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While Republicans protect the rich, Democrats always have stood with the common people

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Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) was a United States Senator from the State of Missouri. One of the founders of the Democratic Party (along with his patron, the 7th president, Andrew Jackson), Benton, like Jackson a westerner, mistrusted easterners. He accused them of siphoning off the wealth of the west, to add to their own coffers—of being elitists—which led western farmers and settlers into bankruptcy and ruin. This led to his steadfast opposition to the Bank of the United States (the nation’s first national bank, chartered by Congress in 1791, under George Washington). In Benton’s view, the Bank existed simply to “abduct” the gold and silver so desperately needed by westerners; that specie ended up in the pockets of wealthy easterners, while the Bank issued worthless paper money to westerners.

When the Bank of the United States’ charter was up for renewal, in 1831, during Jackson’s first term, Benton spoke heatedly against it on the floor of the Senate. His fulmination against eastern money and the establishment of privilege that had coalesced around it, in the form of the Republican Party, could just as easily come today from the lips of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders: If the Bank of the United States were renewed, and the eastern elite allowed to accumulate even more wealth, Benton warned, in this “may be laid the foundation for the titles and estates of our future nobility—Duke of Cincinnati! Earl of Lexington! Marquis of Nashville! Count of St. Louis! Prince of New Orelans! Such may be the titles of the bank nobility…”. As for the charter renewal itself, Benton said, he would vote against “a bill for the establishment of lords and commons in this America, and for the eventual establishment of a King; for when the lords and commons are established, the King will come of himself!”

Americans had fought the Revolution to be freed from the tyranny of one King; Benton and Democrats did not want another Royal Court and King established, on the basis of wealth rather than blood. We hear distinct echoes of this fear in the modern Democratic Party; even after nearly two hundred years, one of the party’s bedrock principles is to discourage great concentrations of wealth. Instead of “the Count of St. Louis” and “the Duke of Cincinnati,” we might speak today of the Earl of Las Vegas (Sheldon Adelson), the Prince of Silicon Valley (Mark Zuckerberg), the Baron of Wichita ((Charles Koch), the Empress of Michigan (Betsy DeVos) and the rest of the Royal Court, most of whom are Republicans.

But think about Benton’s final warning: ”when the lords and commons are established, the King will come of himself!” What does this mean? The “lords” whose establishment Benton feared are upon us already; they always have been. America has always permitted the accumulation of vast wealth (which is one of the main reasons why the Republican Party has always resisted taxation), and the gap between the ultra-wealthy and everybody else has never been greater than it is today.

And who are the “commons”? You and me: the little people, the lower classes…the 99%, if you will. Who can doubt that Benton’s fear has come true: America is now comprised of a 1% class of “lords” and a 99% class of “commons.” These lords will not give up their power and money without a fight: indeed, we have lately seen them lining up to resist Warren and Sanders with all their collective might. Their “Resistance”, if we can call it that, even crosses party lines: even billionaire Democrats like Michael Bloomberg are sounding the alarm against higher taxes on their class.

And in 2016, Benton’s most alarming and dire warning came true: the King came “of himself.” The lords selected one of their own, Donald J. Trump, to be their ruler, and elevated him (with help from the Russians) to be their president. His job: to protect their interests. To cut their taxes even more than they had been reduced under Republican presidents, and to make sure that no future taxes would ever be levied upon them. To protect and strengthen their banks and corporations. And to do all the other things that Kings do, which is why the Founders rose up against King George III in the first place: to punish his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” (The Declaration of Independence spells out these “injuries and usurpations” in great detail.)

So we see History repeating itself. In one sense, therefore, the modern Republican Party—as rightwing, Orwellian and plutocratic as any party has ever been—is nothing but a more egregious rehash of the Republican Party’s historical conservatism. But in another, far more sinister sense, the accompanying rise of a “King”, in the form of Donald J. Trump, has confronted this nation with its most dangerous challenge since the Civil War. For, let us remember, by definition the King is above the law…and can do whatever he wants, with no repercussions.

Oh, that Bank of the United States charter renewal? President Jackson, an ardent Democrat, vetoed it. In words, once again, that could come from any Democrat today, he explained:

“It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes…When the laws undertake…to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society…have a right to complain of the injustices to their Government.”


American irredentism: What is it leading to?

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“Irredentism” is a valuable concept in describing political history. The formal definition is a policy of advocating the restoration to a country of any territory formerly belonging to it,” but the term is more broadly used to describe any political-cultural minority—usually a country or a large part of it—that feels slighted by the majority, often after losing a war.

There’s always a lot of irredentism going on in the world. The Palestinians are irredentists with regard to the Occupied Territories. China is to some extent irredentist about Taiwan. There are American southerners to this day who believe they would not have lost the Civil War were it not for treachery and infamy; they, too, are irredentist.

