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The congressman from Wine Country

Rep. Mike Thompson looks over a sauvignon blanc vine at his farm in Finley (JIM WILSON/The New York Times)

By ERIC LIPTON
THE NEW YORK TIMES

NAPA — The local wine industry’s biggest names — and boldest blends — were gathered here one afternoon in February for the annual auction that is the Napa equivalent of the Academy Awards. There, pouring wine along with well-known figures like Tim Mondavi, was another industry celebrity: Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

Thompson, whose district encompasses much of the North Coast’s Wine Country, is not only the industry’s foremost champion in Washington, helping it secure tax breaks, get money for pet projects like the Napa Valley Wine Train or beat back restrictions on direct sales of wine. He is also a vineyard owner, growing 20 acres of sauvignon blanc grapes at his farm north of Napa.

While plenty of lawmakers in Washington act as advocates for particular industries, Thompson is in business with some of the same companies whose agendas he promotes. His vineyard has been paid at least $500,000 since 2006 by two wineries whose executives have appealed to Congress on legislative matters.

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.

Thompson’s dual role as industry backer and grape producer has drawn some criticism, particularly from his alcohol industry rivals.

“Clearly, he has a personal interest in what he is advocating for,” said Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, which has been in a dispute with wine producers over the past year. “And the ethics rules in Congress say you are not supposed to do these kinds of things.”

Thompson called such claims nonsense. Any action he takes are to help the industry, he said, not his tiny vineyard, which he said made only an $18,000 profit last year.

“I’m unapologetic about going to the mat for the wine industry,” he said. “That is my job.”

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. He is also a founder of the Congressional Wine Caucus, which has nearly 200 members who gather regularly to sample wine and talk about industry affairs.

He lives in St. Helena, a picture-postcard Napa Valley town, down the street from the elementary school he attended with future leaders in the wine industry like Mondavi. Thompson’s father worked as a vineyard foreman and his mother worked as a bookkeeper for local vineyards. Some of his closest friends — and duck hunting companions — are top local sellers.

His vineyard, most of which he bought in 2002 for $228,000 and which today has an assessed value of about $775,000, is about an hour north of Napa in Lake County, on a quiet road with pear and walnut orchards. One recent morning, the fog had just lifted at the vineyard, leaving the fields still covered with dew as Thompson headed out to walk his property, his khaki pant legs wet and boots muddy.

“It is looking good,” Thompson told his vineyard manager, David Weiss, impressed with a new weed-clearing machine. “I like what I see.”

Thompson has a reputation for long hours, traveling constantly to the far corners of his sprawling district for community meetings and charity events. That and his down-to-earth manner — he introduces himself to strangers as “Hi, I’m Mike” — explain in part why residents here take offense to any suggestion that his intertwined roles might raise ethical issues.

“He is the hardest working guy I have ever met,” said Dennis Cakebread, an owner of the Cakebread Vineyard and a major campaign contributor to Thompson. “So often people get elected, go to Washington, they get sucked in, and they kind of stay there. That is not what Mike is about.”

Many pointed out his family’s commitment to the community: His wife works as a nurse at the local hospital, one son is a deputy sheriff, the other works for the Fire Department. California’s wine country, they said, benefits from having Thompson in Washington, not the other way around.

But his relationship with the industry, at a minimum, is complicated.

The bulk of Thompson’s grapes, about 100 tons a year, have been sold since 2005 to Bonterra Vineyards, a winery outside Ukiah, which relies on Thompson to produce about half its sauvignon blanc. Since last year, an additional 25 tons have been sold to Honig Vineyard of Rutherford, which blends them with grapes from Napa to produce its own sauvignon blanc.

Bonterra has paid Thompson an average of $978 a ton since 2005, a price that is somewhat higher than the Lake County average, $877 a ton during the same period. But Bonterra executives said it was in line with what they paid other independent growers.

“To paint a picture, you have to have to have a palette of colors,” said Robert Blue, Bonterra’s founding winemaker. “Mike helps bring that.”

But Thompson’s ties to both companies — as well as to other wineries — go well beyond grape growing.

In a January 2010 letter, he urged the chief of the State Water Resources Control Board to reconsider a state proposal that would curtail the ability of vineyards to use river water to feed extensive sprinkler systems designed to prevent frost from damaging grape vines, a practice some blame for recent area fish kills.

