Politico – “No sour grapes here”

Feb 25, 2011
In The News

Washington, D.C., Feb 25, 2011 -

Mike Thompson stood next to the makeshift wine bar set up in the corner of the Agriculture Committee Room in the Longworth House Office Building. Thompson, a congressman from Northern California, asked for a quarter glass of Sauvignon Blanc, emphasized the importance of eye contact when saying “cheers,” and took a sip.

“Do you know why this wine is so good?” the seven-term Democrat asked a visiting reporter. “Because it was grown by a conscientious, passionate grower.”

And that would be … him.

On this particular evening not long ago, the crisp white wine from Thompson’s small Lake County vineyard shared the bar with a handful of other vintages at an intimate wine-tasting hosted by the Congressional Wine Caucus in partnership with the Congressional Shellfish Caucus. Yes, it’s tough work, but somebody’s got to do it. And that somebody, often as not, is Thompson, founder and co-chair of the wine caucus.

It sounds more decadent than it is, really. Now in its 12th year, the caucus is an informal, bicameral, bipartisan and inclusive group — there are currently more than 200 members, representing all 50 states — united in promoting the importance of wine to the nation’s economy.

Although California is far and away the biggest wine producer in the nation, accounting for about 90 percent of total output, “the wine industry is very, very prevalent in every district in the country,” Thompson said. “It’s produced in every state, and every state has wine consumers.”

Thompson, whose 1st Congressional District encompasses such world-famous wine counties as Napa, Mendocino and part of Sonoma, recounts his caucus’s achievements with pride. “Well, there was the last time we drank a 1997 Cabernet …,” he trailed off, before interjecting, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”

In fact, the caucus’s devotion to wine is far from frivolous. In 2007 it unveiled a study by MKF Research that found that the wine and grape industries contribute a cork-popping $162 billion to the U.S. economy annually and provide the equivalent of 1.1 million full-time jobs.

In recent years, Thompson told POLITICO, official caucus business has included opposing efforts to increase excise taxes on wine, fighting legislation that would make it more difficult for producers to sell wine in other states, and working to protect vineyards and other agricultural land from development. Heady stuff, in other words.

The caucus has spilled over into charitable efforts, too. In 2005, for example, it co-hosted a wine auction to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. With wineries from all of the country’s top wine regions putting forward the best of their crop, the auction raised $112,000 for the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund.

But promoting wine’s benefits and enjoying its bouquet do not necessarily go hand in hand. Tasting is not a prerequisite for joining the caucus, as its new co-chair, Dan Lungren, can attest. With the co-chairmanship empty this session of Congress due to a retirement, Thompson invited Lungren, a fellow Californian whose district has about 100 wineries, to take the post.

Not only is Lungren no wine connoisseur, he doesn’t drink alcohol at all. Unpleasant memories of being knocked out with ether for a childhood kidney operation have left him averse to even the smell of alcohol, he told POLITICO.

“I’m probably the only Irish Catholic Notre Dame grad who doesn’t drink,” he joked, “despite my best efforts to overcome it.”

The Sierra Nevada Foothills are nestled in Lungren’s 3rd Congressional District, and they’re known for more than California’s Gold Rush heyday. “If you’ve ever read any Mark Twain, when he talks about grapes being grown in California, that wasn’t in Napa, that was in the Foothills,” Lungren said.

With some 6,500 wineries in the United States, according to the Wine Institute, Thompson isn’t the only member of Congress toiling in the vineyard. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, another Californian, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner both grow grapes.

But according to the wine caucus co-chair, the best wine list in Washington resides in his office. “I keep a bottle or two,” Thompson said.