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Another reason to drink

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We know Barack Obama likes to drink beer and wine because it’s been widely reported. Now we know that Bill Clinton likewise enjoys a glass of wine.

On the other hand, we also know that George W. Bush didn’t drink, nor does Mitt Romney. So what does this say about Democrats and Republicans?

A lot, I think. Oh, I know that some Dems don’t inbibe and some Repubs do, but in general, it seems to me that Democrats like to drink for the same reasons the rest of us do: it relaxes them, makes them more uninhibited and contributes to an atmosphere of fun and festivity with friends. Republicans always seem more uptight to me, but that’s not the entire reason why they don’t drink. I think it’s because a neoprohibitionist streak runs through their party, and also the Christian fundamentalism that is so rampant in the GOP frowns on the consumption of alcohol.

Why this is so has long been a mystery to me. The people who wrote the Bible—Old and New Testaments—drank a lot of wine. Noah grew a grapevine when he emerged from the Ark. Jesus drank wine; in fact, he manufactured it from water, making him a winemaker. Wine was at the center of Semitic life, as it was of Greek and Roman culture. So why followers of the Bible would eschew wine is, quite frankly, weird.

The spiritual ancestors of our current anti-alcohol crowd were the Pilgrims, a tight-assed group of white guys if ever there was one. They didn’t permit dancing either, and I suspect if they were still around they wouldn’t go to the movies. They believed pleasure in this life was wicked and had to be rejected, so that they could experience pleasure in the next, Heavenly life. What current group of people on Earth believes the same? Fundamentalist Muslims, of course, who also don’t drink alcohol, and who make their women stay veiled.

Life for me has always been about pleasure. I’m no Sybarite; I don’t indulge in luxury for its own sake, and I dare say I have spiritual beliefs that are quite religious, in their own way. But I do believe the Creator gave us the capacity to delight in our senses, and that to deliberately shun that delight is, in a way, to turn against the Creator.

People who can’t relax with a glass of beer, wine or liquor among friends and laugh and get loose have a serious problem, and they shouldn’t be telling the rest of us what’s right and wrong. (I exempt, naturally, those who have addiction problems, of whom I have several I love in my own family.) It’s always been the anti-life crowd that’s tried to preach to the mass of humankind that’s fundamentally kind, generous and decent and just wants to chill after a long day of work. This anti-life crowd often ends up in positions of power—priest, legislator, judge—because something in them drives them to want to tell everybody else how to live. Sometimes, and in some eras, they take over entire countries, always leading them to disaster. One of the things I love about America and our culture is that people enjoy drinking. I love going into a bar with a TV showing sports and hearing folks laugh and cheer as their team scores. (As I did last Saturday in Santa Monica.) The booze is flowing freely, and everybody’s happy to be there no matter how lousy their day was, including me. If I was younger (and better-looking) I might even be a mixologist; they seem to be happy people with great jobs. If I were President of the United States, I’d make as one of my pet causes they promotion of wine drinking in America, on the basis that “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” Thomas Jefferson said that.


How the right turned brie and chablis into an epithet

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I like brie, that famously runny, aromatic cheese that comes from the Brie department of central France. Brie and Chablis wine, which hails from the Yonne department just to Brie’s south, have been a historic pairing for centuries (although Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, “we wouldn’t say we’re crazy about the combination of Brie and Chablis”).

Yet “brie and Chablis” (or “wine and cheese”) has long been a derisory term for liberals, and no liberals in America arouse the wrath of the right more than San Franciscans. When did wine and cheese become the odious signifiers of those unpatriotic, deviant, nattering nabobs of negativity, the liberals?

I trace it back to the split between wine and beer cultures that Europe saw in the Middle Ages. Where winegrapes could be cultivated in the warmer Mediterranean south, people were Latinized: less warlike, fond of siestas, food, dancing, conversation, good living and lovemaking. In the north, where it was too cold for vitis vinifera to grow, people turned to beer; they were Continental tribes, descendants of Huns, Vikings and Slavs, a warrior society not keen on art or philosophy. They preferred drinking beer from the skulls of their enemies.

We see this split echoed today in America, where Dr. Vino last week wondered “…how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?” Simple. The NFL reflects the Prussianized, warlike, hyper-masculinized psyche many American males believe themselves to embody (or wish they did). Wine is more the beverage of effete people who go to the Opera.

Wine and cheese receptions have been a mainstay of politics on both sides for a century. When the Harvard Crimson wrote about a Stuart Udall fundraiser in 1976 (Udall, a Democratic Arizona Congressman, was running in the primaries against Jimmy Carter), the writer described an event he went to as “a typical wine-and-cheese gathering.” Nothing Republican or Democratic about it, just bipartisanly political. But by 1980, the phrase somehow had become anti-Democrat, although when “cheese” was replaced by “brie” and “wine” by “chablis,” I will leave to future historians to figure out. When John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who was a sort of Ross Perot-style maverick, was running for President, he was portrayed by the right as not conservative enough. A columnist for the Washington Post, Mark Shields [himself a moderate Democrat], wrote: “For John Anderson to be a true challenger for the presidency, he cannot be either a ‘spoiler’ or simply the favorite of the brie-and-chablis set.” Did Shields pluck that phrase out from the ether? Undoubtedly it had antecedents. Some think that Leonard Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers, in 1966, was the prototype; that fête was endlessly parodied by Republicans as bleeding heart “limousine liberal” pretension, and, after all, Lenny (the ultimate liberal Democrat), was a Jew, plus he was bisexual, and his beautiful foreign-born wife, Felicia, the quintessential Upper West Side hostess, served wine and “Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts,” according to Tom Wolfe, who wrote about it.

Little Roquefort cheese morsels! It was perhaps understandable that the right confused roquefort for brie, which may have been easier for them to spell. How easy for pretzel and beer loving Republicans to satirize that citified appetizer (and with crushed nuts, to boot). By 1982, “the wine and cheese crowd” had entered the political lexicon as a metaphor for Democrats: here’s The Texas Monthly describing “the hatred that the Okies from Muskogee feel for the wine-and-cheese” crowd” to explain Texas’s transition from FDR stronghold to Reagan country.

They’re still doing it. Yesterday, as the world famously knows, the San Francisco Forty Niners played the New York Giants for the NFC championship. Just before the game, a New York Daily News columnist, Filip Bondy, wrote that Niner fans are “overrated,” likening them to “Strange, exotic plants”, “not fat enough” and “softer” than Giants fans–in other words, San Franciscans are insufficiently brutal. Bondy was making a funny, of course, but the tweak was enough to prompt the San Francisco Chroncle’s sportswriter, Scott Ostler, to pen in response, “49ers fans’ courage not measured by Brie and wine,” he headlined, although Bondy used neither of those terms. But then, you can’t blame San Franciscans for being a little defensive after decades of getting their butts kicked by the right. As recently as 2008, Pat Buchanan (who knows something about demonizing his political opponents) still was ranting about “the chablis-and-brie set of San Francisco,” even though by then, the characterization was shopworn. Incidentally, being “brie-and-chablis San Franciscans” didn’t seem to hurt the 2010 Giants or, for that matter, five Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49er teams (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).

Yes, San Francisco lost last night. They played like mensches, and I hope after the game they went wherever they went and enjoyed some well-deserved wine and cheese.


Budget cuts and Burgundy: Paul Ryan’s rank hypocrisy

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I can’t agree with Slate’s Mike Steinberger that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s decision to consume a couple bottles of Burgundy at $350 each was a “so what…asinine controversy.”

Ryan has come under attack from the left for his luxury splurge at a Washington D.C. restaurant, even as he’s urging the Congress to pass severe new restrictions on Medicare, Medicaid and other services for the poor and middle class.

Steinberger would let the guy off with a gentle chide, but I think Ryan’s indulgence speaks to a much deeper and more disturbing trend on his part, and the part of his wing of the Republican Party: the “I’m doing just fine, thank you, and if you’re not, it’s not my problem” mentality. Never mind the overt hypocrisy, his crassly conspicuous consumption testifies to a temperament that, in my judgment, discredits anything he has to say about fiscal discipline.