The letter was written after a Bonterra executive, David Koball, said he turned to Thompson’s office for help. “Millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs are at stake here,” Thompson wrote in his letter to the state.

In an interview, Thompson said that he sent the letter because of concerns raised by a number of vineyards. He added that Bonterra was already working to rely less on river-fed sprinklers. His own vineyard uses well water, he added, to combat frost.

Until it was sold this spring, Bonterra had been owned by Brown-Forman, a liquor industry giant based in Kentucky that has contributed at least $40,000 to Thompson’s political campaigns.

Bonterra has joined with the lawmaker to oppose proposed increases in federal excise taxes on wine and liquor, which were considered during the health care debate. Thompson said he had worked to block such increases on behalf of the industry for more than a decade.

Thompson also led the charge in recent years to expand or extend a tax break given to vineyard owners who promise never to develop their land.

Thompson has not applied for the exemption himself, but some of his industry supporters, including Andy Beckstoffer, an independent grape grower, have signed up. That move, Beckstoffer said in an interview, saves him hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal income taxes.

Thompson has also gotten involved in local wine issues that could benefit his own farm.

Local growers, with the personal financial help of Thompson, are preparing to apply to the Treasury Department to create a federally designated wine region called Big Valley, which would include Thompson’s vineyard and others nearby. Called an appellation, the designation is a marketing boon that helps increase the value of the grapes grown there.

Thompson called the Treasury Department to make sure it rapidly reviews the request when it arrives, according to Shannon Gunier, the Lake County Winegrape Growers association president. “We feel really comfortable we can call Mike and he will carry the flag for us,” she said.

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, Gunier said.

The congressman intervened in similar efforts by other Napa-area wine-growing communities in recent years, and he said there was nothing exceptional about his support for the request that included the region where his vineyard is located.

The biggest industry battle Thompson has taken up in recent years is still playing out in Washington, a pitch by beer and wine wholesalers for legislation granting states more power to regulate alcohol sales. Their goal is to prevent big box retailers like Wal-Mart from buying beer or wine directly from suppliers, cutting out wholesalers.

Winemakers fear that such a law could also ultimately result in a ban on direct-mail sales by vineyards to customers around the country. Honig Vineyard, for example, generates about 10 percent of its sales through direct mail.

Thompson pressed fellow lawmakers to oppose the measure, and even testified twice on behalf of the wine industry at Judiciary Committee hearings.

“You can have the best soil, the best grapes, the best climate — like you are looking at out the window right now — and the best wine maker,” Thompson said, during an interview at his vineyard. “But if you can’t get the wine to the people who want it, it is all for naught.”

Mickey Edwards, a former House Republican from Oklahoma who now helps run training programs for young political leaders, said that Thompson was not the only farmer in Congress, pointing to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who grows barley, lentils and wheat on 1,800 acres. Ethics rules would not prohibit Thompson or others from voting on legislation that benefits their industry. But House rules prohibit members from using their position for any personal financial benefit, and in particular urge caution when contacting a member of the executive branch on a matter that might personally benefit the lawmaker.

To comply with the rules, Edwards said, Thompson should not be calling the Treasury Department about the appellation issue because it affects his own vineyard.

“That is very questionable behavior, not something you would think most members would be comfortable doing,” said Edwards, who taught at Harvard Law School after leaving Congress. “It is a lack of good judgment, if nothing else.”

Thompson dismisses the criticism as unfounded. He will do anything to help the industry flourish, he said, because that is what his constituents expect of him.

“This is the lifeblood of the district I represent,” he said. “Every acre planted in grapes is another acre not planted in houses or strip malls.”





12 Responses to “The congressman from Wine Country”

  1. Fiscal Conservative says:

    Good one Gaj.

    Other questions, does his equipment meet teir 4 CARB regulations?

    Are his buildings current with the green sustainible building standards?

    Does he have a current storm water run off permit and complete documented BMP’s per the new regulation?

    The list is endless….

    If we small business people need to jump through the maze of government baloney, then it is good enough for our elected represenitives.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4

  2. FedUp says:

    “Are his workers unionized? Can they participate in a pension plan with matching funds from Mr. Thompson? Do they have access to affordable health care?”

    Couldn’t care less. What I want to know is are they here legally?

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 5

  3. GAJ says:

    Are his workers unionized?

