Thompson to Interior?
On Nov. 24 I wrote here that “Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat from Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, is said to be Barack Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary.” Today’s news, which is being widely reported, is that Thompson may well be Barack’s Interior Secretary. So I was close! Now, I don’t know that it’s a done deal, but the push is on. Rep. Thompson, who’s in his tenth year as Congressman from California’s 1st District, is in the mold of those secretaries Obama already has picked: smart, experienced policy wonks with star power.
The 58-year old Thompson sits on some of the House of Representative’s most powerful committees: Ways and Means and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He’s Chair of the Subcommittee on Terrorist, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counterintelligence. A spook! But of more interest are Thompson’s deep and abiding ties with the wine industry. He co-founded and co-chairs the Congressional Wine Caucus, and is the go-to guy in the Congress for elected officials who want to know more about wine.
Thompson is considered a moderate, Blue Dog Democrat, and there’s been some grumbling on the Left about his possible nomination. There are also more ethnically diverse candidates out there; Obama may feel he does not need another white guy in the Cabinet. But when you look at the others Obama has nominated — many of them centrists — a Thompson choice makes sense.
A few years ago, I spent a day with Rep. Thompson up in Lake County, where he owns a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, and I got to know this charming politician. (We’ve run into each other at various times since.) He also has a great sense of humor. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
SH: How did you get into wine?
MT: My father was the first vineyard manager for Stony Hill Winery. His father owned a vineyard in Napa Valley. My mother was a bookkeeper for Beaulieu for years, and when Mike Grgich started the winery, she was his first bookkeeper. I was born and raised in St. Helena. As a young man, I used to prune the Catholic Church’s vineyard [in St. Helena].
Tell me about the Congressional Wine Caucus.
When I first went to Congress, I started it, with George Radanovich [R-Fresno], and we’re now over 250 members, from every state, and Senate members too. We use that caucus to make sure that folks in Congress know the issues that are important to the wine industry. We’re a good go-between between the industry and Congress and Congress and the industry. I’ve been very active in research funding, specifically for glassy winged sharpshooter/Pierce’s disease.
Besides you and Radanovich, are there any real geeks in Congress?
Bart Gordon, D-Tenn and Sue Kelly, R-NY [left Congress last year]. She’s into it to the point where she gave me the devil one day because we didn’t have anyplace to spit wines. And in the Senate, Ted Stevens, Dick Durban and [Barbara] Boxer.
Why are the wholesalers so powerful?
Because there’s wholesalers and beer distributors in all 435 [U.S. congressional] districts, and the wholesalers, be it beer, wine or spirits, think this is the proverbial camel’s nose inside the tent. And there’s only a handful of people who represent wineries. Wine may be made in every state, but there’s only 4 or 5 states where it’s a real big industry.
What other issues are you working on?
I’m working on a bill to get wine into the School Lunch Program.
No. Just teasing. [laughs]
I was stunned.
I wanted to see how long it would take you to react.
Do you have a cellar or collection?
I have a wine closet in my office in Washington, temperature controlled. And I have a wine refrigeration unit, 200-300 bottles, at my home in St. Helena. And we have a basement at our house in Washington with a cabinet that holds 60-80 bottles.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what wine would you want?
Oh, without a question, Sauvignon Blanc.