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Knights of a table that serves wine

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Where politics and wine meet, there are issues of great import, lots of schmoozing and, of course, funny-looking costumes and silly proclamations.

All were present last month at the City Club of Washington when the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Vine of America honored three members of Congress who have been leaders of the Congressional Wine Caucus.

The May 4 event promoted former Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) to the rank of supreme knight, while Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) was inducted as a knight of the vine. Lungren became caucus co-chairman with Thompson when Radanovich retired from Congress last year.

The Knights of the Vine is the American outpost of the International Federation of Wine Brotherhoods, modeled after secret wine societies dating from the 13th century. That means some serious wine appreciation, along with semi-serious ritual. (Inductees, for example, are asked to raise their left hands to swear fealty to the vine, with the explanation that “the right hand’s for drinking!”)

The congressional caucus is much more recent. It sprang from a May 1995 conversation at the City Club between Radanovich and Gordon W. Murchie, president of the National Wine Coalition and the Vinifera Wine Growers Association (now the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association).

Political winds blew strong against the wine industry at the time. States were preventing wineries from shipping their wares directly to consumers, and a neo-Prohibitionist movement seemed ascendant. Ironically, that movement was fueled primarily by wine and spirits wholesaler lobbies, intent on maintaining control over the distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Radanovich owned a winery in Mariposa County, Calif., and was, according to the proclamation read at the knighting ceremony, the first vintner in Congress since Thomas Jefferson served in the Continental Congress in the 1770s. (There might be an academic dissertation in there somewhere, considering how many of our nation’s legislators probably made their own hooch, from grain or grape, over the years.) The caucus was formally inaugurated in 1998 after Thompson arrived in Congress to represent Napa and Sonoma counties.

Thompson and Radanovich gave the caucus a bipartisan focus that emphasized the economic benefits of the wine industry throughout the country.

“We’ve been able to use the caucus to educate the members of Congress about issues important to the wine industry,” Thompson said in a brief interview shortly after his elevation to supreme knight. The caucus has fought efforts to raise the excise tax on wine and to limit direct shipping to consumers; the latter battle continues this year. But it has also helped gain funding for specialty crop research and federal resources to fight the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a vine pest that nearly devastated California’s grape industry and has spread to the East Coast.

Direct shipping is an industry-specific issue, but the caucus also is active on matters of national importance, including immigration reform.

“The big issue is still affordable, dependable, legal labor,” Murchie said, reminiscing on the 16 years since his seminal conversation with Radanovich. “That’s the main issue for all American agriculture.”

The Congressional Wine Caucus, which boasts more than 180 active members of Congress in both houses, has grown and prospered in parallel with the growth of regional wine throughout the United States.

That might not be a total coincidence.

“We raised the profile of wine in Washington,” Radanovich told me, speaking no doubt of “official” Washington. As the wine industry expanded through all 50 states, the caucus made sure members of Congress knew they had a stake in that trend. Working with Murchie’s groups, the American Vintners Association (now Wine America) and state wine associations, the caucus sponsored tastings of regional wines on Capitol Hill, starting with Virginia and continuing with New York and other states.

Wine, after all, can be a tremendously effective lobbying tool — especially when it is grown in a legislator’s home district.

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