The most famous example of irrendentism in modern world history is that of Germans after they lost the First World War. Many, probably most Germans felt they had been cheated of victory by traitors (Jews, Communists, liberal democrats, cowards) among their own people. Once cheated, foreign enemies piled on, sending Germany into humiliated resentment. Tens of millions of Germans believed they had been robbed of their country’s birthright; and this resentment found its arch expression in Adolf Hitler, who knew how to stoke anger into action.

The Armistice of November, 1918, by which Germany acknowledged losing the war, and the Treaty of Versailles, signed a year later between the losing Germany and the victorious Allies, both led to the “end” of the First World War, but it was an “end” in name only. Most statesmen, and the masses they led, believed that the War to End All Wars signaled a new period of peace and prosperity for all mankind. But, of course, that was not to be. Ferdinand Foch, the French Marshall who was that country’s greatest military leader, was one of the few who correctly foresaw an uneasy future. “This is not a peace,” he declared after Versailles; “it is an armistice for twenty years.” He said that in 1919. Exactly twenty years later, the Second World War, a continuation of the First, broke out.

Germany had made pledges and promises after defeat in which she committed herself to disarmament, to respecting her neighbors’ borders, to rejecting war as a continuation of policy by other means. But those pledges meant nothing. The German people themselves resented the peace treaty. They could not understand how the victory they thought they had in their grasp had been snatched from them at the last minute. They longed for vengeance. They were, in other words, irredentist.

And there was nothing the Allies, or anyone else, could do about it. Even in retrospect (where hindsight is always 20/20), it’s hard to surmise what could have been done to prevent the Second World War. Like a virus sleeping deep within the body politic, German resentment metastasized in the breasts of ordinary Germans until it erupted in the obscenity of Hitler and the Nazis. Some things seem destined from the start; the Second World War was as inevitable as any event in human history.

America has its own growing irredentist movement. I referred above to some Southerners who refuse to concede defeat, 154 years after the Civil War ended. (Think of all those pickup trucks in Dixie flying the Stars and Bars.) Those Southerners are one facet of American irredentism. Other facets are evangelicals, anti-government types, xenophobes, white nationalists, and that whole genre of individuals we commonly think of as Trump supporters.

America has witnessed rightwing irredentism for many decades, but most historians dismissed it as being something so far out on the fringe that no one needed to take it seriously, or worry about it. In a further parallel with Hitlerian Germany, most Western journalists, politicians and historians likewise dismissed Hitler, in the 1920s and early 1930s and even to some extent after he became Chancellor in 1933, as an aberration, a strange and exotic creature of the fringe, who could be ignored until “normal” political forces in Germany resumed, and got rid of him. This did not happen, and again, in retrospect it’s very difficult to imagine what anyone could have done to alter what eventually happened.

This is the problem with irredentists. As people, they’re real. Their grievances are real—not in the sense that those grievances are based on facts, but in the sense that the irredentists feel them strongly, and are prepared to act on them. The thirty percent of Americans who still support Trump are irredentists, and “hard” irredentists, at that. They’re not going away. Their sense of grievance grows by the hour, and if Trump is legally charged with crimes, or is Impeached, their resentment will explode to become at least as strong as the irredentism of Germans after Versailles. And irredentists, as you plainly see, can cause an awful lot of damage.

How we Americans deal with our irredentists is as incalculable as how Germany could have dealt with hers. It’s common historical wisdom that the seeds of the Second World War were planted deep within the fertile soil of the settlement of the First World War, thus making the Second conflagration unavoidable. What seeds are planted in the soils of Red districts? Is there something unavoidable now slouching towards Bethlehem, something dark and fierce whose coming cannot be prevented?


Lessons to The Resistance from Churchill

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In February, 1941, as the Second World War ground into its seventeenth month, Great Britain was on her heels. Hitler was master of the continent of Europe; Italy had joined on his side; France had fallen. German bombers were reducing entire neighborhoods of London, Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool and other English cities to rubble in the Blitz. Hitler’s U-boats were sinking enormous tonnages of goods being shipped to and from Britain, an island nation dependent on such trade for its lifeline. The German Wehrmacht–Army, Navy and Air Force–was poised to invade the British Isles. In the Libyan desert, Rommel’s Afrika Corps was routing the British army. In the Far East, Japan was mobilizing, threatening Imperial possessions such as Singapore and Hong Kong (both of which they soon seized).

