California and the West : Bill for Winemaker Dies on the Vine : Legislation: Exemption to state laws to benefit movie maker Francis Ford Coppola’s winery had been sought. Even trade group opposed it.

Share via

It named no names, but the bill making its way through the California Legislature could not have been more specific. In fact, that turned out to be the problem.

Tracking its path through the Capitol offers some insight into the curious way laws are made and tailored to benefit special interests and, in some cases, individuals.

When it was introduced in February, Senate Bill 607 was intended to grant California winemakers a modest exception to the state’s archaic “tied-house” liquor laws that prohibit winemakers from being wholesalers or retailers of their own products. The laws were enacted more than half a century ago, partly to keep the Mafia out of the state booze business.


Now, licensed wineries can own two restaurants that showcase their product. But some exceptions to the tied-house laws usually find their way through the Legislature each session.

In July, the bill’s author, state Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), whose district includes most of Northern California’s wine country, asked that his legislation be amended to allow a winery to own and operate as many as eight wine-serving bistros or cafes.

To qualify, a winery needed to have: “at least three buildings constructed in the 19th century, and [to] operate a licensed premises on which wine has been produced . . . during at least 95 years of the 20th century on a portion of the original Rancho Caymus land grant.”

The Legislature generally frowns on what is known as “personal legislation.” But even a modest amount of historical research in California’s Napa Valley would reveal that only one winery meets these conditions: the Niebaum-Coppola Winery owned by San Francisco movie maker and wine connoisseur Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “Apocalypse Now” and the “Godfather” films.

Once it became known, this fact upset not only the usual lobbyists in the wholesale liquor business, who are reluctant to give up anything that detracts from their role as the state’s main supplier of alcoholic beverages, but also the board of directors at the Wine Institute, an industry association to which Coppola belongs.

“The board members had two objections,” said Michael Falasco, the Wine Institute’s representative in Sacramento. “The first objection was that this bill was designed for him [Coppola] and him alone. The second concern was more philosophical: If we start owning more than two restaurants, are we still wineries or are we ‘restaurant-wineries?’ ”


Chesbro, whose 1999 political contributions included a case of Niebaum-Coppola wine valued at $360, explained that he was approached by the filmmaker at a Sacramento social gathering last spring. Coppola said he wanted to open a chain of wine bistros to promote his and other California wines and needed an exception from the Prohibition-era tied-house laws.

The tied-house laws are a story in themselves. The name refers to a practice in this country before Prohibition--and in England today--in which a brewer owns public houses, or pubs, that exclusively offer his or her product, such as the Watneys or Bass houses that pervade the British market.

In an effort to avoid top-to-bottom control in the booze business, post-Prohibition lawmakers in California and many other states passed limits to restrict beer, wine and spirits producers from also being distributors and marketers.

In the modern business world, characterized by conglomerates and global markets, the tied-house laws have long since lost their utility. But they are kept on the books, critics have contended, largely because legislators find it a convenient way to attract campaign contributions as businesses and other interests parade before them each session begging for exceptions.

Some of the exceptions carry very high stakes. In 1995, the Seagram alcoholic beverages giant had to be granted an urgent exemption (Assembly Bill 805) before it could acquire MCA Inc., the entertainment giant.

And some exceptions are funny: In one, the beneficiary was identified only as “a fully enclosed arena with a fixed seating capacity in excess of 18,000 seats located in Orange County.” Only one place fits that description: Arrowhead Pond, where the Mighty Ducks NHL hockey team plays.


This month, after the Wine Institute raised its objections to the Chesbro bill and an influential newspaper columnist, Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, wrote about it and the Coppola connection, Chesbro removed the specific language benefiting Niebaum-Coppola. Then he removed the bill from consideration in this legislative session, which ends early next month.

But Jay Shoemaker, CEO of Coppola’s entertainment and wine businesses, says the director has not given up. He already operates one Niebaum-Coppola wine bistro in San Francisco’s North Beach area. Another is planned for Palo Alto.

“We are not out to be Starbucks,” said Shoemaker. “If we can make our way through these Byzantine laws without ruffling too many feathers, we’d ideally like to expand outside the state and outside the country. What I think is distasteful is that there are these archaic rules out there that we have to find solutions around.”