Harvest Time and Grape Growers’ Liens – Custom Crushers Beware

A few years ago, we wrote about the producer’s lien.  As I explained in my prior post, the law provides a grape grower with an automatic lien against any wine made from the grower’s grapes.  This lien, called a “producer’s lien,” means that the winery cannot lawfully sell the wine without paying the grower.  It gives a grower great legal protection.

While the concept behind the producer’s lien is simple, it can get complicated in practice.  For example, a recent situation involved a grower who sold grapes to a winery, but delivered the grapes to a custom crush facility for crushing and fermentation.  The winery then failed to pay both the grower and the custom crush facility.  Does the grower still have a producer’s lien?  Does the custom crush facility have a producer’s lien?

In this situation, the custom crush facility claimed it was a “producer” and consequently entitled to a lien against the wine it had now made for the winery.  The custom crush facility would not, therefore, release the wine to the grower or the winery until it was paid.  The grower, however, also claimed a lien against the wine, and demanded that the custom crush facility give the wine to the grower, even though the grower had not been paid.  The winery also demanded the wine, because it needed to sell the wine to pay both the custom crush facility and the grower.

Unfortunately for the custom crush facility, only the grower can claim a producer’s lien.  While the custom crush facility might argue it is a “producer”, the producer’s lien applies only to a producer who “sells any product which is grown by him. . .”  (See  CaliforniaFood and Agricultural Code § 55631.)  The custom crush facility didn’t grow anything; it couldn’t, therefore, obtain a producer’s lien.

This means that the grower can force the custom crush facility to return the wine to the grower so the grower can sell the wine to recover what it is owed.  The grower obtains the lien automatically (and this lien takes priority over all other liens), but the grower may need to take legal action to force the custom crush facility to cooperate and turn over the wine to the grower.

But what is the custom crush facility to do?  In this situation, the custom crush facility will need to take action to obtain a junior lien against the wine.  It will want to make sure that, if the grower sells the wine, it can still get whatever money is left after the grower’s bills are paid.  It does not automatically obtain the benefit of a lien, as the grower does.  It has to go out and get its lien.

Happily in this situation, the grower, the custom crush facility, and the winery were all able and willing (with the assistance of counsel) to cooperate without legal action.  The grower sold the wine and took a portion of the proceeds to satisfy its bills.  The custom crush facility then took some of the proceeds left over to satisfy its bills.  And, there was still a little left over for the winery.

If you have any questions about contract disputes or producer’s liens, please contact us.

Copyright Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty at www.lexvini.com