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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ NICK ANDERSON

State Delegation Uncorks Wine Politics

April 27, 1999|NICK ANDERSON

So you're Rep. Mike Thompson, a freshman in Congress, a member of the minority party, a native of Napa Valley. So you want to make friends and make a few waves. You decide to crack open a few bottles of the local product.

Nearly four months into his first term, the 48-year-old former vineyard owner from St. Helena already has held wine tastings in his office for the freshman class of Congress, for a group of his fellow centrist Democrats called the "Blue Dogs" and for his neighbors on the fourth-floor suite in the Cannon House Office Building.

"It's great politics and it's great policy," Thompson says.

Now Thompson and Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa), a vintner from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, have joined forces to create the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Wine Caucus. In other words, it's a bunch of politicians who will stand up for wine.

The idea has taken off since the two sent out an invitation to join on March 22 that promised prospective members "the opportunity to enjoy tasting receptions and dinners . . . and meet noted vintners and leaders in the wine industry, both on the Hill and in the 'wine country.' " So far, 53 representatives and five senators have enlisted. The first meeting will be held next month.

Although about a third of the charter members are from California, by far the dominant player in the U.S. wine industry, the caucus has attracted such geographically diverse names as Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and John Breaux (D-La.); Reps. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House minority leader; and representatives from New York, Tennessee, North Carolina and elsewhere.

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If the organizers are to be believed, the group also aims to conduct some real business on Capitol Hill, where the wine industry this year is fighting both defensive and offensive battles.

Industry representatives are closely watching bills by two influential senators, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), that they claim would undercut their markets at a time when wine is becoming a major, lucrative agricultural product that employs more than half a million workers nationwide and generates billions of dollars each year for the U.S. economy.

Thurmond is crusading to boost the federal excise tax on wine--which in 1990 was raised to $1.07 a gallon from 17 cents a gallon--and to block the use of certain new, voluntary labels for wine bottles that the Clinton administration recently approved. The labels will urge buyers to learn about the "health effects of wine consumption" from doctors or U.S. dietary guidelines. Thurmond has said they are an attempt to undermine other, mandatory federal labels on alcoholic beverages that warn of possible health risks.

Although Thurmond's bills have so far attracted little support in the Senate, industry leaders take his efforts seriously if for no other reason than his seniority. (Thurmond is president pro tempore in the upper house and, at the age of 97, its oldest member.)

In addition, Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is seeking new restrictions on Internet wine sales in response to reports that children have been able to order shipments of alcohol without showing any ID. Thompson, while asserting that the industry does not want to sell to underage drinkers, told Hatch's committee in March that such limits could damage the efforts of many wineries to market their products to Web-surfing connoisseurs and high-end restaurants.

Winemakers also hope to nurture a small but growing federal research budget for their industry. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture now funds a few million dollars a year worth of research into grape crops--"a whole lot better than the virtually nothing we had not too long ago," said Bill Nelson, a vice president of the American Vintners Assn. More research is needed into crop diseases that strike vineyards and health effects of drinking wine, industry leaders say.

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But the politics of wine, as Thompson, Radanovich and their recruits well know, is not just about such dry matters as research, taxes and regulations. It's about uncorking cases of the good stuff to lubricate serious schmoozing.

Last week, for example, the California-based Wine Institute came to town to rub elbows with lawmakers and federal officials--and, truth be told, some journalists. There was a luncheon at the National Press Club on "Current Issues in the Wine Industry," in which premium cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and chardonnay were served with shrimp and avocado torte, chipotle cinnamon roasted tenderloin of pork and blue cheese mashed potatoes.

One of the hottest events of the season was the invitation-only annual wine tasting reception in the Library of Congress hosted by the California congressional delegation. Event organizers, said Wine Institute President John De Luca, have a firm policy: It is all about food, wine and socializing. No speeches.

The event ran well past its two-hour schedule with many representatives, senators and staffers staying for just one or two more glasses. "We had to turn the lights out," De Luca said.

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