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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.


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.


How will journalism survive, if government doesn’t help?

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Benjamin Franklin liked reporters, whom he called “printers.” He was one himself, and set down the premises for good journalism in a famous column, “Apology for Printers,” which he wrote, in his The Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 27, 1731. Addressing the inevitability that, no matter what the printer wrote, somebody would be pissed off, he said, “…if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” He concluded on a note of defiance to his critics: “I shall not therefore leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”

The importance of a free press is taken for granted in Western democracies. Somebody has to be watchdog over the powers that be, whether they’re political, economic or religious. Granted, a free press often takes things too far. But ask yourself if you’d rather have the cacophony of America’s journalistic howl, or a one-party press such as exists in North Korea and Iran.

Journalism unfortunately is in a hard spot now. We all know it; we’ve been watching the pressures on traditional journalism mount up for years. First, the Internet, which promised everything for free. Then, the Recession, which pulled the [adverising] rug out from under journalism’s feet. And now, the rise of a Millennial generation which, we are told, reads nothing in print.

The problem of journalism’s future is like the weather: everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. Well, not quite. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission — established in 1914 under an activist Wilson administration to protect American consumers and eliminate anti-competitive business practices — released the “discussion draft” of a 47 page “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”

Yes, you read it right. Recognizing the “significant transition” that journalism is undergoing, the document’s crafters are troubled by the “significant losses of news coverage” occurring as newspapers and magazines shut down. The draft proposal suggests measures the government can take to make sure there will be enough competent reporters in the future.

Among the most interesting of these is “additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators.” As every wine blogger knows, our blogs are reprinted in all sorts of online places whose owners receive direct financial benefit from them. I, personally, never have been particularly upset by this, but I know bloggers who are. The draft document suggests that some sort of tax on “parasitic aggregators…would better enable news organizations to obtain revenue from aggregators and search engines.” It would prohibit “free ride” sites that “without permission, post enough material to render the original news stories redundant.” Since blog posts that are aggregated are frequently found by search engines, the draft considers “legislation clarifying that the routine copying of original content done by a search engine in order to conduct a search (caching) is copyright infringement not protected by fair use.” (“Fair use” is a key concept in “third party” use of original material. Third parties are allowed to reproduce material for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research,” but in general are not allowed to economically benefit.)

The draft also explores the possibility of providing “government-fostered pilot programs to investigate new business models” for journalism, basing their thinking on certain European models. There are various versions of this, including tacking on a service fee to Internet service providers, which in turn would be passed on to audited publishers (of course, that fee would invariably be passed on to Internet end-users.) There is even a suggestion of taxing electronic devices, like iPads.

The FTC’s draft document predictably was greeted by howls of derision by entrenched interests. The rightwing is calling the tax on aggregators a “Drudge tax.” Steven Brill, whose now defunct “Brill’s Content” was a pontifical attempt to finger-wag journalism by a school-marm moralizer, told the New York Times, “You’re going to create a fund so a bunch of kids from Ivy League colleges can get jobs going to zoning board meetings with pens and pads? It’s like you’re living on another planet if you think this is going to happen.” An opinion piece in the New York Post (owned by Rupert Murdoch) complained that publishers “don’t need government help. They need to be left alone with the assurance they won’t be interfered with by the FTC.” So intense was the blowback that, last Friday, reports surfaced that “The FTC is running for cover in the wake of reports it plans to tax websites and electronic devices in order to rescue dead tree dinosaur corporate media.”

I think bloggers ought to be thinking about these things incessantly. They may not, on the surface, care about all this; it doesn’t affect them directly, not yet. But they’re the ones who are going to have to figure out whether unfettered, unafraid journalism survives in America. They may agree that “dead tree dinosaur corporate media” needs to wither away; but I hope they understand the importance of a free press — and I don’t just mean a thousand blogs speaking with a Tower of Babel incoherence. I mean a press powerful enough to speak truth to power. I hope and expect that bloggers, like Ben Franklin, will declare, “I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”


Making great Pinot Noir: it’s a Republican thing

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Do you think that starting a successful winery is a conservative or a liberal thing to do? I don’t think it’s either. Only a rightwinger could interpret it in an anti-Obama way as a teabaggy example of all-American patriotism. Yet that’s exactly what some guy whose nom de blog is “weeklybito” did at a far-right website called RedState, which he titled “Pinot Noir and Capitalism.”

Seems weeklybito came across a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, which he loved. He met with Michael Browne, who told him the story of how he, Michael, and partner Dan Kosta started their winery from very humble beginnings. Kosta Browne today has a high reputation in California Pinot Noir circles.

Lots of successful wineries (and lots of not so successful ones) were started by folks who had no money to begin with. Of course, lots of wineries also were started by people who had plenty of money to begin with. It’s always nice when somebody poor works hard and builds up a great brand. I’ve known dozens such, and have written about and praised many of them in my various books. It’s a lot harder to start with nothing and make it happen than to buy the stairway to heaven.

But why make political hay out of it? Some people just have to inject their politics into everything, and that’s what this weeklybito has done. He can’t just talk about the wine, the founders, the terroir. No, he has to see it all from a rightwing point of view. Here’s some of his Limbaugh-esque rhetoric, followed immediately by my refutations:

“From these humble beginnings American capitalism took root.” American capitalism? You mean they don’t practice capitalism in Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Mexico, Zimbabwe? Under capitalism, goods and services are traded on an open market, hopefully for profit. There’s nothing “American” about capitalism. It’s a system, not a country. And it can be argued that our uniquely American form of capitalism is not exactly doing the vanishing Middle Classes any good.

“Dedication and endurance need to be returned to the American work ethic.” Tell that to the auto workers, 4,000 of them, who were just fired from the NUMMI plant, 20 miles south of where I live. They were dedicated, they endured hard work. Tell that to the 30,000 others who are likely to lose their jobs as the ripple effect of NUMMI’s closure sweeps across the South Bay. Why politicize Kosta Browne? If bootstrap “dedication and endurance” are so important to making great wine, then does that mean that Bill Harlan — whose wealth financed his Harlan Estate winery — was not dedicated, had not endurance?

Kosta Browne “documents why America is still a great country and gives us reason to celebrate American achievements in the face of adversity.” What does the success of a winery have to do with documenting why America is a great country? One of these days we’re going to hear about some sensational wines coming from a Caucasus country. Will weeklybito then rant about how great Ukraine or Georgia or Belarus is? Kosta Browne gives us a reason to celebrate achievement, not “American achievements.” Why chauvinize what Michael and Dan have done? Why do the rightwingers have to praise everything good as “American” and everything they don’t like as “anti-American”?

Okay, forgive me. I promised I’d try to refrain from politics on this blog and keep my political opinions to Facebook. But this post was about wine — well, a little bit. So I didn’t really break my promise. That would be, well, un-American!


It’s time to privatize state liquor stores

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Of America’s 50 states, 18 are control or monopoly (as of 2005), meaning that their citizens can buy alcoholic beverages, including wine, only in state-owned stores. This is a result of the Repeal of Prohibition, when Congress decided on a states-rights approach, as opposed to a national policy, for governing the sale of alcohol.

The system of state monopoly stores has never worked well, depriving consumers of choice and, in many instances, resulting in drab, poorly run venues. It’s odd, too, that so many monopoly states are solid Republican, given that party’s traditional defense of free markets and suspicion of Big Government. For many complicated reasons (not the least of which is that the public hasn’t clamored for an end to monopoly control), changing the system was never high on anyone’s agenda.

That has now changed, for a simple reason: The economy. Nearly every state in the union is bankrupt or close to it. Governors and state legislatures are desperately seeking new sources of revenue. Loathe to raise income taxes, they’re looking at “creative financing,” such as fee and license hikes. Some officials in control states also are thinking what once was the unthinkable: privatizing alcohol sales.

In Washington State, lawmakers have introduced a bill “that would have Washington get completely out of the liquor business, allowing an unlimited number of people to buy licenses to sell liquor, as is done in California.” The idea is that, by selling the state’s warehousing facilities, and by allowing the market to determine prices, Washington could nearly double the $320 million alcoholic beverages brings in annually.

Down in Mississippi, which is suffering from its worst budget crisis since the Great Depression, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has called for legislation “to privatize the wine-sale functions” of the state’s Alcohol Control Division. In Vermont, a state Senator has introduced a bill “to disband the department of liquor control.” In Virginia, “Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s new Republican governor, made privatization of his state’s liquor stores a key plank of his campaign last year,according to the Wall Street Journal, which also reports that McDonnell’s idea “is opposed by the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists.” And in neighboring North Carolina, the state’s Republican candidate for Governor, Pat McCrory, similarly “said it’s time for North Carolina to get out of the liquor business.”

Sounds like a road to Damascus moment for Repubs. One of the reasons opponents are against this entirely rational, self-interested plan to privatize alcohol sales is that minors would supposedly have easier access to liquor. If you think about it, that’s a bogus argument. It presupposes that a state store employee is less likely to sell liquor to a minor, and that a private store employee is more likely to. It seems to me the chances are about equal in both cases, and incapable of resolving further.

It’s time for America to do away with state-run liquor stores. I mean, where are we, the U.S. or Syria? It would harm no one, and will help financially embattled states raise a little extra cash. I am calling on all politicians in control states to put their money where their mouths are. Are you in favor of market-based capitalism, or of the heavy, controlling hand of government?


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