Thursday, July 7, 2011

More Than Grapes Squeezed In Lake County

 Mike Thompson (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Over the 4th of July weekend, editors of The New York Times dispatched reporter Eric Lipton to till Rep. Mike Thompson's vineyard, and the dust hasn't settled yet.

If you missed it, Lipton's report suggests that Thompson has benefitted financially by his twofold role as farmer and congressman. For one, according to the article, two wineries paid Thompson $500,000 for sauvignon-blanc grapes from his 20-acre vineyard in Lake County during a stretch when their executives were appealing to Congress on various legislative matters. The Times didn't have to dig far to get these figures; they're in a financial-disclosure form Thompson completed two years ago.

The article suggests that at least one of the wineries, Bonterra in Mendocino County, overpaid Thompson for the grapes, thereby hinting that maybe he got a bonus for his steadfast support of the North State's wine trade. Bonterra paid $978 per ton for the fruit when the Lake County average for sauvignon blanc was $877. Never mind that the article doesn't say that Thompson ever interceded on behalf of Bonterra in these matters. On top of that, lots of factors could explain the disparity in prices - the quality of the grapes, their sugar levels, the ability of seller to persuade or outwit the buyer about the nature of his fruit. An average is just that, an average; no doubt, some growers in Lake County got a lot less than the average for their sauvignon blanc while others got a lot more. (Last fall, the price paid for sauvignon blanc grown in Lake County ranged from $200 per ton to $2,800, according to state tabulations; Thompson told The Times that his vineyard last year brought him just an $18,000 profit.)

The article also claims that Thompson stands to gain financially if federal authorities designate the Big Valley area in which he grows his grapes an American Viticultural Area, a proposal he supports. The theory behind this allegation is that small appellations like Big Valley are more prestigious than larger appellations like Lake County, and therefore command more money for their grapes and wines. I think the theory is more wishful thinking than reality, but I sure would like to see members of the American Association of Wine Economists undertake a study to address the issue.

Lipton raises issues that deserve to be aired. He could have been more fair to Thompson and Times readers, however, had he done more reporting. He could, for example, have reported on the full range of prices paid for Lake County sauvignon blanc in vintages when Thompson was selling his grapes. And he could have explained why Thompson's vineyard has increased in value from the $228,000 he paid for it in 2002 to its current assessed value of about $775,000; it wasn't planted with grapes when he bought it, you think?

And in one paragraph that had me almost gagging on my morning coffee, he quotes Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, as suggesting that Thompson's twin roles violate Congressional ethics rules. Couldn't Lipton find anyone more credible to offer that thought so high up in the story than Wolf? Wolf and Thompson are longtime adversaries, with the wholesalers doggedly trying to monopolize the sale of alcoholic beverages to their own benefit while Thompson advocates more freedom in how Americans go about buying wine. The article would be more convincing had Lipton found other critics of Thompson, especially within his congressional district. When you look at a map of that district, which includes at least parts of Yolo, Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, including thousands of acres of wine grapes and hundreds of wineries, you can see why Thompson is so supportive of the wine trade. But it's an area rich with environmentalists and others who question the wisdom of converting so much open land to vineyards, and yet Lipton apparently couldn't find anyone to suggest that Thompson has been less than thoughtful and fair in accommodating their concerns.

Thompson has been curiously quiet in the wake of Lipton's article. Maybe he's shrugging it off because the piece simply didn't build a strong case that he's done anything wrong. Nonetheless, I'd like to see a specific accounting and justification for the $1.2 million Thompson has taken in campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry during his seven terms. And I do think he should recuse himself from any involvement in deliberations concerning whether Big Valley will be an officially designated American Viticultural Area, even though I question whether any vineyard within such an appellation would benefit significantly by the designation. Overall, though, Thompson looks to be guilty of nothing more than bringing home to his district various cuts of Washington pork, which, ironically, generally pairs quite nicely with sauvignon blanc.


  1. As a reporter, I wonder how this story even happened. Does the New York Times really care about the First District of California.

    The quote from Clark Wolf makes me very suspicious. I wonder if he inspired it.

    Thompson is widely respected by those in his district: wine industry executives and workers, environmentalists, those against our middle-eastern wars, those against excessive government spending and budget deficits. He's also totally blunt and honest.

    I can't imagine better representation in Congress.

  2. It was a planted article. To say more only gives the othhat side what it wants: a red herring to distract from the real issue on the table of consumer choice. Move along: this isn't the issue you're looking for.

  3. The New York Times used to be a great newspaper with accurate reporting on subjects that matter. How disappointing...Thanks Mike Dunne for a very thoughtful read. 978 bucks is a long way from 2800. It seems like Lipton is a journo that does not need all the facts.