I remember, four years ago, seeing the headline "Obama Clinches 'Joe Cabernet Sauvignon' Vote" in a humor magazine. It's a send-up of both the "Champagne liberal" stereotype and that of coveted, mythical voter Joe Six-Pack.
But is wine really a Democrat's game? I decided to ask Greg Martellotto, owner and winemaker at California-based Wine Dreamer. In 2010, the company launched a wine called Let The People Decide, a Tempranillo-based red blend from Santa Ynez bottled under two labels, Progressive and Conservative. One label is blue, with a donkey silhouette; the other red, with an elephant. Martellotto said, "We had high aspirations. Could this be a straw poll for divining upcoming elections?"
Half a country away, in Michigan, Chris Trebilcock makes wine at the Political Winery; using Lodi, Calif., grapes, he blends "Jack Blue," "Ron Red," "Jackie O'Rouge" and "Elie Blanc." All four are off-dry blends priced at $10, the reds Cabernet, Merlot and Carignane and the whites Chenin Blanc and French Colombard.
Trebilcock and Martellotto are liberals themselves, but each founded his company with a conservative friend and business partner. Trebilcock, a labor lawyer when he's not in the cellar, and his friend John Helmholdt, a school district spokesman, attended political shoulder-rubbing sessions frequently and noticed that, no matter the ideology, there was always one reliably shared special interest: wine. So in 2004, they created a product the events circuit didn't know it needed until it was born: an easy-drinking, inexpensive, politically themed wine that could sate convention-goers and fill goodie bags.
Martellotto met Pedro Aguilar back in their Catholic school days; one grew up to be a cigar-chomping neuroscientist and Fox Newshound and the other, well, a California winemaker. "Nevertheless, we're brothers," said Martellotto.
Naturally, I polled both Martellotto and Trebilcock on the same question: If people really vote with their wallets, which side sells better?
Political Wine, "much like the country, is pretty evenly split," said Trebilcock. (However, the "female" bottles, Jackie and Elie, consistently win the popular vote over their male counterparts.) But on Martellotto's website, you can only purchase the Conservative now. The invisible hand of the free market swept the Progressive off shelves.
It wasn't a fair race, Martellotto conceded, since he does most of his business in California, with New York and Massachusetts following. "We had a couple wine bars in San Francisco pouring the blue label, and when I told them it sold out, I said, 'But it's the same wine under the red label.' And they were like, 'Nah.'"
Much of Trebilcock's market remains the one where he first saw an opening: lobbyist, campaign and trade group shindigs. Political Wine was given out to VIPs at some of the 2008 inaugural balls in Washington and poured at a fund-raiser with Michelle Obama. Trebilcock delivered the future First Lady's bottle to her personally.
But Political Winery works both sides of the aisle, and not just in election season. ("The beauty of our business plan is that fund-raising events happen year-round.") No matter which party requests his wine, Trebilcock said, it's politics as usual: "In politics, you get a whole lot of people who want you to just give in kind"—as a little donation. Ironically, the 500-case operation is pretty apolitical in the ways that count, lacking the dollar muscle of big industry players that can pony up campaign money and freebies.
As for Let the People Decide, part of its mission all along has been to donate 10 percent of proceeds to "political organizations that promote change, dialogue and prosperity in America," as stated on the Wine Dreamer website. The progressive beneficiary is nationally syndicated lefty radio program the Leslie Marshall Show, though Martellotto and Aguilar are still casting for a conservative recipient.
Given the backgrounds of the two companies, could wine be our best hope for bipartisanship? Martellotto said of his business and sparring partner, "When we end up hashing out issues, and we talk about health care, national security and wars and stuff, I think we end up finding a lot more similarities and a lot more middle ground. And wine brings us together to do that."
On the other hand, said Trebilcock: "We get a lot of people who say, 'Oh my brother's a big Republican. I want to send him your Democratic bottles.'"
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions