BERGER: State's wine laws ease

If you visited Suttons Bay, Mich., and liked the riesling at the tasting room of Ciccone Vineyard, it might be nice to have the bottle signed by owner and winemaker Tony Ciccone.

But under some interpretations of the law, you could not have that same bottle signed there by Ciccone's daughter. That's because Ciccone's daughter is the celebrity Madonna.

Here we run straight into a legal tangle that all starts (and ends) with the fact that wine contains alcohol. As such, it's a tightly regulated product, which means that wineries are restricted in how they can market it and advertise it. And there are loads of other handcuffs on wineries because of the alcohol issue.

Numerous regulations have hamstrung wineries over the years. Wineries have been told they cannot stage cooking contests with prizes for the winners. They've been told they can't do certain kinds of couponing. They've been restricted in how much food they can serve, if at all, and whether they can stage concerts.

The celebrity bottle-signing at wine shops has been a sticky situation in California for a long time. The Alcohol Beverage Control division said it was illegal. The justification was a bit obscure, an interpretation of state law that made little sense to many wineries.

Since many celebrities are also winemakers, it seemed obvious that this would become a court case at some point.

Francis Ford Coppola, the acclaimed film director, may be the state's most famous celebrity winemaker. His enterprises now produce many hundreds of thousands of cases, and his Napa Valley winery is one of the most iconic in the business.

Other celebrities who make wine include former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, former football coach Dick Vermeil, former golfer Arnold Palmer and actor Sam Neill.

Following family tradition, rock star Madonna is making wine in a historic winery by the same name in southern Napa Valley.

The fact is, all of these people knew if they appeared at wine shops and signed bottles, they could run afoul of some obscure law.

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