I’m of two minds when it comes to California raising taxes on wine, beer and spirits. (Yes, that issue is still on the table, and was the subject yesterday of a hearing by the Assembly Committee on Health.)
California, like other states, is in the toilet financially, and Schwarzenegger and the (mostly Democratic) legislators are looking for every dime they can raise. (Republicans are calling for spending cuts.) Schwarzenegger is a Republican, of course, but at least he has the cojones to admit he’s raising taxes after promising not to because California is on the verge of fiscal Armageddon and he has no choice. Ronald Reagan did the same thing when he was Governor; he raised taxes after saying he wouldn’t. Reagan and Schwarzenegger, like most Governors, are political pragmatists in the long run.
I don’t mind an honest discussion over taxes vs. spending cuts. But the discussion turns dishonest when the likes of Assemblyman Jim Beall (who introduced the alcohol tax hike bill) and the Marin Institute step in to spread their skein of lies and half-truths. The Democrat from San Jose and the fiercely anti-alcohol Marin Institute insist their support for the alcohol tax hike isn’t because the money is needed, it’s because the alcoholic beverage industry “causes” fetal alcohol syndrome and DUI fatalities and must “pay” for its sins.
“The industry must start paying its fair share for the problems their products cause,” Beall insists. On his government website, he goes even further:
“The alcohol industry creates devastating problems – traffic accidents, alcoholism – and walks away with money stuffed in its pockets while the public — including non-drinkers — are left to pay billions for the mess.’’
His friend Bruce Livingston, the Marin Institute’s executive director, backs up these incendiary falsehoods. “Now is the time to charge Big Alcohol for the $38.4 billion … in harm their products cause every year in California.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the alcohol industry doesn’t “cause” anything. It’s stupid people who cause problems: the idiot mother who gets loaded while pregnant, the moron who drinks and drives. Blaming a winery because someone who drinks their wine got into a traffic accident is just plain stupid-headed and unfair. It reminds me of the burglar who tried to break into a store at night through a rooftop window and fell through, hurting himself. He sued the store he was trying to rob! “It wasn’t my fault I got hurt, it’s because they put a dangerous window there and they should have known better.”
I DON’T THINK SO, KNUCKLEHEAD!
I can do no better than to quote this statement from a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut:
“Mr. Beall and Marin’s whole strategy of taxing people sober (with the long-term goal of eventually going back to prohibition) is fatally flawed…Research indicates that the heaviest drinkers do not curb their drinking in response to higher prices, unlike light-to-moderate drinkers, for whom there can be positive health benefits…If alcohol abusers are truly addicted, will an extra ‘dime a drink’ stop them? Will a career criminal decide to not get drunk before his next crime spree because of a 10-cent-per-drink tax? Of course not.”
In what’s turning into the longest-running farce in U.S. appellation annals, the Calistoga contretemps is back again in the headlines.
Just to bring you up to date on the plot, we first heard, back in 2003, that local vintners wanted the then-Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms bureau (now the Tax & Trade Bureau) to approve a Calistoga American Viticultural Area designation (AVA). In September, 2006, Chateau Montelena formally applied for approval. At that time, Montelena’s owner told me the Bureau told him the proposal was “the least controversial one they’ve ever done.” Well, that was a setup line if ever there was one, for a year later the Calistoga AVA had been effectively sidelined. Two wineries, Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards, both challenged it, saying it would harm their businesses, if approved, because they would have to change their names, since neither sources at least 85% of their grapes from the Calistoga area.
A risk-adverse TTB thus shelved the proposal, with spokesman Art Resnick explaining, “TTB needs to take a second look at this.” (For a good summary of the situation as of last year, see this link to the Napa Valley Register.)
Well, now Calistoga III: The Curse of the Compromise is playing in a theatre near you. Seems TTB worked out a tentative deal whereby the two wineries with “Calistoga” in their names will be grandfathered in, allowing them to keep their names going forward. But wait! There’s more. No sooner was the compromise revealed than the two Congressmen who head up California’s wine caucus, George Radanovich (R-Mariposa) and Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) came out forcefully against it.
