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In defense of those infamous wine caves


Elizabeth Warren took a cheap shot at Pete Buttigieg during the last debate, when she accused him of going to a Napa Valley fundraiser in a “wine cave filled with crystals.”

Her line put Mayor Pete on the defensive and seems to have accomplished what Warren set out to do: garner lots of publicity for herself. But it was in terribly poor taste.

It’s short-term publicity for Warren, but it won’t do her any good in getting the nomination. It was a gratuitous swipe at Mayor Pete, a really good, appealing young politician who’s leading in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls; Warren’s comment merely shows how desperate and afraid she really is.

I’ve been in a lot of wine caves, and I mean a lot, from my decades as a wine writer. They’re quite common in wine country, not just Napa Valley but up and down California. People have them built because the natural temperature of below-ground caves is in the high-40s to mid-50s, a perfect temperature to store wine which is a living thing (unlike canned soup), and will quickly deteriorate at room temperature, not to mention the heat waves that routinely occur in wine country.

Once the cost of digging the wine cave is paid, there’s no more expense: no electric bills, no air conditioning. Mother Nature does all that. So lots of winemakers build wine caves, not just billionaires, as Warren implied. In fact, a wine cave is the smartest, most practical business investment a winemaker can make, which is why so many of them do it.

It is, of course, easy for people to poke fun at all things wine-related. And when it comes from California, from Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco, the temptation to ridicule it is great. But this is the sort of cheap insult I expect from Republicans: “brie-and-Chardonnay-drinking liberals, elite San Francisco snobs,” that sort of thing, which we’ve come to expect from the right wing.

But to hear this crap from a Democrat? Not cool.

I know the Hall family, whose wine cave Mayor Pete visited. And yes, they’re uber-rich. I have no special love for Kathryn Hall, the owner, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria under Bill Clinton (presumably an award given her for hefty donations to him and the DNC). She does make fantastic wine, though, and I don’t hold her wealth against her, any more than I held Jess Jackson’s, or Bill Harlan’s, or the Gallo’s, or Jean-Charles Boisset’s, or Jan Shrem’s wealth against them. Some people are rich; most of us, including most winemakers, aren’t. That’s how things are. So it’s no big deal that Mayor Pete raised some money from Kathryn Hall and her like-minded Napa Valley friends.

Besides, Warren has gotten her own sizable donations, although she likes to pretend all her donors are teeny weeny little working people sending her $5 or $10. According to the website campaignsecrets, she raised $60 million as of Sept. 30, 2019. About $18 million of that (nearly 30%) was from unidentified “large individual contributions.” Politico reported that Warren’s campaign is “courting big donors in the Northeast by organizing trips, hosting events and acting as conduits for information about the campaign.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times revealed that “Ms. Warren wooed wealthy donors for years, stockpiling money from fund-raisers, and has used $10.4 million from her 2018 Senate race to underwrite her 2020 bid.” So it’s really hypocritical of Elizabeth Warren to criticize Mayor Pete for raising campaign funds from rich donors.

Look, as the late, great Jess “Big Daddy” Unruh, Speaker of the California Assembly in the 1960s, observed, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them [i.e. donors], you’ve got no business being up here,” “here” meaning the Legislature.  

So I give Mayor Pete a pass, although he’s unlikely to revisit Napa Valley anytime soon. It’s just too risky, what with the reverse-snobbish Republican Party (which siphons dark money from secretive, rich people) issuing potshots , and your own kind, a fellow Democrat, obeying the Republican playbook. Very bad form, Sen. Warren. You lost my respect and, I suspect, that of many, many good Democrats and Independents.

  1. Nancy Weil Brown says:

    I agree with you, Steve. I did lose respect for Senator Warren and she had been my choice for the nomination until recently. Not only was that a low blow considering her own campaign financing, but it’s the absolutely wrong thing to do when the Democrats need to persuade many people who sat out the last election that it is imperative that they vote and that they cast that vote for the Democratic nominee. Warren has lots going for her. She should concentrate on letting us know why we should vote for her, not treat any other candidate with disdain. If we as a party do not unite, we have zero chance of saving ourselves and our country from another four years of the worst president by far in our country’s entire centuries of existence.

  2. Nancy, I can tell you Warren lost a lot of friends and potential donors in wine country with that crack. It was so uncalled for–unnecessary–and ineffective. It really calls into question her judgment. Happy Hanukah!

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