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Wine Advocate on Capitol Hill

2011 July 6
by Mike

As a member of the decadent coastal elite, I naturally take my marching orders each morning from The New York Times. For all the talk about the death of old media, I think that the Times is as good as ever and more vital than ever. But like any newspaper, it has its share of missteps. Monday’s front page featured an article about Congressman Mike Thompson, a California Democrat whose district includes Napa Valley and who also happens to be a vineyard owner himself. The piece, written by Eric Lipton, examined the ways in which Thompson has sought to help the local wine industry, and it suggested that because Thompson is a grape grower—his vineyard is in Lake County, north of Napa—there is an element of self-interest involved in these efforts. But “suggested” is the operative word here: Thompson has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and Lipton offered no proof that the seven-term Congressman has personally benefitted from advocating on behalf of his winemaking constituents.

Instead, Lipton served up a bunch of speculation and innuendo. He twice noted that Thompson “could benefit” from a proposal to grant appellation status to an area that includes his vineyard and said that the winery that buys most of his grapes pays a “somewhat higher” price than the Lake County average. Lipton wrote that Thompson’s relationship with the local wine trade “was, at a minimum, complicated” and reported that some of the Congressman’s best friends work in the wine trade. Craig Wolf, the president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, was quoted as saying that Thompson’s activities violated Congressional ethics laws. As economist Brad DeLong pointed out in a scathing blog post yesterday, Lipton repeated Wolf’s charge but apparently made no effort to determine its validity. And it’s not hard to figure out why he neglected to do so: he was more interested in putting the accusation in print than substantiating it. That’s shoddy journalism.

Let’s set aside the facts that Thompson’s vineyard is a mere 20 acres and earned him just $18,000 last year. It seems to me the key question is this: if Thompson had no involvement in the wine business, would he be acting any differently? The answer, clearly, is no; the wine industry is a major player in his district, and with or without his own vines, Thompson would surely be advocating just as forcefully on its behalf. That’s what legislators do. Show me a Member of Congress who doesn’t vigorously represent the interests of local industries, and I’ll show you a Member of Congress who is probably going to be out of a job shortly. So why did Lipton and his editors think that Thompson’s conduct merited a front-page article, and why would they raise doubts about his integrity on the basis of such flimsy—non-existent, really—evidence? I don’t know the answer, but it was a deeply flawed article that shouldn’t have been published.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. August 27, 2011

    I met Mike Thompson a couple of times when I was spending a lot of time in Napa Valley a few years and, though, I don’t know personally the details of his personal finances, nor do I have a high view of Congressman in general, but Mike seemed to be one Hell of a decent guy. And my Napa friends who do know him well seem to verify that. With all the chicanery going on in politics these days–how about a Congressman confiscating your cell phone and camera at a town hall meeting in Ohio?–I doubt very seriously that Mike Thompson is guilty of any real conflict of interest. It sounds to me like he is representing his constituents, many of whom are grape growers and winemakers.

  2. July 10, 2011

    “I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service, and of retiring with hands clean as they are empty.” — Thomas Jefferson,

  3. Michael permalink
    July 10, 2011

    You’re quite right. This is a bad miss on their part. I personally DON’T find it ethically suspect to personally/financially benefit from your work in Congress so long as that work is also in the best interest of your constituents. It is only an ethical problem if it is contrary to constituent interests AND personally beneficial. Otherwise it is merely an ethical confluence where far too many, IMO, are willing to cry foul merely because they can see a theoretical impropriety if standing on that spot.

    Further, we can’t expect all our legislators to give up any vestige of their outside careers or financial lives or we risk further reducing our stock of potential candidates for these positions. As I understand it the rules that are in play do a good job to insure that elected officials relieve themselves of questionable investments before they take office. In fact, I understand them to err a bit on the side of caution. To me this is a nonissue.

  4. July 7, 2011

    Thanks all for the comments. There does seem to be a near-universal consensus that the Times erred badly with this story. I hope enough people write to the paper that its ombudsman will feel compelled to address the matter. It was a shoddy piece of journalism, and while Members of Congress are not exactly the most sympathetic figures these days, I think this was a very unfair hit on Thompson.

  5. July 7, 2011

    I’m proud to personally know Mike Thompson and delighted that he has well deserved support from his constituents. This is in contrast to Craig Wolf and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America who have no scruples at all and have earned the emnity of almost every winery in the country. The NYT should have considered the source before publishing such ridiculous accusations.

  6. July 7, 2011

    As always Mike S. hits the nail on the head. It is obvious that with the current editorial transition taking place at the NY TIMES that this one slipped through the grey ladies crack! Just a note that there are around 135,000 acres of wine grapes that grow in Congressman Mike Thompson’s district.

  7. Patrick permalink
    July 7, 2011

    Yes, the Times played into the hands of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers by printing this article. And Yes, the author of the story over-stated a few things. But YES, Rep. Thompson is ethically suspect because he owns a vineyard and can personally benefit from his work in Congress.

  8. July 7, 2011

    An old press hack was snoozin’ out
    One dull and newsless day,
    Behind his desk he rested as
    He schemed to make his pay,
    When all at once a mighty draft
    Of twisted views he saw,
    A-glowin’ in his email
    And quotin’ a mighty jaw.

    Yippee-yi-ya, yippee-yi-yo,
    Ghost writers in the sky.

  9. Clinton permalink
    July 7, 2011

    The NYT has lost much of its objectivity ever since Sulzberger, Jr. took over, so while this should be beneath the Times, it looks more like business as usual.

  10. Wilfred permalink
    July 6, 2011

    Agreed. Should not have been published. Beneath the Times.

  11. July 6, 2011

    Amen. Call a spade a spade.

  12. Jack Bulkin permalink
    July 6, 2011

    ” Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, which has been in a dispute with wine producers over the past year stated: ‘Clearly, he has a personal interest in what he is advocating for.”
    What a shocker. Craig Wolf also has a personal interest. he represents a group to whom truth, integrity and consumer rights are non existent and not worthy of discussion. He spends half his time trying to convince moronic legislators that underage children will buy $200.00 cult wines through the internet if direct shipping is continued in America.

  13. Bill Klapp permalink
    July 6, 2011

    A member of Congress acting out of self-interest? Are you sure, Mike? This is AMERICA, after all…

  14. July 6, 2011

    You can’t let facts get in the way of a good story, now can you?
    Perhaps the Congressman should have stepped away from being a farmer or operating his own winery while he was a public servant, but 20 acres in Lake County seems more of a hobby than a business.


    Nannette Eaton

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