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Most students at Boalt Hall School of Law learn by reading class materials and listening to lectures. But in Room 110, the lessons are sipped. Glasses of pinot noir are part of Boalt Hall’s first ever wine law class, where students are learning the legal complexities of the wine industry. Lessons include tasting wines to examine the significance and differences between wine appellations, which have become a thorny legal issue. If any student thought a class involving wine tasting would be a cakewalk, they were disappointed. “It’s substantive. It’s hard,” said Mano Sheik, a third-year Boalt Hall law student. “We’re not just drinking wine.” And that’s the point, according to the class’ instructor, Richard Mendelson. The Napa attorney, who has both worked in and concentrated his practice on the wine industry, said the law surrounding it is rife with issues involving the 21st Amendment, intellectual property, land use planning and international trade. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Mendelson said. “It’s my way of bringing together all the disparate parts of the practice. “People think of wine law as being narrow,” he added. “It’s not at all. It’s a heavily regulated industry.” After Prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s failed, many laws involving the sale and transportation of alcohol were left to the states, which led to legal battles due to differing regulations. Other laws regulate what names can or cannot be placed on a wine label due to legally recognized grape growing regions, or appellations. And the explosion of wineries in Northern California over the past two decades has led to many land use and environmental issues for grape growers. Wine is California’s No. 1 finished agricultural product, making the state the fourth-largest producer in the world, to the tune of $45.4 billion a year, according to the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy association. A partner at Napa’s Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, Mendelson taught wine law at two schools in France and a business-oriented course at UC-Davis, when he was invited to give a lecture at Boalt Hall last year. Mendelson remembers being shocked when close to 200 students showed up to his lecture. “One thing led to another and we thought about doing a class,” he said. “You know [UC-Berkeley], I really laud them for what they’ve done,” he added. “It’s a different kind of class. It’s sector-specific. Maybe the closest thing is oil and gas. As a result, it covers everything that touches on the industry.” At the time, Mendelson was representing Napa Valley Vintners, which comprises 181 wineries, before the California Supreme Court in an attempt to stop Bronco Wine Co. from selling wine with the name “Napa” in its title. State law requires wine with such labels to get at least three-quarters of its grapes from Napa Valley. Bronco, which owns the popular Charles Shaw stable of wines, gets its grapes from central California. The company has since lost its case on appeal and is considering filing a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to San Francisco attorney Steven Mayer of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, which is representing the company. Mendelson’s own history with wine began as a University of Oxford graduate student in the 1970s, where he became acquainted with the extensive wine cellar at his school, Magdalen College. Although he had been awarded admission to law school, Mendelson deferred it for a job in the wine shipping business in Burgundy, France. Mendelson eventually went to law school at Stanford University and spent several years as a civil litigator in San Francisco after graduating in 1982. In 1985 he co-founded an international trade consulting firm. With California’s wine industry starting to take off, Mendelson found himself returning to his old interest. At the time, he said, “we didn’t even know there was going to be a practice in wine law.” A year later, he joined his current firm and began specializing in wine law cases. Today, Mendelson lives Napa and owns his own vineyard and winery, Mendelson Vineyards, with his wife, Marilyn. As for the 45 students in Mendelson’s class, it’s not likely that all will end up practicing “wine law.” But some are considering it as a specialty. “I love wine,” said Carol Johns, a third-year student whose focus is on intellectual property law. “It sounds like a great second legal career.” Others, like second-year student Jessica Johnson, who is visiting from Tulane University in New Orleans after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, just find the legal issues fascinating. “It’s a class I couldn’t take at Tulane, so I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Johnson said. “It seems like an interesting area.” Mendelson said he’s continuing to learn from his students, too. Because Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, had a significant effect on how alcoholic beverages are regulated in the United States today, one of his students asked what would’ve happened to the industry if Prohibition never existed? “That’s a great question,” Mendelson said, before heading on a trip to New Zealand, where there is no history of alcohol prohibition. “I’m going to research it.”

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