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Wine Talk: Rep. Mike Thompson

Congressional representative works hard to reach across the aisle in D.C., as well as up and down the rows in his vineyard

Eric Arnold
Posted: September 15, 2006

Since 1998, Rep. Mike Thompson (D), 55, has represented the first congressional district of California, which includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. He's a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and this year Congress unanimously agreed to his resolution recognizing the significance of the Napa Valley victory at the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting. But perhaps his proudest accomplishment is cofounding the Congressional Wine Caucus in 1999, with a Republican colleague. The bipartisan group has 215 members, and while they get together regularly to taste wine, the caucus has effectively opened discussion--and passed legislation--on a range of issues important to the wine industry, such as trade with the European Union, direct shipping and research into prevention of Pierce's disease. Thompson isn't just familiar with wine-related issues because he's from Napa, though. He also has his own 20-acre organic vineyard in Lake County, where he grows Sauvignon Blanc for Fetzer.

Wine Spectator: How did you get involved in the wine industry?
Mike Thompson: I was kind of born into it, I guess. I had Italian grandparents on my mother's side, so there was always wine on the dinner table. It was a common occurrence to be introduced to wine at an early age. I was born in the Napa Valley, and my father's side of the family had a vineyard. My father was the first vineyard manager for Stony Hill winery when the McCreas bought that property. He also built their winery, which is still their winery today. Tim Mondavi and I went to preschool together. A lot of the guys I grew up with are all in the wine industry. Chuck Wagner and I were in the same class. I grew up with the Martini kids. Across the street, growing up, were the Raymonds. On my street today, one of the guys that is involved with Quintessa lives a couple doors down. Cathy Corison is my immediate next-door neighbor.

WS: Do you do tastings with your staff?
MT: Probably not often enough. When I was first elected, the truck that brought a lot of my personal wine to me in D.C. got stuck in a snowstorm. There were about six or seven cases toward the back of the truck that, when delivered, came with corks in various positions. It was some really good wine, and we had a great wine tasting for every office on the floor. We needed to drink it, and why not introduce some people to great wine?

WS: How much wine is in your collection?
MT: I have a refrigerated cellar in St. Helena that probably holds 400 or 500 bottles, and I probably have some others stuffed in closets in other places. I have a small closet against a cement wall in my Washington house, and there are probably 100 bottles of wine there.

WS: What are some of your favorites?
MT: All the ones from the first congressional district!

WS: It's all American wine?
MT: Yes, I'm a proponent of American wine.

WS: How did you come to own a vineyard?
MT: We sold another piece of property, and wanted to think about developing a vineyard/ranch-type deal. We found just this incredible piece of property with beautiful views in an unbelievably quiet, peaceful setting. It had been a pear orchard. We bought and developed it, and planted about 20 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. It acts as a respite for both myself and my wife. We're able to go over on the weekends and spend a little time and do some work and just kind of relax.

WS: How do you balance being a grapegrower with being a legislator?
MT: It's not balanced. I don't get over there often enough. But when I do, it's a real release, whether it's to build rock walls or planting olive trees or walking the vineyard with my vineyard manager. It's just a really good release from the pressure of politics.

WS: What wine-related political accomplishment are you most proud of?
MT: The Congressional Wine Caucus has been very helpful for a number of reasons. We do a lot--everything from wine tastings to seminars. I started it with George Radanovich, my Republican colleague in the House, and we've had good participation from both sides of the aisle. If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, bipartisanship is very much needed in Congress today. It's also an opportunity to put the wine industry face to face with those who write the laws in this country.

WS: So is involving wine the best way to facilitate bipartisanship?
MT: I think it's a great way! Come to my office when we're having one of these events, and there'll be an even number of Democrats and Republicans. It just seems to cut through the partisan nonsense. That's important. You can look at it in regard to future issues coming down the road, like the whole climate-change issue and its impact on wine in general. We're gonna need folks on both sides of the aisle to help figure this out.

WS: What's more finicky and hard to please: a grapevine or a colleague?
MT: The grapevines don't talk back. They don't argue.

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