The Law of Wine

Largely as a result of the Canadian penchant for vesting the sales of wine in government monopolies, our law of wine is singularly underdeveloped. I had occasion to reflect on this while attending a book and wine evening at the UofT Faculty Club profiling the marvellous Natalie McLeanThis is an intelligently designed and thoroughly accessible website too., whose new book Red and White and Drunk All Over would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who enjoys books or wineFor those of more frugal instincts, she has an amazing free email newsletter about wine, written in an accessible and witty style – subscribe here..

Nat's BookNat

But back to the law of wine. So apologies to Domenic Jaar, who owns the wine, law and information management space. There’s more than you might expect: The Australian Gold Coast firm Corrs, has a practice group just on the law of wine:

Corrs’ wine practice has a wide range of domestic and foreign clients, including growers, winemakers, producers, importers, distributors, vigneron associations and government instrumentalities.

Our experience in the wine sector includes extensive work in the geographical indications area, such as working in the Coonawarra boundary dispute, registering and protecting other Australian geographical indications, and protecting European geographical indications in Australia and the Asia-Pacific for, amongst others, French government instrumentalitiesCloser to home Nixon Peabody in Rochester has a wine group too, as has Pillsbury Winthrop in San Francisco..I’ve found only one Canadian firm which claims expertise in the area.

Where would there be a law school class on the law of wine? California obviouslyOf course, the French haven’t just got the odd class – they’ve an entire university, and a regular colloqium at Lyon and the Germans have a Research Centre for Wine Law.. At Berkeley, a wine lawyer teaches a popular class on the law of wine:

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 wineThat’s what seems to happen at Murdoch..”

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 tradeSee his interview on
The Wine Trade Dispute Between the United States and the European Union
. The course at Monash seems much tougher.

Looking for the statutes and cases in this area? First stop is the Wine Institute of America Legal Reference Library. But that’s essentially American isn’t it? Well, then you need The International Wine Law Association (Association Internationale des Juristes du Droit de la Vigne et du Vin) which was founded in 1985 to provide an international forum for the study and discussion of legal issues concerning the viticultural community and the wine trade – world wide. The World Wine Trade Group is an informal group of government representatives with a mutual interest in facilitating the international trade in wine and avoiding the application of obstacles to international trade in wine. Then for Europe, not surprisingly there’s an EUR-Lex site linking to European law, as well as an entire issue of the Flinders Journal of Law Reform, and some law firm newsletters. For Ontario and British Columbia don’t expect much from the websites.

The state monopolies of North America may be tough to break, but small inroads are being made – such as the ruling in Seattle on September 24Summary in the Wall Street Journal. But the sanctions are still severe: In ColoradoThis seems an urban myth., half-bottles of wine are illegal, and Florida’s third degree felony charges winemakers with a $3,000 fine and extradition for jail time for shipping a bottle of wine from outside the “sunshine state” to one of its wine consumers. In Utah, a restaurateur takes chances in offering a customer a wine list. If the patron asks for the list, no problem, but offering it unbidden is looking for trouble with the law. So is serving a second glass of wine to someone who hasn’t finished the first.

They always said that one could understand much of the early s. 91 / 92 jurisprudence by reading the Privy Council on liquor regulation – but is there enough here in Canada to constitute a topic worth studying and practising?


  1. Simon, those of us from BC who suffered through the early years of the BC wine industry (and who can ever forget “Gentle Ben”!), are now pleased that BC wines are receiving world wide acclaim. Now only if the price came down! There are private liquor stores and BC VQA outlets – the VQA are the best, because they are knowledgeable and bring in BC wine not found in the government liquor store. But, without the government monopoly in the liquor business, BC would never have developed an industry, and the BC liquor stores still have the lowest prices and the best selection. So, readers should be reminded of two sites:

    The Wine Research Centre at UBC


    BC liquor stores

    Privatization of wine and beer sales has failed to result in lower prices and more selection from independent owners as the government promised, for a variety of reasons I expect.

  2. Well to get back to Nat MacLean’s evening, I asked the question “Would a Natalie MacLean government abolish the LCBO?” For non-Ontario readers the acronym refers to the state monopoly over the sale of alcohol in Ontario (until Walmart started to sell wine, the world’s largest purchaser).

    Nat answered that she wanted a hybrid sales system, in which private retailers could start specialist boutiques with better selection. I thought of Metrovino in Calgary, and a few of the Vancouver shops. She didn’t mention Safeway, Loblaws, Great Atlantic or Sobey’s private label wines.

    The Canadian system for wine selling simply depresses me. I’m not surprised that many of the Niagara winemakers opt out of that system, selling directly from the vineyard: Lailey, Lenko, Stratus etc.