    Can they participate in a pension plan with matching funds from Mr. Thompson?

    Do they have access to affordable health care?

    My guess would be no.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4

  4. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    I, for one, am just sick at how the wine industry has taken over this county. When I moved here in 1969, this county had all kinds of farms. Apples, pears, citrus, prune (OMG, those prunes just picked from the tree were like pure suger), plums, walnuts, and yes some grapes. Truck farmers growing vegetables (TG that Imwalles still exists in the MIDDLE of Santa Rosa) are now rare. Oak forests, vernal pools, rock formations, redwoods all destroyed for the almighty grape creating more road flooding all over the county.

    As a Democrat I support Thompson. But I don’t support the grape industry. I would like to see Sonoma County return to the diverse farming county it once was. I would like Thompson to be a little less conservative and more supportive of other county farmers.

    Anyone out there looking for a tree to plant in your yard, consider prunes. You won’t be sorry.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 8

  5. End the Spending NOW says:

    Thompson is another one of those rich democrat members of Congress who like Pelosi, vote for every liberal spending plan that comes down the yellow brick road.

    He may talk a good tale, but his votes tells us he is part of the problem in Washington and not part of the solution.

    Thompson has flown under the radar for years because the print and media focus has been on his sidekick, Woolsey.

    Thompson is anything but a simple farmer just growing his grapes and worrying about grape prices per ton and how much water to use this year. He is a big government, big government spender and another reason the national debt is out of control and employment is so high in California.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 12

  6. Steveguy says:

    “While plenty of lawmakers in Washington act as advocates for particular industries, Thompson is in business with some of the same companies whose agendas he promotes. His vineyard has been paid at least $500,000 since 2006 by two wineries whose executives have appealed to Congress on legislative matters.”

    They used to hang them for less.
    The crooked feeding the criminal, THAT is how we vote.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 6

  7. Skippy says:

    Mike is a Democrat, so by definition most of what he does as a Congresscritter is very bad for his constituency and the nation.
    However on this issue he seems to be actually doing his job and helping local industries and taxpayers give less of their money to govt. Plus helping them to sell more product at a higher profit. That is always a good thing.
    Now if he could just see how every business is good, not only scenic vineyards but smelly refineries, loud sawmills, ugly drilling rigs, dusty gravel pits, steamy asphalt plants, Lowe’s and Walmart.
    These are the kinds of places real people work, and if they don’t start opening up, neither will the job market.
    Nice work for an important local industry, Mike.
    Good job.
    Thank you.
    Now, about the rest of us…

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 18

  8. shirley durban says:

    Yes, this is one more example of the new democracy- the conflict of highfalutin interest. It all pays off well at the top in our period of economic decline. And the well? You just go deeper, to deeper pockets.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 6

  9. Paying Attention says:

    ‘Called an appellation, the designation is a marketing boon that helps increase the value of the grapes grown there.’

    I have questions, it seems that Sonoma County has gotten greedy and out of control with vineyards. So Mike works for bigger tax breaks for these ‘farmers’ and endless free use of our beautiful Russian River – at the cost to our environment.

    How are vineyards better than houses or strip malls?

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 7

  10. Rick says:

    BeefKing,

    Also the reason why Sonoma County Schools, Healthcare and welfare systems are failing- So him and his rich buddies can get cheap labor – that’s the real cost to sonoma county.

    But he’s a Democrat – he should have no problem gettign re-elected by the simple minded sheep out here

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 10

  11. Sarky Fish says:

    During Thompson’s tenure he has done little for coastal communities where no wine is produced. Except for self-aggrandizing press releases, he has done nothing realistic for the beleaguered fishing industry save to reinforce government regulations and assist elite environmentalists in their bid to circumvent the democratic process to control more and more ocean geography via alarmist, crack-pot theories unrelated to the real world. Thompson has been and is drunk on himself.

    Thumb up 22 Thumb down 8

  12. Beef King says:

    …”He will do anything to help the industry flourish, he said, because that is what his constituents expect of him.”

    No, that is what the land-greedy vintners want from him, and tell him so by lavishing him with cash and gifts.

    The vintners could not care less what they destroy in their quest to be rich from producing alcohol.

    Mike Thompson is a tool for a rich special interest group while the rest of his constituents wonder why there are no jobs and the roads are crumbling.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 12

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