December 2014 - Wine Law 101

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Greetings from Seneca Falls.

Seneca Falls, New York: Birthplace of Women’s Rights ... inspiration for the town of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life ... personal cosmic vortex of yours truly.

The first two of those appellations are easily explicable. Seneca Falls was the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer. In 1848, their efforts on behalf of women culminated here in the first women’s rights convention, and Stanton later teamed up with Susan B. Anthony to agitate for women’s suffrage and make history. The town is now the home of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Bedford Falls connection is equally celebrated here. The story is that director Frank Capra had an aunt in Seneca Falls. After visiting her, he adopted it as his own vision of small-town America, and put Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed (aka George Bailey and Mary Hatch) in sets modeled after it. The “Bailey Bridge” over the Seneca River is just one of several places here you’ll recognize from the movie—especially if you come the second weekend of December for Bedford Falls Days.

The personal cosmic vortex probably requires a little more explanation. If you go to Sedona, Arizona sometime,1 you’ll doubtless hear about the cosmic vortexes2 some of the locals have identified there amongst the red rocks and the gray lizards.

According to its own website, “Sedona is internationally known for the uplifting power of its vortex meditation sites.” As explained to me, the Sedona vortexes are created “from spiraling spiritual energy” creating “energy flow that exists in multiple dimensions,” thus facilitating “prayer, meditation and healing.”3

I understand that about as well as I understand cold fusion and Citizens United, but I do have to acknowledge that there are places other than Sedona where the spiraling spiritual energy thing seems to happen for me.

Laguna Beach and Steamboat Springs do that for me. So does Berkeley. And Seneca Falls. That’s why I’m here.

Seneca Falls is in the heart of the Finger Lakes region of New York. Look at a map and you’ll see a bunch of skinny, roughly north-south lakes gouged across the middle of the state like the digits of Count Rugen.4 Those are the Finger Lakes. It’s drop-dead gorgeous here—especially in the fall.

The people are Bedford-Falls wonderful, the scenery is make-your-eyes-tired spectacular, and there are plenty of places quiet enough for me to listen to my mainspring unwind.

But the physical me requires at least as much sustenance as the metaphysical me, so we had to go to the local Wal-Mart for provisions yesterday. Whereupon my vision of spending a fortnight in a law-free zone evaporated.

My wife likes wine. I don’t. My first experience with wine was as an altar boy. I couldn’t figure out why the grownups would drink sour grape juice when they had the good stuff at home in the fridge. Still can’t.

I have the palate of an eight-year-old. If it doesn’t taste like Nehi, I don’t drink it.

I don’t indulge in adult beverages of any kind. Wine, coffee, beer, scotch, cocktails ... no thanks.5

But the rest of my family loves the stuff. Heck, my son is CFO for a Berkeley winery that produces barrels of the stuff that wins prizes from people who first spit it out—my reaction since I was twelve—but then, inexplicably, stick prize ribbons on it and proclaim it wonderful. The whole thing is a mystery to me.

So, anyway, my wife wanted some wine. Here’s how Wikipedia explains New York law regarding liquor sale: “Only liquor stores may obtain a license to sell liquor for off-premises consumption. Grocery and drug stores may obtain a license to sell beer or beer and wine products only.”

Now I don’t know how you would interpret that.6 I would read it to mean that liquor stores sell wine, beer, scotch, gin, etc.—including my beloved tequila—but markets can sell only beer and wine. At least that’s how I would read it the first time.

But the second time through, that phrase “beer or beer and wine products only” would cause me to boggle. That’s a rather unusual construction. Why doesn’t it just say “beer and wine products only?” Why is that extra “beer” in there?

Well, Kelly and I found out the hard way. When we asked the Wal-Mart guy where the wine was, he pointed to a tiny little display about the size of the gluten-free products area in your market. I know people who could have consumed their entire stock during half-time of a Laker game.

And, much to Kelly’s dismay, while these bottles look like ordinary wine bottles, a perusal of the label revealed them to be ... “wine products.” Wine products are not wine. Wine products include wine as an ingredient. But then the altar boys step in and start adulterating them to suit their tastes.

Here is the ingredient list from the Vineyard Creek California White Zinfandel wine product label: “California table wine, water, sugar, concentrated juice, natural fruit flavors, citric acid, carbon dioxide.”

Now that’s some wine we eight-year-olds can get behind. Or around.

Offhand, all those added ingredients sound like they might make the altar wine of my youth almost potable. Hell, you add enough sugar, juice, citric acid, and natural fruit flavors, you should be able to make even storm run-off potable. I was intrigued.

Kelly, on the other hand, was incensed. Fortunately, pitchforks and torches are about the only thing this Wal-Mart does not sell, or she would have gone straight to the bottling plant in Mattituck, New York, and expressed her disapproval.

And what’s up with that?7 Where does Mattituck, New York—a wide spot in Route 25, just before you drive off the end of Long Island and into Gardiner’s Bay and have to explain your wine product-induced stupor to the state police—get off bottling “California White Zinfandel?”

It’s the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” all over again. California White Zinfandel of Long Island. Does Arte Moreno own this company?

I hope not, because I’ve taken a vow not to buy anything from him until he changes the name of my baseball team back to where it belongs. And as its label enticingly points out, “Vineyard Creek White Zinfandel is bright and refreshing with a full bouquet of tropical fruit notes. Light and with a balanced sweetness, it’s the perfect house pour for your house.”

Must be that extra little spritz of carbon dioxide.

That sounded pretty good to me. So I bought some.

It was better than the Church of the Holy Communion ’59 that was my first experience with wine.

But not much.

Hard for me to figure out how you could combine sugar and fruit juice and natural fruit flavors and all the other things New York law inexplicably requires of wine products without developing a significantly better-tasting drink. But then again, I don’t understand why anyone who could live in Seneca Falls lives in Manhattan. Life is just one mystery after another for me.

Kelly suggested that since we had no previous experience with “wine product” we should follow the label directions carefully. So we did. We poured “the perfect house pour for your house” right onto the house.

Yep. “Refreshing.”


  1. And I recommend you do; Oak Creek Canyon alone is worth the price of admission.
  2. They explicitly—and adamantly—eschew the word “vortices.” Probably not a bad idea. Almost as presumptuous as the word “eschew.”
  3. I borrowed those phrases from the About Travel website, which seems to have a better handle than I do on the whole vortex thing.
  4. Don’t remember him? Think Inigo Montoya and the six-fingered man. Now there was a great movie.
  5. Except for tequila. I make an exception for tequila. But that’s not so much drinking as re-upholstering my esophagus.
  6. You may already have noticed that your interpretation of law and mine do not always coincide.
  7. Seneca Falls is only about four hours from New York City. I think I’m starting to channel Jerry Seinfeld.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.