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Congress’ man of the vines, including his own

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, grows 20 acres of sauvignon blanc grapes at his farm north of Napa. Jim Wilson/New York Times News Service photo

By
July 5, 2011 |

By Eric Lipton

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, who represents this grape-obsessed district in Congress, 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 also could 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 is 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.”

Lifelong ties

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 1st District — which includes Davis — 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 in Mendocino that 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.”

A vocal advocate

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 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 he sent the letter because of concerns raised by a number of vineyards. He added that Bonterra already was 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.

He 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.

Wholesale sales

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 also could 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 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.”

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