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Defending Mike Thompson

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Somebody has to defend Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat representing California’s North Coast in the U.S. Congress, from the heavy-handed smear job in yesterday’s New York Times, and it might as well be me.

Actually, I’m sure lots of people will rise up to support the Congressman, but I just want to be among them. When I read the article, it really pissed me off–not least because it represents the kind of ignorant trial-by-media written by wannabe Woodsteins (or Bernwards) who understand nothing of the issues but just want to pull off an “investigative journalism” coup, supported by editors who should know better but allow this kind of stuff to get green lighted anyway.

Let’s get to the particulars. The Congressman owns a vineyard in Lake County. He sells grapes to wineries, including Bonterra. The Times reporter is Eric Lipton. Here are some of Lipton’s j’accuses!

Thompson helps his district “get money for pet projects like the Napa Valley Wine Train.” Whenever a reporter calls something a “pet project” you know he’s going for the jugular. One man’s “pet project” is another man’s peeve. We all know that lots and lots of folks in Napa Valley, including wealthy Democrats, did not want the Wine Train, so it’s misleading for Lipton to imply that Thompson helped his rich constituents in return for their donations.

“Mr. Thompson is in business with some of the same companies whose agendas he promotes.” Boo hoo. It is patently impossible for any member of Congress who has a job outside of politics to avoid doing business with others whose interests come before the Congress, since Congress regulates everything. If Lipton has specific, credible evidence that Thompson has conflicts of interest, let him present them.

“Mr. Thompson could also benefit from his own efforts on the industry’s behalf, including a push to increase the value of grapes grown near his vineyard by seeking a special designation from the Treasury Department.” Lipton is talking about a possible application for a new Big Valley AVA in Lake County that would include Thompson’s vineyard. “[T]he designation [would be] a marketing boon that helps increase the value of the grapes grown there” if approved, Lipton writes.

This charge has big holes in it. For one thing, I do not think that even if Big Valley becomes an appellation, the average price of Sauvignon Blanc grapes Thompson sells–$978 a ton–will go up. Do you? I mean, the price of Lake County Sauvignon Blanc has a built-in ceiling, and I can’t imagine it soaring just because another AVA nobody ever heard of suddenly pops up. There’s another fly in Lipton’s ointment. If every Congressman with a business venture recused himself from voting on anything and everything in the Congress that could remotely impact that venture one way or another, the Congress would have to shut down. (Maybe some people think that’s not a bad idea.) So it’s ludicrous to think that Thompson–who says his vineyard made only $18,000 in profit last year–would do something so stupidly unethical for so small an amount of money. His constituents, many of them in the wine industry, would be the first to see through it, not a New York Times reporter, and they would turn against Thompson.

Lipton quotes a Thompson political opponent: “Clearly, he [Thompson] has a personal interest in what he is advocating for.” Who’s the insinuation from? Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. Of course Wolf is against Thompson, who’s trying to end the three-tier monopoly WSWA supports. As if Wolf doesn’t have a personal interest? Duh. Lipton failed to make this clear.

Lipton writes: “Mr. Thompson, 60, is the biggest recipient in Congress of campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry, totaling more than $1.2 million during his seven terms.” I’ll take his word for it. But so what? Why wouldn’t Thompson’s constituents contribute to his campaigns if they feel he’s doing a good job representing their interests? Barbara Boxer gets big bucks from the gay community, and Rick Perry hauls in buckets of cash from his fellow evangelicals. Nothing wrong with that. Is Lipton somehow implying that the wine industry’s interests are as nefarious as, for example, the interests of Big Oil, Big Coal and Wall Street?

Lipton implies that $40,000 in Brown-Forman campaign contributions to Thompson were because Brown-Forman long owned Bonterra, and Thompson “oppose[d] proposed increases in federal excise taxes on wine and liquor,” which Bonterra also opposed. Gee whiz, there’s a cabal of secret conspiracy. Imagine, a wine company and a politician from wine country being opposed to higher excise taxes on wine! Let’s get a House Judiciary Committee investigation started. No, wait! Not a good idea! Dan Lungren, the conservative Republican who’s on that committee, also is co-chair of the Congressional Wine Caucus, which Thompson started.

Lipton: “Mr. Thompson separately wrote to the federal Department of Agriculture last year on behalf of Lake County to try to get a federal grant to market the county’s wine grapes.” Another shocked, shocked moment! The DOA has grant money to help market wine grapes, and the Congressman from a grapegrowing district tries to get his county’s share of the funds. Quel scandale!

I could go on. As a reporter myself, I understand the temptation to write a blockbuster exposé that reveals the hypocrisy and greed of politicians. But don’t write an article based on such flimsy suppositions and innuendos. A proper investigative journalism article has to be based on solid, verifiable facts; it must pass the smell test. Lipton’s hatchet job doesn’t.

  1. Bob Davis says:

    Nice defense of the Congressman. Anyone being criticized by anyone from WSWA is a hero of mine. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America are one of the most disingenuous organizations on the planet. Anytime they say anything just assume their real reasons are to protect the monopolies in various states. Nothing else. They have every right to do so but they are not honest about their intentions.

