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With its imposing marble facades, busy corridors filled with suits, and entryways flanked by armed guards, Washington, D.C., couldn't seem further from the relaxed ambience of California wine country.
But right now, Robert Koch is living in both worlds. As the new president and CEO of the Wine Institute -- the California wine industry's largest winery trade group -- he must straddle the divide between the dirt-under-your-fingernails culture of family farmers and the powerful policy-makers who affect their lives. All while trying to win over the hearts and wallets of American consumers to wine, preferably California wine.
Koch, 43, who is known as Bobby and whose last name is pronounced "cook," has the D.C. side of the job down pat. He couldn't be better connected. He spent nine years on Capitol Hill working for former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, whose district included E. & J. Gallo's home base of Modesto, Calif., making Coelho the de facto point person for the wine industry. Later Koch became staff director for Rep. Richard Gephardt, then the House Majority Leader.
By the time he was hired by the Wine Institute as vice president of federal government relations, 11 years ago, Koch had built quite a network. "He has a great rapport with the members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle," says Rep. Mike Thompson (D), who represents Napa Valley, Mendocino and part of Sonoma County.
More importantly, Koch has the ear of the president of the United States, who happens to be his brother-in-law. Koch, a Democrat, is married to prominent Republican Dorothy Bush, daughter of the 41st president and sister of the 43rd.
"You bet it's helpful," says Koch when asked if being part of the first family gives him extra clout. "Do I exploit that? No. But will I do what it takes to be of help to the California wine industry? You bet."
Koch's engagement to Dorothy contributed to his decision to take the Wine Institute job and leave Gephardt's office. He admits that wine wasn't a big part of his life until that time. "I discovered wine after joining the Wine Institute," he confesses. "I mean, I liked wine, but I didn't know that much about it." Now, he says, being able to pour a bottle, point to the label and share something about the family that owns it goes a long way in his job.
How Koch's Beltway background will play on the West Coast is yet to be determined, as he is still getting to know many of the institute's 630-plus California winery members. (For now, with four kids at home, Koch still lives in D.C., but spends half his time at the San Francisco headquarters.) After the 27-year tenure of John De Luca, who also had strong government credentials, any change in Wine Institute leadership is bound to take getting used to. Indeed, Koch promises, "It's not going to be the same old, same old."
Shortly before heading out to California for a month of meetings with staff, board members and wine industry leaders, Koch chats in the Wine Institute's D.C. offices. In a conference room with wine bottles displayed on shelves and cardboard cases stacked against the walls, Koch lays out the issues facing California wineries today -- the biggest of those issues being the current surplus. "Clearly, we have a lot of wine and a lot of wine grapes. We also have tremendous competition from overseas," he says.
With that comes the need to attract new people to wine, he says. "Helping Americans to discover wine is something that we need to be doing. Expanding our customer base, continuing to improve our quality -- those are some of the big challenges we have."
Over the past decade, the Wine Institute's role has primarily been one of advocacy (along with international marketing), working with regulators and lobbying legislators on wine-related issues in the 50 state capitals and D.C., and on trade negotiations with other countries.
While this can include some esoteric topics, there are direct benefits for wine consumers; Wine Institute's fight against tax increases on wine helps keeps retail prices down. Also, the Wine Institute has been a champion of direct shipping (legally allowing consumers to order from out-of-state wineries and have wines delivered to their homes). The number of states that allow interstate wine shipping has grown from zero in the 1980s to 25 as of this fall.
The group has helped to counter anti-alcohol sentiment by educating lawmakers and the public that wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle, based on the numerous scientific studies showing the benefits of moderate drinking. "What we are interested in is making sure the American people are provided a balanced perspective when it comes to wine," says Koch.
That evening, in late July, the Congressional Wine Caucus -- a group of 250 legislators interested in wine issues -- hosts a reception to honor Koch's promotion and introduce him around, though he seems to already know almost everyone in the room. Koch is energetic yet relaxed, laughing easily, his face still boyishly enthusiastic though he is graying at the temples. He demonstrates skills crucial to any politician or lobbyist: a good recall of faces and details, a knack for subtle flattery and the ability to focus on the person he is talking to in a room crowded with important people.
"I'm a big fan of Bobby's. ... He shows there can be bipartisan support of issues important for the wine industry," says Rep. Sam Farr (D), who represents California's Central Coast and sits on the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee.
A knack for bipartisanship could come in handy when dealing with California's sometimes-fractious wine industry, where large and small producers can have conflicting interests. It may also help win back members who left due to disputes about direction or a feeling that the Institute was beholden to the agenda of certain companies.
Caucus co-chairs Thompson and Rep. George Radanovich (R), a former Central Valley winery owner, tell Koch at the event that they have read a statement in his recognition into the Congressional Record and that he will be presented with a copy. Though he conveys an aw-shucks humbleness in accepting the honor, Koch demonstrates his self-assurance while addressing the room. "Being president of this organization makes hanging out with my wife's family a lot more fun," he jokes to the crowd of congresspeople about his promotion from vice president to president. "Whether I'm with 41 or 43, and someone says 'Mr. President,' I answer 'yes,' regardless."
He's poking fun at himself, and at presumptions about his influence in his new role. But between the lines is a reminder that he has unusual connections, that he is not awestruck by power and that he has big ambitions. When it comes to an industry challenged by regulatory barriers and anti-alcohol attitudes, international competition, a tough economy and states that are looking to increase revenue and cut their budgets, that could be a good thing.
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