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Things and Wine

In a “things” moment, guest Prawfsblawgger Ed Lee hails the Supreme Court’s refusal to second-guess California’s wine regulations, which (among other things) specify the percentage of Napa-grown grapes in Napa-named wine.

Ed’s right that this is a mostly sensible decision so long as “authenticity” is the underlying goal, and so long as “Napa wine” means “wine from Napa” in the sense that “wine from Napa” means “grapes from Napa vineyards” rather than “wine from Napa wineries.” And it’s a mostly sensible decision so long as we understand that the principal beneficiaries of the rule are those who own those vineyards, and not necessarily the wineries themselves, and not necessarily the consumer. Yet it’s consumer protection that California invokes to justify the rule.

If we change the premise, what’s the outcome? What’s a better pro-consumer rule? Even a moderately aware wine drinker is going to pay attention to where the winery is located; there is clearly a consumer interest, then, in ensuring that “Napa” wine is produced by Napa wineries. Do consumers also assume that “Napa” wine is based on Napa grapes? That’s a harder question, I think; certain Napa reds are known for their style rather than for their grapes. Consumers may not know or may not care that California wineries, and especially Napa and Sonoma wineries, blend grapes from a variety of places. (American consumers and American wineries may behave differently in this regard than their European counterparts do.) Why not let consumers sort out what “Napa” means once the bottle leaves the Napa winery? If it’s the wine that needs to be authentic, not the grapes, then consumers might be better off with a rule that treats the wine as the regulated Napa-thing, not the grapes themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not the question the Supreme Court was asked to decide.