  2. Congress does not vote on whether to grant AVAs – that is a purely bureaucratic function of the TTB. I won’t be surprised if Mike Thompson’s staff writes a letter of support to TTB for the application, if that is what his constituents want.

    And that’s the real point here: Mike is representing his constituents’ interests. I mean, how dare he!? Look up the extent of the 1st District: Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino & Lake Counties. There’s a lot of wine grapes there.

    In one of those weird district boundary things, my office in Sonoma is in the 1st District, but my home just a few miles away is not. I have never had the opportunity to vote for Thompson. Nevertheless the staff at his offices in California and DC have always been highly responsive when I have contacted them regarding issues of interest to me as a winergrower. Over the years the Congressman himself has contacted me a couple of times to address my concerns.

    And his votes have not always been those I would have cast, had I done so simply guided by my economic interests. Did anyone at the Times think to examine Thompson’s actual voting record to see if he always votes in his interests?

    No, they did not. This is just another example of the kind of hack work that passes for journalism today, even at the Times. I’m not clear what agenda is being served by the Times’ piece – unless WSWA have made a big ad buy in the paper? – so I’m not giving them the benefit of the doubt here: Eric Lipton (and the editor that greenlighted this drivel) are idiots, and not even useful ones.

  3. sao anash says:

    Thank you for posting this, Steve. I hope it’s widely circulated. Indeed, when I read that article, I too felt it was a hack job and very cynical.

    The Gray Lady is still my newspaper of choice, but journalists like Lipton aren’t doing it any favors by creating these types of sensationalistic stories.

    If I were an investigative reporter, I’d spend my time going after real stories about real issues. This has “just trying to stir the pot” written all over it.

  4. Sam Spencer says:

    I am frankly disappointed in the NYTimes for publishing such muckraking weak dishwater.

    The position of this piece written from pure ignorance and misguided sensationalism.

    Had I read this in the Journal I would have chalked it up to basic Calvanism and political orientation.

    Is Lipton a Summer intern? He would be better suited to look at the under-trousers of the corn lobby or the farm subsidies paid to massive corporate interests.

  5. Very well said, Steve, and also bravo to other commenters, here and on the Times site as well. Probably this will show up in other papers and outlets, so I hope the wine community is visible in exposing the holes in this article.

  6. Louis M. Foppiano says:

    Great rebuttal Steve. The numbers he gives are so distorted, imagine $123.00 over the average of $855.20, that’s why we call it an average. The highest price paid in Lake County was $2800.00. As far as $1.2 Million in Campaign contributions that is only $87,000 a year, not a lot of money by today’s political standards. Maybe this is just another case of California jealously by a New Yorker.

  7. Steve,

    Thanks for this passionate defense of the North Coast’s best supporter, Representative Mike Thompson.

    Reading Eric Lipton’s hatchet job piece, spoon fed by Craig Wolf, no friend of California’s North Coast or wine consumers anywhere, leads me to find Lipton to be almost criminally lazy.

    Absolutely no investigating, no reporting, by the New York Times’ Lipton; instead a disgusting regurgitation of misleading and irrelevant charges, arranged in such a way as to cast Representative Thompson in the worst possible light.

    No ethics on the part of the New York Times or their reporter evidenced by what you rightly describe as a “heavy-handed smear job,” I hope Lipton is capable of feeling the shame any real journalist should feel after having been played so completely by an anti-consumer lobbying group. Lipton is a tool.

    Thank you for your balanced response to the attack piece, parroted by Lipton, delivered by the New York Times, by Craig Wolf and his Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America lobbying group.

    John Cesano

  8. I’d just like to point out if Lipton is correct, which I’d be surpised, about Thompson being the biggest recipient in Congress of campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry–it would make sense given his district’s bread and butter business is the alcoholic beverage industry.

    Also, doesn’t Nancy Pelosi also own vineyards? Why isn’t Lipton picking on her?

  9. Thanks Steve. I wish there were more congressmen like Mike Thompson in Washington!

  10. Thanks Steve – Mike is a supporter of the United States wine industry whether it be California or Texas. As a Texas winery and one who makes trips to D.C. I can tell you from experience the value this individual brings to Congress for the entire industry. Every winery and vineyard in the United States owes a lot to Mike – even the New York wineries will tell you that.
    One small additional note – Mike is a Combat Veteran having served his Nation as a Staff Sargent in the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.

  11. Robert Arnold says:

    Mike Thompson is a stand up guy for the wine industry, Veterans and his district. The NYT hit piece sounded like they were bored that day and he was an easy target. I mean, going after the wine industry as evil bad guys? And the amount of money…well gee guys, really small by inside the Beltway standards, right? Maybe there are some other folks who really should get your attention. Or are they and their supporters a bit too big for you to annoy? I know Mike and this won’t even cause a small sweat or tiny break in his stride. Stuff like this makes me want to support him even more.