In short, it was not a good time for the British, or for Winston Churchill, who had been called to be Prime Minister less than a year earlier. Churchill’s strategy—the only one he could truthfully proclaim to the British people—was heavy on rhetorical promises, but light on specifics: He vowed to “fight on the seas and oceans…in the air…on the beaches…on the landing grounds…in the fields and in the streets…in the hills…”. Despite the confident phrases, Churchill understood that Britain’s only chance was for America to step in, and so he added these immortal words: “We shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Ten months later—in early December, 1941—that is exactly what happened, as America entered the war. But neither Churchill nor anyone else could foresee that possibility, and so, on that night of Feb. 9, 1941, from London, Churchill gave a major speech entitled “Put your confidence in us.” It was addressed, ostensibly, to “the British nation and the Empire,” but its real intended target was 3,000 miles to the west, across the Atlantic: the United States of America, and particularly its leader, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who the previous November had just been elected to an unprecedented third term. On that bleak night, with German bombs still falling across Britain, Churchill bluntly conceded the difficulties Britain faced. Germany remained ascendant, he said, outlining what further conquering Hitler was likely to accomplish. “He may carry havoc into the Balkan States; he may tear great provinces out of Russia; he may march to the Caspian; he may march to the gates of India. All this will avail him nothing…In order to win the war Hitler must destroy Great Britain.”

Churchill’s prognostications soon came true, with the exception of the Germans reaching India (not that they didn’t try). In the event, Hitler never did dare to invade Great Britain. America did enter the war, after Pearl Harbor, and what Churchill called “the Prussian yoke and the Nazi name” did go down to utter defeat (which would not have happened without the Soviet Union’s extraordinary resistance). But it took everything the British had to remain steadfast in the face of such horrible and demoralizing setbacks. At the conclusion of that Feb. 9 speech, Churchill issued one of his most stirring perorations. “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.”

Great Britain survived Hitler’s threat; she simply would not let him win. The British stared down and fought the dictator, whose martial aspirations ended with a self-inflicted bullet to the brain. I need not point out the similarities between those legendary times and our own, here in America, where a majority of our people voted against this current President, whose opponents are armed in this fight with little more than resolve. But resolve is the mother of victory. For us, following the glorious Women’s Marches around the world, this—as Churchill said in another context—“is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

And so let us roll on. For this new President to succeed in his nefarious designs, he must first destroy our confidence and unity, just as Hitler had first to break Britain before he could conquer the world. This, Trump is desperately trying to do; he knows the legitimacy of his Presidency is at stake, and it’s freaking him out. But like the English in 1941, “We shall not fail or falter. We shall not weaken or tire.”  This is Winston Churchill’s lesson to The Resistance.


Peter Mondavi, Sr.: A vision held steadfast

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I’ve held off commenting on Peter Mondavi, Sr.’s death, because it’s been well covered elsewhere, and also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to bring to the conversation.

It’s already been noted, for instance here in Wine Spectator, how much Mr. Mondavi contributed to modern winemaking techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. Important as those were, on reflection I think his greater contribution was to the sense of continuity he brought to a valley in which well-heeled newcomers enter the arena all the time, often acting as though Napa’s history hadn’t really been complete until they arrived.

This is not to say that Mr. Mondavi’s importance simply was longevity, although that, in itself, is an achievement. It also was an achievement of the first rank that he, together with his family, was able to keep Charles Krug Winery strong and in their hands; this was one outfit that, no matter how hard things might have been here and there, refused to sell out, although I’m sure they had opportunities aplenty.

But perhaps Mr. Mondavi’s greatest achievement—which he has bequeathed to Napa Valley—was that of a vision held steadfast. It can be difficult to define “vision.” Wealthy newcomers to the valley have visions, too; of Parker 100s, $300 wholesale prices on their wines, and all the glitz and glamor that go with the cult wine lifestyle. That is, to paraphrase Churchill, at least a vision…but it is not a particularly savory one.

The vision Mr. Mondavi possessed, he inherited from his parents, Cesare and Rosa, themselves saturated in the traditions of grapegrowing and winemaking. From their humble beginnings in Lodi, in the darkest depths of Prohibition, they were practically the living incarnation of the modern evolution of California wine. Peter Mondavi, Sr. and his brother, Robert, you might say, were born in barrels.

Why does continuity matter? It may be that I perceive its value more today than I might have twenty years ago. Continuity, in the person of a man or woman, is the residual compilation of all that has occurred up to that moment: the person becomes the living embodiment of it, and thus worthy of respect. If a wine region such as Napa Valley can be said to have a soul, then that soul resides not so much in its terroir, nor in its buildings, and certainly not in its newcomers, but in its enduring legends. And Mr. Mondavi was an enduring legend.