Ryan, confronted with the fact that the media was onto him, apparently claimed “he’d had no idea what the vintage cost…”. This sounds like the typical reaction of a politician who, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, tries to weasel his way out with a lame excuse. No idea? Really? Where did he think he was, the International House of Pancakes? No, he was at Bistro Bis, an expensive French restaurant where the entrées are in the mid- to high $20s, and the wine Ryan enjoyed for $350, the Jayer-Gilles Grand Cru 2004  Echezeaux, is the most expensive bottle on the wine list. It defies logic that the Congressman didn’t know he was drinking wine whose value exceeded the weekly income of a two-worker family on minimum wage.

I have to agree with the woman who alerted the media to Ryan’s escapade, a business professor at Rutgers named Susan Feinberg, that “Calling these folks [Ryan and his friends] out for drinking $700 worth of wine while negotiating spending cuts that saddle others with all the burdens of ‘austerity’ is what really upsets the natural order of things.” We’re used by now to politicians who defend “traditional marriage” while having affairs with other women and hanging out in airport stalls trolling for other men. Now it would appear we’re going to have to get used to politicians demanding draconian budget cuts that will hurt the elderly, children, veterans, the disabled and the poor, even while their rich friends ply them with expensive swag (in return for what kind of favors, we’ll never learn). It’s a sad turn of events, and that’s why Steinberger is wrong to dismiss it so cavalierly. “[Ryan] was entitled to have a private dinner with some friends and not be harassed about the choice of wines,” he writes. Yes, he was, but the public is entitled to know how their preachers of fiscal austerity behave when they think nobody’s looking.


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.


Supporting our farm workers is NOT political

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My readers have asked me to kindly refrain from politics here at steveheimoff.com, and I generally do, reserving that kind of stuff for my Facebook page (where we frequently get pretty fierce!). But an article I just read in the Dec. 18 issue of The Economist has got me thinking about the plight of undocumented farm workers (including vineyard workers), and that, combined with the unfortunate refusal of Senate Republicans earlier this month to even consider the Dream Act, has me riled up enough to politicize, just a bit, on my blog.

Actually, I don’t really consider the issue of undocumented farm workers to be a political one, in the sense of partisan politics. I mean, whatever your politics, you have to eat, right? And with at least 40% of all of America’s crop workers being undocumented, mostly Mexicans (with other estimates ranging up to 90%), that means most of what we eat (and drink) has been processed, at some point in some farm, orchard or vineyard, by someone who is sin papeles (without official U.S. papers). (Note: just about all the facts I state here are from The Economist article.)

It has been more or less proven that American citizens will not perform agricultural labor. Only the blindest and most cynical opponents of immigration reform argue to the contrary. Studies show that, of those Americans who are willing to stoop down, bend over, work in unendurable heat and cold, skin their hands to bleeding, break their backs and do other uncomfortable and unhealthy work connected with crops, most of them demand wages and benefits (such as health insurance, pension contributions, paid vacations and so on) that are so high, the price of a head of lettuce would skyrocket to $10, and Two Buck Chuck would cost $8. I think the most disingenuous argument in politics (and there are some pretty disingenuous arguments) is that, if we sent all the undocumented farm workers back to Mexico, their places would be taken by grateful unemployed Americans willing to work for minimum wage. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

The Economist article illustrates vividly and compassionately why these people cross the border illegally to come to America. It’s not to “come and dump” babies, as some Republicans have crudely and hatefully stated. Children born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ status, have been considered citizens at least since the 14th Amendment was passed, in 1868; it is true, also, that there are serious rumblings in the Republican Party to undo the 14th Amendment supposedly in the interests of “national security,” but, since “national security” can be used as an excuse for almost anything, you have to wonder why the same people who want to deport all the undocumented workers also want to deny their American-born children citizenship. Can there be other, less respectable motivations going on? Yes, there can.

My main problem with ideologues is that they are so addicted to what they perceive as the correctness of their ideas that they fail to consider the implications of what would actually happen if their ideas were implemented into law. Who exactly is going to tend the fields and pick the crops if the right wing of the Republican Party succeeds in frightening Americans enough to actually legislate some of these wild concepts (not that I believe President Obama would sign them). As for the Dream Act, well, it makes so much common sense, and seems so compassionately the right thing to do, that it was absolutely right for President Obama to vow to continue pushing for its passage in 2011.

