A Toast to Napa Valley

Richard Mendelson represents vineyards and grows them too

Published in 2005 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2005

In the sunny heart of Napa Valley and the cool Santa Lucia Highlands, Richard Mendelson found his American Dream. Thus far, that dream has been good to him. From the wine country’s fertile soil he has nurtured a home-run vineyard and a thriving law career.

As a graduate student in 1975 at Magdalen College, Oxford, Mendelson stepped into the school’s wine cellar, one of the largest in Europe. From that instant, wine became a passion. He has studied wine in London and later worked in France as an export director for the Burgundy wine shipper Bouchard Aîné et Fils. While there he began making wine at home. Mendelson moved back to the United States in 1979. He has worked as an alcoholic-beverage and land use attorney for the Napa firm Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty since 1986.

“I first learned about the traditional Massandra dessert wines in 1990 when I was a U.S. delegate to an international wine conference in [the Soviet Union],” says Mendelson. “At that time, Gorbachev had razed the vines in that region in an effort to deal with the problem of alcoholism. So that wine, which was made nowhere else in the world, was threatened with extinction.”

So Mendelson took matters into his own hands. In 1996 he debuted his Pinot Gris dessert wine. It received 95 out of 100 points from Wine Spectator magazine, a very impressive showing. Pinot Gris and Muscat Canelli dessert wines aren’t the only things crafted by Mendelson –– he is also a metal sculptor.

“Art and wine and law have something in common,” says Mendelson. “That is you need to be a three-dimensional thinker, and I’d say that’s absolutely true with wine. You talk about wine the same way you do about art: its texture, its structure, its volume, its flavors, its colors.”

Wine law as a practice was almost nonexistent when Mendelson began his career in Napa. At first, some doubted he could develop the client base he has today, which now includes some of California’s most recognized names in the wine industry, such as Napa Valley Vintners Association, Cakebread Cellars and Sutter Home.

“I think that’s been the surprise of my career, really,” says Mendelson. “When I moved up to Napa I would say, ‘I want to do wine law.’ They said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re not going to have any work.’ Nevertheless, literally from day one there’s been a ton of work.”

Mendelson’s wine operation is a boutique business, producing just under 1,000 cases of wine a year. He has no plans to leave his law practice behind to pursue wine making full-time. “The law is a service business,” Mendelson says. “I really value the law as a service business and helping people and I don’t see me giving it up.”

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