For local lawyers in love with the grape, options range from helping vintners finance land deals to producing wine of their own
Published in 2016 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine
on July 8, 2016
Updated on August 4, 2016
In 1984, Bob Arns and his wife, Anne, drove from Danville to Napa to drop off their kids with the grandparents for date night. By this time, Arns was earning enough as a plaintiff’s lawyer to eat at nice restaurants, but he knew little about wine. “I grew up in Oregon, hunting and fishing,” he says. “My father never graduated from college. My mom, the same. Beer was the beverage of choice.”
Bob and Anne ended up at the landmark Tra Vigne in St. Helena, where by chance they ordered a bottle of 1982 Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon. “Everything changed that night,” he says. Whatever the future held, the couple knew it would have to include good wine.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Arns can now talk long into the night about Bordeaux varietals, sustainable organic farming and early bud breaks. He’s the proud owner of a 20-acre vineyard in Coombsville, Napa, including a home reminiscent of a French estate, four guesthouses, a stone barn and an auto shop—all of it affectionately called Tournesol, which means “sunflower” in French. In 2012, his cabernet sauvignon was rated one of the three best in Napa out of 180 by wine blogger Alder Yarrow.
Monday through Thursday, Anne and her staff run the wine business, while Bob is in San Francisco, surrounded by towering buildings, working on class actions, injury and wrongful-death cases at The Arns Law Firm. Fridays he works from home, but every weekend he’s in the vineyard in jeans and boots. “It’s a place of serenity,” he says. “The best part is that my son and daughter and their families live 15 minutes away.”
Arns is one of many local lawyers who have fallen in love with wine. Most simply drink it, of course; others make it part of their practice. Vineyards and wineries need representation for just about everything, including finding and financing real estate, handling mergers and acquisitions, navigating the maze of regulations and rules, and creating wills and trusts.
Jim Seff has been practicing wine law for more than 40 years, including spending 13 years as a lawyer for Wine Institute, the California wine industry’s trade association.
“It’s one of the most regulated commodities,” says Seff, who founded the wine, beer and spirits law practice at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. There are state and federal laws, for instance, that prohibit wineries from exerting “undue influence over retailers.” Though the laws were established some 70 years ago when Prohibition ended, wineries still run into trouble. In 2014, one tweeted, “Two days till @SaveMart Grape Escape in Downtown #Sacramento!” The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control accused the winery of violating the law, viewing the tweet as free advertising for a retailer from a supplier. The fallout led to the cancellation in 2015 of the Grape Escape, Sacramento’s popular food-and-wine event, because so many wineries declined to participate.
To make things even more complicated, the federal and state laws differ.
“If you have a client who’s selling wine in every state, then you’ve got 51 jurisdictions to deal with,” Seff says. “The laws are similar, but never identical, and then you get into further complexity in the way that each regulatory authority is interpreting its own law.”
Why the big fuss over alcohol? “It stems from our history,” says Seff. “Alcohol is only one of two items of commerce specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution—the 18th and 21st Amendments. We are dealing with the residual remains of Prohibition and the large numbers of people who believed that alcohol was the handmaiden of the devil.”
The complexities mean plenty of work for lawyers. “When I get up in the morning,” says Seff, “I never know what will be waiting for me at the office. It keeps me very engaged.”
Across all practice areas, wine lawyers say dealing with their clients is one of the most pleasurable parts of the job. “My clients who are owners of successful wineries have closely held family businesses,” says Jill S. Dodd, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who focuses on estate planning and nonprofit organizations. “Winery owners are passionate about their business and care deeply about their product. Some care so deeply, in fact, they cut into their profit margins to produce the perfect bottle of wine.”
When a family’s main asset is liquid—but not in the financial sense—a lot of issues come up. Should the business be passed to the next generation or should it be run by a professional management team? If one sibling is working at the winery and the rest are not, how do you resolve the conflict over issuing dividends? Who should be on the board of directors?
“It takes a combination of deep listening skills and an authentic interest in people to do well in this area of law,” says Dodd. “As one of my colleagues put it, ‘We are tax geeks with personality.’”
Al Brayton, who practices plaintiff’s personal injury law at Brayton Purcell in Novato, is another attorney/vineyard-owner. He purchased his property in Southern Sonoma in 1999. Four years later, he launched the label Paradise View; and in 2007, he issued his second label, Thirty-Seven Wines. “My interest in wine goes back to my law school days,” says Brayton. “I found out the parish priest who baptized me was in Napa. He invited me to come to the rectory and learn how to make wine. I went every Monday. There was something about creating a tangible product that I really enjoyed. It’s so different from the law.”
Brayton lives at his vineyard, with views of Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco Bay. He spends 10 to 15 hours a week working there, alongside his vineyard manager. The vineyard produces about 2,500 cases a year. He’s currently planting another 10 acres.
There’s even a club—invitation only—for lawyers who don’t necessarily practice wine law, but like to hang out and drink it. Membership in Lawyer Friends of Wine—is capped at 100, though currently there are only 77. The group was formed in 1965, when the ABA held its annual meeting in San Francisco and wanted to offer wine tours. “We don’t have a prerequisite of wine industry involvement,” says Debra Bogaards with Bogaards Davis, who has been a member for two decades and served on the board and as chair of events. “I just like to drink wine.” The group has about 10 events per year, including a blind-tasting competition: Labels are hidden and the cellar master smells, tastes and decides the winner.
Back at Arns’ vineyard, he strolls past the stone barn house, where he and Anne host fundraisers for Legal Aid of Napa Valley and other nonprofit groups. Every year Arns, who teaches trial practice at the University of San Francisco School of Law, holds the final mock trials in the barn. Solar panels on the roof and in the vineyard provide enough power to run the entire operation off the grid. Arns stops to check the vines to make sure they are not budding too soon. It’s detail-oriented work, perfect for a lawyer. It’s raining, water is dripping from his hair, and he couldn’t be happier.
Local attorneys toast their faves
Jill S. Dodd
Favorite Place to Drink Wine: Around the dinner table with close friends.
Newest Wine Discovery: Dunstan Winery’s pinot noir.
Favorite Wine: That’s like asking me which of my kids do I like best. We’ve got albariño that I love, and syrah.
Favorite Place to Drink Wine: On my patio, overlooking the vineyards.
Newest Wine Discovery: We do an excellent malbec. It’s done surprisingly well in competitions.
Favorite Wines: I like the wines made by the Mi Sueño Winery, which is owned by the Herrera family. His wines are named after his six children. I also like the wines made by Tor, and Silver Oak Winery’s cabernet, and the wines by Caymus.
Favorite Place to Drink Wine: Wingtip Club in San Francisco. After a mediation, I’ll bring my clients to Wingtip and open a bottle of wine.
Newest Wine Discovery: I was given as a gift a bottle of Caymus 2009 cabernet. It was spectacular.
Favorite Wine: 2012 Tournesol white-label cabernet sauvignon
Favorite Place to Drink Wine: At the stream on the vineyard, with friends.
Newest Wine Discovery: The Priorat wine region south of Barcelona makes amazing red wine with Bourdeaux varietals—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot and malbec.