Wine's World

The Grape Contenders

Which candidate should get the corkscrew vote?

Illustrationby Robert Neubecker

The battle for the White House is well under way, but one critical issue has yet to be addressed: Who best speaks to the concerns of oenophiles? I’m serious—to a point. The plunging dollar, percolating trade disputes, possible new restrictions on the importation of wine, and the ongoing fight over interstate wine shipping all mean that oenophiles have something at stake in this election. And given the profligate spending habits of many wine buffs, the case might even be made that voting in the best interest of one’s wine cellar is a proxy for voting one’s wallet. Herewith, a wine drinker’s guide to the 2004 presidential campaign: The Incumbent. George W. Bush’s Damascene conversion from ne’er-do-well lush to faith-based, clean-living pol began with a wicked hangover and an apparently spontaneous decision to give up the sauce. You might therefore assume his presidency has been a disaster for wine drinkers—and for the most part you would be right. (Affluent collectors, of course, have benefited mightily from the Bush tax cuts.) The administration’s weak dollar policy makes imported wines prohibitively expensive (and the timing of the dollar’s slide couldn’t be worse, with the highly touted 2002 Burgundies now hitting the market and the equally anticipated 2003 Bordeaux futures just around the corner). Then there is Bush’s fair-weather approach to free trade; his demonstrated willingness to court trade wars in order to court votes should send a shiver to up the palate of any Barolo lover. As should the presence in the Cabinet of John Ashcroft: The attorney general has not yet taken direct aim at those of us who sin with liquids, but as long Ashcroft is at the helm of the Justice Department, no man’s pleasure is safe.

An Ashcroftian fondness for sweeping antiterrorism measures has spread to other government agencies, with potentially onerous consequences for wine fans. As part of the effort to guard against bioterrorism, for instance, the FDA has put in place new regulations that, among other things, require foreign and domestic winemakers, wholesalers, and importers to register with the U.S. government and oblige importers to provide winery registration numbers for every bottle they bring in.

This could cripple the “parallel” market for imported wines. A number of retailers and importers purchase foreign wines not through official channels—from the wineries themselves or their representatives—but from brokers and other third parties like auction houses. This outside sourcing serves a critical function, boosting the supply of hard-to-find wines and thus putting a lid on prices. Because winery registration numbers are not being made public, firms that deal in this parallel market have no way of complying with the new regulations (which means the parallel market will soon be a substantially thinner one). Enforcement has not yet begun; the government is expected to begin impounding wine shipments in August.

Yet the Bush years have not been a complete washout. To its credit, the administration has signaled that it is on the enlightened side of the rancorous direct-shipping debate. At issue is the right of wineries and retailers to ship directly to consumers in all 50 states. Twenty-six states currently permit it and furious legal battles are being waged in a number of those that don’t, setting producers, merchants, and consumer groups against wholesalers, who enjoy monopoly control in most of the protectionist states. (Proof that booze, too, can make for strange bedfellows: Ken Starr is providing legal counsel to direct-shipping advocates.)

Though direct shipping is not a federal issue, Jeremy Benson of Free the Grapes, an organization leading the fight on behalf of direct shipping, says that the Bush administration has subtlety tipped its hand. After 9/11, the FAA tightened restrictions on carry-on luggage, making it extremely difficult to bring wine into the cabin. Bush subsequently signed a bill that included a provision allowing consumers who buy onsite from a winery to ship their bottles home. (Before 9/11, they would have just carried them on board the plane.) Benson thinks Bush would not have tossed wine lovers this bone were he not supportive of direct shipping in general. It’s also worth noting that, as governor of Texas, Bush refused to sign legislation that would have made illegal wine shipping carry the same penalty as assault with a deadly weapon.

There is also this to consider: The president’s brother-in-law, Robert Koch, heads the Wine Institute—the chief lobbying arm of the California wine industry. Koch declined my invitation to be interviewed for this article and to shed some light on what it is like to be a Democratic wine advocate (he once worked for Dick Gephardt) married to the sister of an abstemious Republican president. At any rate, it is reassuring to know there is a voice for the vinous in the Bush inner sanctum, however faint it might be.

The Democrats. Commenting during the Iowa caucuses on the blue collar/white collar divide in the Democratic race, Time’s Joe Klein suggested the following formulation: John Edwards and Dick Gephardt, he said, were competing on the “beer track,” while John Kerry and Howard Dean were battling on the “wine track.” Actually, judging by Dean’s fatal conniption in Des Moines, I’d say he’s been running on the lithium track. Moreover, given that he doesn’t drink and was governor of a state that prohibits direct shipping, it seems clear Dean is no friend of the vine. (Massachusetts is as restrictive as Vermont, but again, it is a states’ issue, so Kerry, as a U.S. senator, is off the hook.)

Democrats, wine drinkers and otherwise, desperately want a standard-bearer who can send Bush back to Texas on the wagon he rode in on, and Kerry’s plausibility has catapulted him to the front of the field. He has a lot to commend him to wine buffs, not least the fact that he is one himself: His Boston mansion is equipped with a wine cellar, and testimonials from friends and family indicate that Kerry knows how to negotiate a wine list—not that one would expect any less from a Brahmin partly educated in Switzerland married to an heiress who studied there, too. Reached last week, David DiMartino, a Kerry spokesman, confirmed that the candidate enjoys wine—”Yes, he is a fan”—but refused to say what lies buried in the Beacon Hill cellar or what wines Kerry favors. Fair enough; it is not an issue worth losing votes over.

Should Kerry win the nomination, the Republicans are obviously going to try to paint him as a wine-swilling, French-loving swell. (You might recall the murmurings in GOP circles last year about Kerry’s supposedly Gallic mien.) Though Kerry obviously wants to play down his patrician roots and present himself as a shot-and-beer type (wine-drinking Democrats, like Log Cabin Republicans, understand the need for a little distancing in the heat of a campaign), he is clearly more comfortable in his skin than, say, Al Gore and is thus less likely to feel the need to disown everything that smacks of privilege. There are also a few substantive reasons to think a Kerry presidency would be good for the oenophiles. He is an unabashed free-trader, which means the flow of Cote-Roties and Chiantis would likely go unimpeded, and presumably, he would also embrace Rubinomics or some derivative thereof, resulting in lower deficits and a stronger dollar.

But for wine lovers nowadays, presidential elections are all about damage control: As wine and the White House go, it has been downhill ever since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the first and greatest American oenophile. During the years he lived in France, Jefferson cultivated a formidable wine collection, which he brought to the White House. (The cellar is long since gone.) The last wine aficionado to occupy the Oval Office was Richard Nixon, but he was hardly a credit to the cause. During State Dinners, he would apparently suck down Château Margaux while guests were served far less illustrious domestic wines. The guests were never the wiser because the stewards were instructed to wrap the bottles in white napkins.

Still, better the devil who drinks than the one who doesn’t. If, as now seems likely, it is Bush versus Kerry next November, logic suggests that the corkscrew vote should probably go to the guy who actually owns one.