  12. Thank you, Steve. As usual, well said, and on point. From our perspective, Mike is not only doing his job, but he is doing it well, and responsibly. His actions reflect the priorities and concerns of his constituents, as they should. All the better, that he has some “skin in the game”.

  13. Brad Alderson says:

    Bonterra only purchases organic grapes, the slightly above market price is because that is the premium paid for extra expenses in growing organic grapes. The reporter should investigate the secret green cabal behind the organic movement.

  14. Hey Steve, THANK YOU! You hit every nail squarely on the head…this article was shameful and the New York Times is better than this–it was sad and surprising at the same time to read this from such an esteemed publication.

    Mike Thompson is nothing less than an excellent ambassador for the region. Wine is CA’s #1 finished agricultural producta and an ag business built on small, family-owned growers and producers who make me proud to part of the industry every day. Thankfully we have incredible, intelligent leadership representing us in Washington.

    Mr. Lipson failed to write an honest article.

  15. Patrick says:

    Yes, Lipton overstated a few things in the article, in an apparent quest for journalistic glory. And yes, Thompson is a great advocate for the wine biz in Congress. But I have to say that it still sounds a bit suspicious, because Thompson’s advocacy also benefits his own personal operation. He should put his vineyard in a blind trust while he’s a House Member.

  16. Patrick says:

    “But I have to say that it still sounds a bit suspicious, because Thompson’s advocacy also benefits his own personal operation. He should put his vineyard in a blind trust while he’s a House Member.”

    Put his 20 acres in a blind trust? It would likely cost him more to have someone else run it than he would make from it. 20 acres hardly even counts as a gentleman’s farm.

    Love the part about a new Lake County appellation being a ‘marketing boon that will increase the price of grapes’. Unbelievably poor and uninformed reporting.

    It is also likely that in the not-too-distant-future his Lake County vineyards will be too hot to sustain grapes. See Stanford U report. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/june/wines-global-warming-063011.html

    Amazing that this hit piece has gotten such a blase response here in Napa. Then again the most commented article at the Reg right now is about how the Tea Party is planning an event in Napa. Yeesh.

    The Lipton piece was a gotta-get-to-the-beach-quick hatchet job-surprising from a Pulitzer Prize winner. Then again, hit pieces on politicians play well these days.

  17. John Kirkpatrick says:

    Steve,

    Good job. A friend commented on Lipton’s amatuer diatribe as follows:

    “Isn’t this what the founding fathers intended – a farmer goes to Washington?”

  18. Ron Saikowski says:

    Steve,

    Great job in setting the facts straight. The Wine Industry needs more advocates like Congressman Thompson. On the other hand, the world needs less sensationalist journalists like Eric Lipton.Apparrently this graduate of the University of Vermont believes that there is a “sucker born every minute” with his vindictive style of writing. If anyone can pcorrect someone with facts in the wine industry, I think you can! I hereby give you one ATTABOY!

  19. Marc Emelianenko says:

    After chortling through this article, I concluded that it must have been a slow-news day. Almost as amusing is the locals’ rush to defend good ‘ol Mike’s honor. Quite different comments than those in the Times that followed the original publication. Thompson’s a party hack who asks “how high” when Pelosi and Obama command him to jump. I’m scratching my head as to why the Gray Lady allowed this “harsh” article against such a like-minded apparatchik – must’ve been time for a token hit against a Dem to show “fairness”. In Thompson’s defense, he’s simply doing what federally-elected officials do to get re-elected: Serve the special interests back home, aka bring the pork home from D.C. No Mr. Smith he, but then who is? Memo to Pinch Sulzburger: Not everyone’s a trust-fund baby like you who can afford to be as pure as the wind-driven snow. And speaking of pigs, then there’s Craig Wolf of the WSWA tsk-tsking Thompson on ethics. Isn’t that special! When you look up “crony-capitalism” in the dictionary, there should be a cartoon of Wolf with the many and varied legislators hanging from his pockets. The best racket ever is the “legal” one enjoyed by the anti-consumer monopolies the WSWA represents. And boy don’t they know it.

  20. Great article, Steve.

    I sure hope more people see your rebuttal than read the ludicrous article that spawned it.

  21. Good article, Steve.

    Rep. Thompson has been a champion for the UNITED STATES wine industry, not just the Napa wine industry. His vineyards isn’t even IN Napa. That is just one of many faulty premises in this article. There is a reason why the Congressional Wine Caucus has over 200 members. Wine is a national commodity now and Rep. Thompson has worked tirelessly to promote it and protect its interests. This article was poorly researched and clearly had a slanted viewpoint that was bolstered by the quotes from WSWA.

    Also, please see a response we wanted to post on the Times website, but could not because the comments were shut down.

    http://wineamerica.blogspot.com/2011/07/wineamerica-disappointed-in-times.html

    Michael Kaiser
    Director of Communications
    WineAmerica: The National Association of American Wineries.

  22. “Best journalism in the world” indeed….

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