As I said earlier, I can’t for the life of me see why this issue of undocumented workers and their children has become politicized to the extent it has. You’d think that a country with the I.Q. of a doorknob would figure out that (a) the undocumented workers aren’t going anywhere, (b) there’s no way to make them leave, (c) most of them just want a better life as do we all and as did our ancestors, (d) our food economy would collapse instantly if they did go back to Mexico (and who would clean our hotels and office buildings?) and (e) if their kids satisfy all the Dream Act’s requirements (brought to the United States before they turned 16, are below the age of 35, have lived here continuously for five years, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character with no criminal record and attend college or enlist in the military), they’re more likely to be model citizens than a good many kids who were born in this country to legal citizens.

Every time I travel to wine country, I see and meet the workers. The wine industry could not possibly exist without them. I would not presume to ask an owner or winemaker if he or she knows whether all the employees are legal; but I have to assume that some of the workers are not, especially the ones who get hired by the day. The situation as it stands is lousy. These people live with fear and stress of arrest and deportation even as they pick our grapes and radishes and beans. I hope that each one of you, if you agree with me, will contact your Senator and Congressperson, find out where they stand on the Dream Act, and urge them to support it, if they don’t already. And I hope you’ll also find it to your practical advantage, if not in your heart, to support some kind of path to citizenship for the millions of these sin papeles who sweat, bleed and hurt so that we may eat and drink.


Some hot political topics around a Bento box

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Had lunch yesterday here in Oakland at Ozumo (fantastic Japanese food) with Nancy Light and Gladys Horiuchi, two friends from Wine Institute. I’ve known both for many years; Gladys, communications manager, has always been so helpful to us working reporters, and Nancy, communications director, handles what much be a stressful job with poise and lightness. I asked them what’s up these days at W.I. and they said the #1 and #2 priorities for the institute and Robert Koch, the president and CEO, are defeating HR 5034 and, here in California, defeating Proposition 25 and passing Prop 26.

They asked me if I was writing about HR 5034 and I said no. There are bloggers who know far more about it than I do — Tom Wark obviously is one — and why should I weigh in on a topic about which I am less informed than others? It’s distributors that are behind the HR 5034 threat. The entire wine, spirits and beer industries are united against it, Gladys and Nancy explained. It’s a non-partisan issue, with Democrats and Republicans both for and against it. It’s clear that the anachronistic distribution system is breaking down and will dissolve one of these days, but the wholesalers, who are a very powerful special interest, will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. Bobby Koch apparently is spending a lot of political capital and money to defeat 5034. More power to him.

As for the California propositions, 25 essentially would allow the state to raise taxes and fees with a simple majority vote, instead of the 2/3 supermajority now required. True, the initiative’s sponsors claim that the 2/3 threshold would be maintained in order to raise taxes, with the simple majority needed only for passage of a state budget. But this seems like a complicated and potentially slippery slope these days, when municipalities are scrambling to find every dollar they can. If the state can pass a budget with a simple majority, it seems obvious that taxes or fees or whatever you call them could be increased on alcoholic beverages, including wine, with a simple majority. And with the wine industry in such a fragile state, that’s the last thing we need. So I’m voting no on 25, even though that puts me in the company of conservatives. Most liberal groups are in favor of Prop 25.

Prop 26 would lock in the 2/3 supermajority and make it pertain not only to taxes but to the kinds of fees imposed by local governments, e.g. hazardous materials fees or fees on alcohol retailers. This is a complicated issue, since it has to do with the difference between a “tax” and a “fee,” and it also calls into question the power of the California Legislature to interpose itself into strictly local budgetary affairs. To the best of my understanding, if Prop 26 passes, the state would have to approve, by a 2/3 supermajority in the Legislature, any California taxpayer paying a higher tax on anything, with most “fees” being re-defined as taxes. That means, for example, that if San Francisco decided to pass a nickel-a-drink law, the California Legislature would have to sign off on it by a 2/3 supermajority.

Once again the pro-26 crowd is largely the business and anti-tax community, while those against it argue that it will help Big Oil and Big Tobacco. I wish it was easier for average voters like me to penetrate through the fog of political ads, arguments and counter-arguments and to know how these propositions really do or don’t address the issues. It always seems like a guess. I’m not entirely comfortable voting no on 25 and yes on 26, but I will.


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