The Wine Industry May Not Be at the Conventions, but It's Watching

Republicans and Democrats are drinking in Cleveland and Philadelphia, while winemakers consider how the election could impact them
The Wine Industry May Not Be at the Conventions, but It's Watching
The eyes of the drinks industry are on Cleveland and Philadelphia this month. (JohnMcGrawPhotography/iStock)
Jul 21, 2016

Presidential candidates used to be able to win their party’s nomination by courting bigwigs over drinks at the bar outside the convention hall. Today, conventions aren’t the smoke-filled rooms they used to be. This week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and next week’s Democratic gathering in Philadelphia are more about political theater than nomination-floor fights and backroom deals. (Though the GOP has provided some drama, so far.)

That doesn’t mean parties aren't going on. Conventions are also a chance for corporations and advocacy groups to pitch their causes and concerns to a lot of politicians in one place. Outside the hall, these advocates are hosting events and setting up displays, hoping to grab the attention of party members, politicians and members of the media.

Ironically, while there’s plenty of alcohol being served—and one of the candidates owns a winery in Virginia but doesn’t drink—the wine, beer and spirits industries are largely absent from both conventions. Alcohol has not been a major topic in a presidential campaign since Prohibition was repealed, and most members of the industry focus on a few key issues. The wine, beer and liquor industries have donated just under $700,000 to presidential candidates this election cycle so far, according to OpenSecrets.org—a drop in the bucket.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have concerns heading toward November.

So who’s at the party?

For several election cycles, the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing spirits producers and marketers, has hosted some of the best parties at conventions, and this year they’re holding evening events at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. For policymakers, media and political activists, it’s a chance to enjoy a drink.

For Frank Coleman, senior vice president of public affairs for the council, it’s a chance to meet leaders and discuss the issues that are important to his members, namely taxes and making sure liquor is treated fairly compared to beer and wine. “Fifty-six percent of the average bottle of spirits represents tax in some form or another, whether federal, state or local,” Coleman told Wine Spectator. “We have longstanding relationships with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. We support members of Congress who support us.”

Food company lobbyists are in town too. And then there’s the new food truck that has been seen around Cleveland this week and will head to Philly soon—it’s part of the Plate of the Union campaign, a collaborative effort by the food groups Food Policy Action, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance to highlight food and farm issues this election season. The campaign is also hosting two evening receptions in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, exclusively for delegates, campaign staff and members of Congress.

The goal is to educate convention-goers on their issues—access to healthy, affordable food, protection for food and farm workers, and cracking down on the use of antibiotics on livestock—and members feel their message has so far been well-received. “Across the board, people would say, ‘You know what, that really makes sense, I don’t know why that would be a partisan issue,’” said Claire Benjamin-DiMattina, Food Policy Action’s executive director. “We’ve had a lot of good and thoughtful conversations about where there’s common ground.”

Who stayed home?

These groups are in the minority when it comes to being on the ground at the conventions. But other organizations hope that wine lovers will pay attention to candidates’ proposals on several key issues this fall, whether it involves a presidential race or city council.

Direct shipping continues to be a hot topic for wine lovers looking to expand the variety of wine they can try. While most—but not all—states have changed their laws on wineries shipping direct to consumers in the past decade, shipping by wine retailers across state lines is becoming increasingly contentious, with several state governments cracking down on the practice.

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) has a large and very active Political Action Committee that lobbies policymakers to protect the interests of the wine-and-spirits wholesale business, an industry the group says employs 65,000 Americans nationwide and generates $55 billion in tax revenue every year. The WSWA strongly opposes retailer direct shipping, and its PAC has raised nearly $1.07 million so far this cycle.

“We believe that wholesalers are a big reason that consumers in the United States enjoy the largest variety, choice and selection of products available anywhere in the world,” said Jeff Solsby, WSWA vice president of communications and membership. “That is in large part because of the three-tiered system and the competition among wholesalers and their partnership with suppliers upstream and retailers and on-premise downstream.”

Some retailers don’t think wholesalers have consumers’ best interest at heart. Tom Wark, executive director for the National Association of Wine Retailers (NAWR), points out that not allowing out-of-state retailers to ship direct to consumers greatly diminishes the selection of imported wine available to them. “If you want to buy an imported wine from out of state, you have to buy it from a retailer," said Wark, but most states prohibit out-of-state retailers from shipping to consumers. “I’d argue that that’s unconstitutional.”

While direct-shipping laws are made at the state level, the next president will have the responsibility of nominating Supreme Court justices. It was the Supreme Court’s 2005 Granholm decision that opened the door for winery direct shipping.

Labeling laws and American Viticultural Areas are also controlled at a federal level. “Wine is the ultimate product of place,” said Rex Stults, government relations director of the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV). “We want [Napa Valley wine lovers] to feel confident and comfortable knowing that when they pick up a bottle of wine and it says Napa Valley on it, that the wine really came from here.” The group has been pushing for a change in federal rules so that a winery in another state that sources Napa grapes for a wine but makes it in the winery’s home state cannot put Napa Valley on its label. Currently, those wineries are allowed to use the appellation name so long as the wine is only sold in their own state.

Trade policy has been a major issue in this campaign, and several parties expressed concern that wine is often targeted in a trade war. “One of the things we hope that all the parties will agree with is that free trade is important,” said Wark.

For Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democratic congressman who represents Napa and Sonoma, immigration is the most important issue up for debate in this election that could impact the wine industry. “There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today, many of whom are working hard to support our wine community and have been instrumental for the growth and success of wine communities in my home state of California and across our country,” said Thompson, who is cofounder of the Congressional Wine Caucus.

Republican Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, who represent’s California’s 50th district and is Thompson’s cochair on the Wine Caucus, could not be reached for comment.

A potential increase in the federal minimum wage has some in the industry worried about rising labor costs. The NVV surveyed its members and found most were paying above minimum wage already. But it could make an impact in regions where profit margins are much tighter.

Wine may not be the top issue this fall, but elections matter—their winners influence policies across the board, often in unexpected ways. For now, voters may want to have a glass of wine handy while they watch the speeches. It may help wash down the theater.

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