About 20 years ago, a Napa Valley winery with a set of stone steps leading up to its tasting room received a visitor who told the manager that the winery had to install a ramp to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The law, passed in 1990, wasn’t a particularly controversial bit of congressional legislation. Most people were in favor of assisting the physically challenged.

Passage of the ADA prompted many in Congress to congratulate themselves since the new law spurred installation of elevators, wheelchair ramps, and hundreds of other aids that were long overdue. Congress’ work in this arena was done. The ADA was now the law.

So how did the ADA work in the real world?

One thing soon became clear: The legal complications that it created in its wake were yet to be seen. And to this day, laws are still being propagated that have far-reaching but unintended consequences, some of which may prove to be unconstitutional. Such as turning ordinary citizens into bounty hunters.

In this case, months after his initial contact with the disabled man, the winery manager told me that he had been taken aback by the manner in which the complainant demanded the ramp. The manager told me the man angrily threatened to sue the winery if it didn’t install the ramp immediately.

The manager further told me that the disabled man said he would not sue the winery if it paid him to drop his complaint! (I’d rather not use the term extortion here. But keep that word in mind.)

There’s a lot more to this story — including why the winery faced a huge bill to install a ramp. It learned later that to do so entailed complying with complicated Napa County building codes as well as the costs of a contractor. After a while, it was clear that paying off the disabled man to go away was seen as a simpler if bitter solution.

Is blackmail a better word than extortion? Was Congress aware that passing the ADA into law would have such consequences?

But that’s what passage of the law did. It made it burdensome to many businesses because it unleashed a few litigious money-grubbers.

Complying with the ADA, it was clear, was not a state issue. Enforcement was left to private citizens and in many cases that meant marching into courts. Think legal fees!

One of the unintended consequences of the ADA was unleashing people like Sacramento resident George Louie.

Louie had lost a leg due to diabetes and in time, many news reports say that over a decade he filed thousands of ADA lawsuits (!) that clogged court calendars, cost businesses huge sums, and resulted in some completely unnecessary business renovations.

And, some argued, extorted money from businesses like wineries.

Louie’s potential for chaos surely wasn’t visualizeSonia Sotomayor d by U.S. Supreme Court Justice last week in her dissent in an unrelated case when she criticized a court ruling that she said “deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting” a law that she thought to be unconstitutional.

That’s just what the ADA did in the case of Louie’s suits. Louie was described in an article on the legal website https://www.lawyersandsettlements.com in 2012 as a bounty hunter. The column, written by a website attorney, noted that one small city agreed to pay Louie a substantial blackmail bounty to go away.

The column said that in 2011 Yuba City “paid him off. Or, I should say, they settled with him, by agreeing to pay him $15,000 [so he would] stop bringing frivolous lawsuits against them and area businesses.”

The San Jose Mercury-News, in an article in October 2012, quoted Yuba City’s then economic development manager, Darin Gale, that Louis had “agreed not to file ADA lawsuits in our city, period,” in exchange for the payment, clearly indicating that enforcement of the ADA was not what motivated him.

His only motivation: reward money. A cynic might call it legal extortion.

The various news agencies that covered Louie’s cases over the years said that his threats if carried out, would have been so onerous to some business they would have been forced to close. Which prompted one Yuba City business owner to say, “It’s not what the law [ADA] intended to do.”

One story quoted Yuba City property manager Bill Meagher: “These are extortion lawsuits.”

The good news for many California businesses is that in June 2011, Contra Costa County Superior Court declared George Louie “a vexatious litigant,” and halted further such lawsuits by him.

One consequence of Yuba City’s settlement with Louie leaves open the question of other citizens’ lawsuits for violations of the ADA — or any other government-sanctioned “citizen vigilante” cases where there is a financial reward, such as $10,000.


On an unrelated topic, the harvest of wine grapes in northern California counties has begun for most table wines (sparkling wine grapes actually began weeks earlier).

And the early news is that the harvest is well ahead of schedule with huge grape deliveries hitting winery crush pads two to three weeks earlier than normal.

The 2021 growing season started calmly without the normal “false spring” warmth and no excessive late-spring heat to create shatter. The rest of the year was rather mild, without a drop of rain (we’re in a drought!). And the expected heatwave of early August lasted only a few days and was ultimately not as hot as had been predicted.

Acid levels remained relatively high and grape growers were pleased that early morning hours in most regions actually got pretty cool before sun-up, allowing many vineyards to harvest fruit that remained cold until they were processed.

The crop size looks good, but not excessive, which is a blessing from the standpoint of potential wine quality — and in light of the fact that three of the last five vintages have been extremely large.

Wine of the Week

2020 Girasole Pinot Blanc, Mendocino County ($15) — This excellent grape variety flies well under the radar as an alternative to Chardonnay. That means that very few acres of it are planted in California. The best versions seem to come from Mendocino County, with several considered brilliant in terms of balance, harmony, and overall drinkability.

Barra of Mendocino uses this brand as its second label, and the wine is exemplary in terms of beautiful though subtle notes of tropical fruit, with no oak to alter the mid-palate lushness. Most other excellent Pinot Blancs in the marketplace today sell for $20 to $30 or more.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.