Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325

November/December 2001

By Millie Howie

Mike Thompson (D-CA) was elected to the House of Representatives from California’s First District in 1998, representing the major premium winegrape-growing area in the state (including the North Coast counties of Napa, Lake, Mendocino, and the northern portion of Sonoma). After Thompson took office, he met with Representative George Radanovich (R-CA), whose district includes the wine-rich Sierra Foothills.

The two discussed the need to provide their fellow representatives and senators with accurate information about the importance of the wine industry to the national economy and the need to keep the wine industry informed about wine-related developments at the federal level. Thompson was chair of the Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry while in the California legislature, and he and Radanovich decided to form a comparable entity in Congress.

The resulting Congressional Wine Caucus (CWC) is an informal, bipartisan and bicameral Congressional membership organization. Thompson and Radanovich act as co-chairs. But the CWC has no other officers or by-laws and holds no official meetings. Tricia Geringer, legislative director for Radanovich, and Tom LaFaille, Thompson’s administrative assistant, coordinate the efforts. The Caucus was created through the simple act of registering with and receiving recognition from the House Administrative Committee.

In March 2000, each member of Congress received an invitation to participate in the CWC. The invitation noted that wine grapes are the largest fruit crop in the nation and the sixth largest crop overall, and that the wine industry contributes over $45 billion to the national economy creating 556,000 jobs, accounting for $12.8 billion in wages and $3.3 billion in state and local tax revenues alone.

A reception and wine tasting were held in May 2000, honoring the charter members of the Caucus. There are now 163 members representing 44 states. (Forty-nine of the 50 states enjoy wine production within their borders. The sole exception is North Dakota, though two members of that state’s congressional delegation of three are CWC-members.)

To broaden their colleagues’ knowledge of wine, CWC, in partnership with the American Vintners Association (AVA) and the Wine Institute, hosts events in the House office building every six weeks or so to which all Caucus members are invited.

Many of the events are receptions and wine tastings presented by state grape commissions or other wine entities, such as Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), Napa Valley Vintners, Sonoma County Wineries Association, Women for Wine Sense, or California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG).

The value of these events to winegrape growers group is emphasized by comments from Steve Burns, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission. “When we conducted a tasting for the full congressional caucus as part of our Taste Washington USA road show, we had 50 wineries participating. We flew in Seattle chefs to prepare regional dishes. The one-on-one contact in this social setting with the senators and representatives at the tasting made it easier to follow up in political meetings with our legislators the next day.”

“When we hear that a winery group is coming to Washington DC on a marketing tour,” says Simon Siegl, executive director of the AVA, “we make every effort to set up a reception for members of the CWC to help familiarize them with the size and scope of the industry.”

Many Caucus members have long histories of support for the winegrape-growing and wine-producing industries. Donniella Winchell, executive director Ohio Wine Producers, points to three of her state’s Wine Caucus members as exceptional examples of legislators dedicated to the betterment of the grape and wine industries.

Ohio’s Senator George Voinovich (R), former governor of the state, continues on the national level programs he initiated in his home state, including creating opportunities for the industry to showcase its products, establishing investment credit programs to expand winegrape acreage, and increasing actual dollar funding for research and marketing.

The newest Ohio representative in CWC is Paul Gilmor (R), whose history of involvement in the state’s wine industry dates back to the 1980s when he sponsored the first “Ohio Wine Week” promotional event. As a Caucus member, he provides industry representatives with the opportunity to speak one on one with him and his colleagues on matters of legislative importance and support.

At CWC meetings stressing education, guest experts present overviews of various problems facing the industry.

In the past year, issues that the Caucus co-chairs have carried to the membership on behalf of the industry have included comments to the ATF opposing expansion of the government warning statement on wine labels; support for continued and increased research funding for the Viticultural Consortium; funding support for Pierce’s disease research, and the glassy-winged sharpshooter containment and control program; comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in support of wineries’ ability to label wine as “organically grown;” support for export promotion funds through the USDA’s Market Access Program; and explanations of the complexities of and support for reasonable direct shipment laws.

A number of communication avenues are used to get the word out to Caucus members, reports Tom LaFaille. “We send out ‘Dear Colleague’ letters signed by both chairs, we contact staff in members’ offices by e-mail, and we inform other interested parties through associations such as AVA and the Wine Institute. The best contacts are personal conversations between an industry mamber and his or her representatives at wine tasting and educational events.”

One of the most high-profile CWC activities has been sponsorship of “A Vintage Affair,” held in May 2001. This two-day celebration of exceptional wines and extraordinary cuisine began with two spectacular winemaker dinners and concluded with a VIP reception, auction and banquet. Beneficiary of the event was the Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC).

The 2001 “Vintage Affair” raised over $400,000 and was attended by 350 CNMC supporters, members of Congress, and wine industry representatives. Requests for auction items were mailed in September (2001) announcing March 16 as the date for the 2002 event.

In speaking about this major charity event, Thompson and Radanovich expressed their thanks to the wine industry for its support and explained that “A Vintage Affair benefits the American wine industry and the CWC by raising wine’s profile in the nation’s capitol. Additionally, supporting a major, recognized institution such as the CNMC is an excellent way to highlight the wine industry’s impressive record of generosity and philanthropy in the community.”

Just before Congress adjourned for its summer 2001 recess, Representatives Thompson and Radanovich circulated a letter to Caucus members asking for support in opposition to the proposed changes to the warning label regulation on alcohol containers (ATF Notice #917). The letter was submitted with 16 signatures, and similar letters are being drafted by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and John Edwards (D-NC).

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), whose district includes a good portion of California’s premium grapegrowing region, believes the current warning labels on alcoholic beverages are effective and clear. “That’s why I recently joined my colleagues in a letter to Bradley A. Buckless, the director of the BATF strongly opposing this new regulative proposal.”

Appreciation for CWC activities is frequently voiced, in person or by e-mail. California growers, through CAWG, consider the Caucus the most effective forum of its sort for creating discussion and action on such high profile problems as the threat of depredation of vineyards by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, and for providing an important informational network for action plans which lead to solutions.

“Definitely,” states Karen Ross, CAWG president, “with the Caucus in place, the wine community has avenues open to obtain assistance on many of the issues facing it today — and those that may arise in the future.”