“We have very serious concerns that (the compromise)… could do lasting harm to the growing American wine industry,” they wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. On the other hand, the powerful chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), came out in support of the compromise (leading some reporters to note that Harkin had gone to school with one of the wineries’ co-owners).
I don’t see what the fuss is. Go ahead and approve the Calistoga AVA, and let the two wineries keep their names. It’s not a big deal. Appellation names are overblown anyway. Radanovich and Thompson are engaging in a little hyperbole when they say the future of the wine industry is at stake.
So let the compromise march forward. But in return, let TTB state, once and for all and on the record, that this is the last time they’ll let a geographic abomination like Calistoga Cellars and Calistoga Estate Vineyards slip through. No more name games. TTB has got to develop a spine.
California wineries and supporters of the wine industry are gearing up for their biggest fight in at least a decade: heading off Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed excise tax hike on wine.
Vintners are speaking out to whoever will listen, predicting the most dire economic consequences if the measure passes.
“It’s like shooting Charles Shaw in the eye,” says Fred Franzia, of his Two Buck Chuck. Franzia worries that the wine’s price could soar by 25 or even 50 cents per bottle.
The tax hike “is insanity,” says Joseph Filippi, of Cucamonga-based Joseph Filippi Winery and Vineyard. His near neighbor, Don Galleano, of Galleano Winery, in Mira Loma, predicts the new law “is going to be detrimental to business” if it passes.
Winery owners, small and large, see doom if they’re forced to raise bottle prices. Greg Popovich, president of Castle Rock Winery, in Sonoma County, says he’s been warned by Beverages, and More!, one of his leading retail accounts, “that if I raise my price by even a penny in this economy I will lose the account.”
The CBS local affiliate in San Luis Obispo quoted Gary Eberle, of Paso Robles’ Eberle Winery, as saying the tax rise “by itself probably could put a few people out of business. There are just so many things aggravating our business right now, I’ve seen a lot of people in serious trouble.”
Robert Koch, president and CEO of The Wine Institute, wrote Schwarzenegger, arguing, “[W]e strenuously object to the singling out of our industry to bear more than our fair share of the burden.” The Governor’s proposal would raise the state’s wine excise tax by 640 percent, sending it from 20 cents a gallon to $1.48 a gallon, and causing the loss of at least 6,756 wine jobs, Koch calculates.
The Wine Institute released this chart representing the effect of the proposed surtax on wine.
The industry is asking consumers to write the Governor opposing the measure. Care2, an online “healthy and green living” website, has launched a petition drive.
The last time California was confronted with the threat of a big sales tax hike, Wine Institute’s then head, John DeLuca, successfully fended it off. It will be interesting to see if Koch can do the same. With California hemorhaging money, Democrats in charge of the State Legislature, and a nominally-GOP Governor who’s been acting more like a Democrat the last few years than a Republican, I’m predicting taxes are going up on wine, regardless of whether anyone likes it or not. When push comes to shove, elected officials will protect the interests of cops, firefighters, prisons and schools over those of wine drinkers. And the truth is, people who buy Two Buck Chuck can shell out another 50 cents.
I’m here in the nation’s capital for the big Obama inauguration, making the rounds of parties, balls and fêtes, and man, is it exhausting! One thing after another, with not enough sleep. Just yesterday I was asking Michelle how she stands up to the constant commotion and shmoozing. And she always looks so good! We were in the Bedroom Suite of Blair House — you know, the one where everything’s in pink pastels — having a glass of Chard (K-J V.R.) while the tailor was putting the finishing touches on the I.G. (Inaugural Gown). No, I can’t and won’t say anything about it, you’ll just have to wait to see it like everybody else! Except I can tell you it’s STUNNING and nobody but nobody could look better in it than M.O. At one point The Man Himself popped in to say hi. He was with Rahm (who looks even more feral in real life than he does on the telly). They were going out for a jog and Barack had on these grey cotton sweatpants with wide blue sidestripes and a light blue T-shirt with PEBO in red letters. That’s short for “President-elect Barack Obama.” After he and Rahm left, Michelle joked that the girls are already calling him PEBO or “PEBO Daddy”! So that’s a little inside gossip. Now stay tuned for some big news: I have learned the contents of the Obamas’ wine cellar! And it’s not all K-J. They have a lot of Alsatian Riesling (Michelle’s fave) and some Barolo (which she says she’s learning to like under the tutelage of her personal wine guru, Karen MacNeil) and also some Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, not to mention Champagne. I asked Michelle what Big O. likes and she said he’s down with Napa Cabernet, but that he also has a thing for a good microbrew (which we already knew). She confided, “He’s never acquired a taste for liquor, but he’ll have a cognac after a nice dinner.” Back home in Chicago, they have some Illinois wine, but Michelle said they don’t really like it, and probably won’t be having it in the White House.
