A photo caption with a May 31 Food article on a Congressional Wine Caucus wine tasting identified Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) as Jay Buchsbaum of Royal Wine Corp. Also, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) was incorrectly identified as a senator. A cropped version of the photograph appears here with corrected identifications.
Bipartisanship, by the Glass
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
In some ways the gathering in Room H-137 of the Capitol looked like your usual congressional cocktail party, complete with cubed cheese, sliced fruit and lawmakers mingling with their aides. But the rows of wine atop the main table revealed the event's unique purpose: every bottle was rabbi-approved, since this May evening event was celebrating high-quality kosher wine.
Welcome to the world of the Congressional Wine Caucus, where members of Congress from across the country can raise their glasses in honor of Republicans and Democrats alike, Iowa vintners and Napa growers, French appellations as well as American ones. And yes, even kosher wine, from Israel's "C" Blanc Du Castel 2004 ($29.99 per bottle) to California's Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon LTD-Chalk Hill 2003 ($49.99).
"How cool is this, in the U.S. Capitol there's a kosher wine tasting?" marveled Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), whose district includes several wineries.
Not far from Cantor, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) raised his glass, noting he had finally learned how to get Democrats and Republicans to collaborate: "They key is to get members to drink wine to be bipartisan."
While Waxman was partly joking, it's clear that the wine caucus occupies a unique place on Capitol Hill. It is a bipartisan, bicameral group where members socialize and collaborate on legislation. In an institution where organizers have cancelled the annual bipartisan weekend retreat because of a lack of interest, that's a rarity.
"Democrat and Republican, when I have a wine tasting in my office, we can talk about something we agree on," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the caucus along with George Radanovich (R-Calif.). "Hopefully, that will spill over into the policy arena."
Lawmakers can work together on issues concerning wine, at least. Caucus members pressed states such as New York to allow out-of-state vintners to ship their products there after a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the wine industry last year, and they've secured tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to fight diseases that can decimate grape vines. Last October they held a Washington fundraiser in which they auctioned off 150 lots of wine, raising $112,000 to benefit Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.
Radanovich said he and Thompson have no trouble recruiting members for the caucus, which they founded in 1999 and which now numbers 250. It helps that during the 109th Congress the caucus has served roughly 104 cases of wine, which translates into more than two bottles each for each member of the House and Senate, and honored wines from states ranging from South Dakota to Texas and New Jersey. They even hosted a special screening of the movie "Sideways" a year ago.
"Everybody wants to know about wine, and everybody wants to know more about wine," said Radanovich, who produced his own wine until he decided in 2004 he couldn't oversee a vineyard and be a member of Congress at the same time. Thompson still grows grapes for sauvignon blanc, which he sells to other winemakers.
The fact that there are now commercial wineries in all 50 states has also boosted the group's political fortunes, because all lawmakers can now see wine advocacy as constituent service. Thompson has visited wineries in Upstate New York and Iowa and plans to journey to Missouri in August with Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) to see another one; he talks and drinks wine regularly with lawmakers including Howard Coble (R-N.C.), Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.).
Rahall, who has one family-owned winery in his district, said he's gained a better appreciation on how the business can serve as a local economic engine.
"I know, seeing the hard work and the pride in the craftsmanship, that it's a craft that in many instances is a family-owned operation that can contribute jobs to our economy," he said in an interview, as he sipped a glass of kosher wine.
And the caucus has even engaged in international diplomacy, holding a French wine tasting in the Capitol in late April that was co-hosted by French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte. Levitte jokingly proposed that while the Congressional French Caucus already exists, there's certainly room for a new French Wine and Cheese Caucus on Capitol Hill. "We are both competitors and partners, and we're less competitors and more partners," Levitte said in an interview, adding that French wine sales still rank at the top of the U.S. market in value, though Australia is first in volume. "The wine market is a global market."
Congressional Wine Caucus members promote American vintners. Just this month the House Government Reform Committee passed a resolution recognizing "the 30th anniversary of the victory of United States winemakers at the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting."
And those two victorious winemakers, Mike Grgich from Grgich Hills and Warren Winiarksi from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, served some of their prized recent vintages in October in Thompson's office. The combination of the congressional resolution and the wine tasting, Grgich said, provides publicity and gives vintners a chance to educate policymakers on issues affecting their business.
"It's good to have friends in Congress," he said, adding that these members convey a simple message to their constituents: that wine, in moderation, is civilized living. "They will help the wine industry the best they can," he said.
Juliet Eilperin is a national reporter and the author of the new book "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives" (Rowman & Littlefield). She last wrote about wine for the Travel section, when she reported on wineries in California's Anderson Valley.