Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

It is rare that a story about wine makes the front page, above the fold, in the paper they call “The Grey Lady.”

This past Independence Day, however, The New York Times positioned a story about Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents the First Congressional District of California, which includes Napa and parts of the Sonoma wine growing regions, front and center under the headline “Congress’s Man of Vines, Including His Own.”

The story was penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lipton and is part of an ongoing series titled “The Champions” that “examines members of Congress and their advocacy for favorite industries and causes.”

Now I don’t know Congressman Thompson. And I certainly do possess – how do I put this? – a nearly universal distrust of our elected representatives and their personal agendas. But this story was a witch-hunt gone wrong. Filled with disparaging quotes from people with their own nefarious interests, implications and innuendoes, Lipton attempted to paint a picture of a Congressman whose sole goal was personal gain rather than appropriate representation.

The thrust was that Thompson owns 20 acres of vineyard land, planted to Sauvignon Blanc, and so anything that he does in his role as a Congressman to help the wine industry, and particularly the local wine industry, is designed to line his own pockets.

The evidence Lipton sited was Thompson’s opposition to a bill that would limit direct sales of wines to consumers, his contact with the Treasury Department about a pending AVA, and the sale of his own grapes to two large wine companies in his district.

Right up front, yes above the fold, was a quote from the pot, Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, who supports legislation that would force wine sales to go through his trade organization of middlemen, calling the kettle black. “Clearly he has a personal interest in what he is advocating for,” voiced the man who clearly has a personal interest in what he is advocating for. “And the ethics rules in Congress say you’re not supposed to do those kinds of things.”

The fact of the matter is that the dispute between the WSWA and the wine industry has dramatic implications for Thompson’s constituents. The net effect of the passage of Care Act, HR 116, the bill that the WSWA supports and Thompson opposes, would be to constrict the ability of wineries to sell wines directly to the public and would instead allow wholesalers to control the distribution of wine and beer. It is in the best interests of those who make wine in the First District, and in my opinion, wine and beer lovers across America, to stop this money grab by the distributors.

For Lipton and The Times to take the quote from what is basically a wholesale industry lobbyist tossing verbal bombs in an attempt to discredit an opposing voice is suspicious at best. Additionally, the implication that a guy who grows and sells grapes would benefit in an appreciable manner from defeating such legislation is dubious. Thompson’s opposition simply reflects the will of the people who voted him into office. The farm workers, the retailers, the drinkers, the winemakers and yes, the winery owners he represents.

Lipton also noted that Thompson had placed a call to the Treasury Department to “make sure it rapidly reviews a request when it arrives” for an application for a new AVA or American Viticultural Area.

Those who read this column regularly know that AVAs are grape-growing regions designated by the federal government because they have some unique geographic features that have an effect on the grapes grown there. There can be advantages in marketing for those in designated AVAs, but there are also advantages for consumers, who get more information about the provenance of the wines they drink.

It is precisely the kind of thing that you would want your Congressman to help you with if you were a farmer in a district. I don’t see the problem.

There was more. But perhaps most disappointing was Lipton’s tone, which reeked of suggestion rather than fact.

We have a Congress filled with millionaire members who don’t raise taxes on millionaires, lawyers who continually grease the skids on behalf of the legal industry, and doctors who are bought and paid for by medical and insurance industries whose quest for profit trumps comprehensive care, but Lipton thought it important to examine a statesman farmer who does his best to protect and advocate for wine makers? This is the best The New York Times can do?

I can only hope Lipton enjoyed his trip in Napa.