Another thing Michelle was working on was the menu for the Inauguration Day luncheon. For all you little people not important enough to be invited, here it is:
Duckhorn 2007 Sauvignon Blanc
(My Wine Enthusiast score: 90)
Pheasant and Duck served with Sour Cherry Chutney and Molasses Sweet Potatoes
Goldeneye 2005 Pinot Noir
(My Wine Enthusiast score: 92)
Apple Cinnamon Sponge Cake with Sweet Cream
Korbel Special Inaugural Cuvée
I asked Michelle what she thought of Tom Wark’s remark last week that “I don’t expect…any public display of wine loving on the part of Barack Obama.” (She was fully aware of it, because she reads the major wine blogs every day.) She disagreed. “Wark’s a smart guy, but he’s wrong on this one. Barack will be the wine President,” she said confidently. She wouldn’t provide details, but it’s clear that we have friends in the White House, after eight low, mean, dry years of chili and milk.
Look, I fully recognize that some people have a substance abuse problem, whether it be with alcohol or drugs. So before you slam me for not “getting it,” let’s get the foregoing straight, okay?
Having said that, last week’s news that President Bush, for the first time, candidly talked about his history of alcoholism has me wondering why so many people who go through this struggle end up talking about Jesus Christ. I mean, do you have to be an ex-addict to discover that old time religion?
CNN reported on Bush’s fess-up, quoting him as saying, “I’m a faith-based guy. Sometimes, to help change a person’s behavior, you have to change their heart.” We have to understand “faith-based” in the context of another quote in the article, from a baseball player named Josh Hamilton, who told Bush that his own drug addiction was cured only after “I opened my heart, and that following night I committed my life to Christ.”
That’s what makes me uneasy with this entire anti-alcohol movement. I’ve posted many times on this site about neoprohibitionism and accompanying moves to curtail the use of alcohol, if not to eliminate it altogether. When I wrote my blog on “Seven reasons not to vote for Sarah Palin if you love wine” (Sept. 7), it alluded to this concern. I have little problem with professionals who rightfully point out the dangers of excessive use of substances, including alcohol, and I understand, as I explained above, that some people feel they just can’t take a single sip of alcohol without endangering themselves. Hell, I have relatives in that sad situation, and I feel sorry for them.
But why do so many of these crusaders have to juxtapose Jesus Christ and born-again Christianity with their recoveries? Do the two have anything to do with each other? Does that mean an agnostic can’t be a recovering addict, or a Jew, or a Buddhist? When my Jewish relatives went to AA and gave up alcohol, they didn’t run all over the place yakking about Moses and Abraham, they just quietly got their stuff together in a dignified way. Why can’t people like Hamilton and Bush do it the same way? It’s their religious certainty, and the need to pompously showcase it for everybody else, that bothers me about these recoverers — the same ideological certainty Bush displayed in his disastrous war in Iraq, in the anti-science bent of his administration, in his reflexive instinct against gay people, in the arrogant middle finger he gave to the rest of the world through his go-it-alone foreign policy. I could go on and on. I completely agree with Oliver Stone, who said:
There’s nothing more dangerous for America than an ex-alcoholic President who tells you to believe in Jesus.
And before you accuse me of being anti-Christian, I’m not. Hello! Jesus was a great Jewish rabbi. What I’m against are Christians who want to impose their narrow religious beliefs on the rest of us, tear down the wall between church and state, and replace the Constitution with Leviticus.
By the way, Mr. Bush, what about your use of cocaine?
On Monday, back to wine!
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.