Book Review: From Demon to Darling

Richard Mendelson, From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America. University of California Press, 2009.

There are many ways to tell the story of wine in America. Wine is a people story (Gallo and Mondavi, Parker and Vaynerchuck), a story of nature and terroir and even, at times, a tale of popular culture as indicated by Sideways, Bottle Shock and the rise of celebrity winemakers. Readers of this blog will know that I think wine is very much an economics story, too.

Richard Mendelson believes that wine is also a legal story and I think he makes a good case. Especially in America, I don’t think you can understand wine without an appreciation of its legal history. This is therefore a very timely and useful volume.

Wine, Bad Wine, and More of It

Changing social attitudes toward alcohol in general and wine in particular obvious affects the legal environment in which wine is made, sold and consumed. The law story is therefore also a social and political story with many unexpected twists and turns. I found many useful nuggets of history as I followed Mendelson’s historical narrative.

The discussion of wine during Prohibition is particularly memorable. Did you know that wine consumption in the United States increased during Prohibition? Commercial wine sales were restricted, of course, limited to a few categories such as medical wine and wine for use in religious ceremonies.  But households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of “bathtub” wine each year for their own use, a significant loophole.

Vast quantities of poor quality homemade wine more than replaced the  better quality but now illegal commercial products. Winegrowers shifted from quality grapes to varieties that could best survive the long train ride to market. Supply and demand both deteriorated in terms of quality, but quantity actually improved.

Please, Sir. May I have More?

I guess I knew the basics of federal wine regulation and the AVA geographic designation system before I read this book, but I found the legal history very revealing. Now I understand why the early AVAs were so crude in terms of defining terroir — they were based, more or less, on the borders of local telephone services and aligned very poorly with winegrowing realities. No wonder there has been continuing pressure to expand, refine and redefine AVAs ever since.

I wish that Mendelson had gone into greater detail regarding today‘s legal wine sale environment, the resulting patterns of wine regimes in the various states and the three-tier system that services them. His basic outline of the current situation is fine, but I’d appreciate more details and state-by-state breakdowns. But maybe that’s beyond the scope of this book.

One test of a good wine is that you want more of it. Who knew that a book on wine law would leave me begging for more? Highly recommended!

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NB: More and more books are being published without full reference “backmatter” to save printing costs, a practice that makes them less useful as research tools even if it does make them more accessible to cash-strapped readers. Joe Stiglitz’s new book on the economic crisis, Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, for example, has endnotes aplenty, but no bibliography and no index.

No index! Sure hope you caught all the important points the first time through because it will be hard to track them down again.

In this light, I want to commend the University of California Press for keeping up scholarly standards. This book has 190 pages of text followed by 68 pages of notes, ten pages of bibliography and a usefully detailed index.

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