to “Mateus rosé and jug wines.” Beyond the cellars of Oxford he discovered tastings in London at Christie’s and Sotheby’s and courses offered by the London Wine and Spirit Trust.
When he finished at Oxford, he went to that most romantic wine region, Burgundy, where he found a job working for Paul Bouchard, of Bouchard Aîné & Fils, founded in 1750.
While he did find romance in the vineyards — his wife, Marilyn — he also plunged into the challenge of mastering the complex and often bewildering world of the European government wine regulations, in particular the appellation system used to define and organize wine regions.
This work would serve him well when he returned a year later to the U.S. to study law at Stanford.
“As the Paris Tasting [of 1976] revealed, a wine renaissance was underway in America, led by the Napa Valley,” he writes After three years in Europe, “I was ready to return to the United States to witness firsthand this New World transformation...I had no idea how deeply and how quickly I would be drawn into the crucial battles that would help define the future of the Napa Valley and, in a larger sense, the future of the American wine industry.”
Mendelson tells the Napa wine story from its beginning, in the mid-19th century when the first white pioneers began planting grapes. It moves through Prohibition to the revival of wine-making and its transformation to a global player on the wine stage. With realization that the little valley represented a national treasure, as fragile as it was beautiful, came the inspiration to protect it with the creation of the first- in-the-nation Agricultural Preserve.
Next came the work of defining the Napa Valley, the creation of the appellations.
With the American “wine revolution” of the 1970s, Mendelson said, “it was inevitable that we would adopt an a an appellation system and that Napa would lead the way,” Mendelson writes.
Much is often written of the vintners’ challenges in dealing with Mother Nature, but droughts and floods and earthquakes can often pale in comparison to the ordeals of dealing with government bureaucracies, in particular the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — people who don’t taste wine, Mendelson notes but nonetheless have jurisdiction over considerable elements of the wine industry, including the approval of appellations.
And then there are the people.
“Napa Valley has one been a melting pot of experienced winemakers, longtime farmers, second-career professionals, and purebred capitalists, so it is not surprising that there were numerous competing visions for what Napa Valley stands for and how it should evolve,” writes the diplomatic Mendelson. “The constant and sometimes illogical shifts [were] enlivened by an array of colorful characters.”
With the precision and clarity of a lawyer, but not, thank goodness, with the legal jargon, Mendelson weaves all of these elements together. Interspersed with the intricacies of creation appellations from the extraordinarily varied geography of one little valley are tales of outwitting the wily Fred Franzi, (“Sour Grapes”) and mediating disputes between the cool academic Warren Winiarski and the free-spirited Carl Doumani (“the Hatfields and the McCoys of Napa Valley”) and their dispute over Stags — “Stag’s, Stags’ and Stags” — Leap name rights.
The result is a masterful and compelling account of the real story behind a little valley that today attracts visitors from around the world today and evokes alluring images of glamour and luxurious lifestyles.
And there’s more: Mendelson’s book is beautiful, a large-format work, elegantly designed by Dorothy Carico Smith, and rich with works of art that include detailed color maps by cartographer Sarah MacDonald, original drawings by Emily Bonnes, and photography by Robert Bruno, and Kurt-Inge Eklund.
“It’s a book about locals and by locals,” Mendelson said, introducing his supporting cast at a book launch at Stags Leap Wine Cellars that was attended by legends of the valley, such as Warren Winiarski.
“We’re all friends and admirers,” said Linda Reif, director of the Napa Valley Vintners. “Through all the ups and downs, Richard has stood up for what’s right and what’s possible.”
Mendelson’s publisher, Paul Chutkow, who called Mendelson the Napa Valley’s consigliere, said, “I don’t think any one else could have written this book.”
Mendelson, who continues to practice law, and directs the Wine Law and Policy Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, acknowledged that the challenges continue for Napa Valley: water, climate change, traffic and protecting the Napa name from creative foreign winemakers. “But Napa Valley is a true national treasure and if we accept it as such, then I think the future for Napa Valley is bright.”