You know, in the last several years of Mr. Mondavi’s life, his family made a great deal of him walking up and down that famous flight of stairs on his way to work, even at his centennial age. They were proud of his health and grit, as well they should have been. But whenever I read that he was still climbing those stairs, I thought, not just about a single individual, but about Napa Valley. That it is still there, ascending, persevering, reporting to work every day, despite the nonsense that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it and, in our lemming-media culture, usually does. In that sense, Mr. Mondavi was a metaphor for Napa Valley itself. Just imagine what his eyes perceived over his long lifetime: the events, personalities, achievements, the drama, the ups and downs and tumult–a sweep of history encompassing, through his parents and his own life, most of the twentieth century and, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born and not yet born, what likely will be a good part of the twenty-first and even the twenty-second. That is what Mr. Mondavi means to me. If I ask myself who else in Napa Valley is like him, or ever will be, the answer is: No one.


Happy 50th, Robert Mondavi Winery

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Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Napa Valley possessed no Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW).

Prior to 1966 Napa was a sleepy little wine valley, dominated by legendary wineries already perceived as old-time, like Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug and Louis M. Martini. A few newer wineries had sprung up over the decades, including Mayacamas (1941), Stony Hill (1953) and Heitz (1961), so we have to take the claim, oft-repeated, that RMWwas the first new large-scale winery to be established in the valley since before prohibition” with a certain grain of salt. Still, the building of the physical winery itself, designed by the celebrated California architect Cliff May, was an extraordinary event. It brought to the valley a look that combined traditional Mission motifs with a modernity that seemed to express the essence of Napa Valley, and its wines; and, in becoming an almost instant tourist mecca, it opened the gates to Napa Valley as one of the most visited wine regions in the world.

There was, too, at the time a great deal of critical interest in the wines the brash, not-quite-so-young (53) Robert Mondavi was creating; but here, too, we have to hedge this statement with an explanation that there wasn’t much going on at that time in America in the way of critical coverage of the wine industry. That was to come, much later, in large part due to Robert Mondavi, the winery, as well as the man, who was such a relentless engine of exhortation for the wines of Napa Valley.

Early reporters, unsure of how to parse Mondavi’s wines, and understanding that such a new enterprise would take some time to find its sea legs, instead focused on the winery and Robert’s audacity. One of the first important wine books to be published after RMW’s founding was The Fine Wines of California (Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, 1970). Mondavi’s wines, they wrote, “show[ed] breed and flavor”; they reserved their highest accolades to the ’68 Fumé Blanc, but were less enthusiastic when it came to the reds: the ’66 Cabernet was “pleasant, rather fruity,” but “not the most complex,” while the ’66 Pinot—a variety Robert’s winemaker son, Tim, would be famously associated with—was “sharp…light…[and] unpleasant.”

Three years later, Leon D. Adams, the former head of the Wine Institute, in his The Wines of America (1973) was astounded that, by that time, RMW was attracting visitors “at the rate of 1500 per week and are selling them a tenth of the winery’s output,” an impressive anticipation of direct-to-consumer sales. But Adams, an amateur historian and a fine one, did not pretend to be a wine critic, and did not venture into that area. That year, 1973, the same caveats issued by Hannum and Blumberg came from the pen of the man who arguably at that time was the dean of American wine writers, Nathan Chroman. In his The Treasury of American Wines, Chroman found Mondavi’s red wines “satisfactory, but [they] do not measure up to the whites…”, although he held out hope for the Cabernet Sauvignon. But he, too, love the Fumé Blanc.

Europeans were perhaps more welcoming to the wines. Three years before Adams wrote, the great British enophile (and Francophile) Harry Waugh was taken by his hosts to RMW, where, as he wrote in Pick of the Bunch (1970), he found “extraordinarily exciting…ideas and projects” bubbling forth: That 1968 Fumé Blanc—the one Hannum, Blumberg and Chroman loved (and Robert is credited with inventing the term)–had “the true smell” of “a blanc fumé from the Loire,” and received the ultimate Waugh plaudit of being a wine “which would go into my collection…”. He thought less well of a ’67 Chardonnay, but a ’66 Zinfandel was his favorite in a flight of five, and so was a ’66 Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it was through the admiration of Harry Waugh and his London-based Zinfandel Club that the wines of the new “boutiques” such as RMW were introduced to and appreciated by the intelligentsia of Europe (except for the French), which gave them great cachet.

We can say, and be on sound historical footing, that the launch of RMW heralded in that boutique winery era—which saw, over the next 15 years, as stellar a flight of winery startups as ever has been recorded in history, on any continent. There was nothing like it: with the advent of that generation of young, determined, bold and visionary vintners, California experienced a land rush of new wineries that set the stage for its future success and made it the international capitol for wine excitement. Things are quite different today, when none but the über-rich have the means to establish a new winery, and the sparkle, steam and creativity that marked the 1960s and 1970s have faded away. But Cliff May’s arch and campanile still mark that glorious stretch of Highway 29 through Oakville, and the footprint of Robert Mondavi remains as large and indelible as ever.

 


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