Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
No one is above the law, and even ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. But sometimes the penalty for breaking the rules can be so out of proportion to the act committed that one has to wonder if the law enforcement agencies are truly in touch with reality. Robert Mondavi Winery's recent $150,000 penalty for offering six bottles of wine and a dinner (total value, $394) to former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy is a case in point.
For those of you who missed this one, a brief history: Back in 1993, Espy assistant Richard Douglas visited Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. The winery offered him a sample package of various wines to bring back to his boss--a gesture not uncommon in wine country when a public personality or esteemed guest takes the time to drop by for a visit. The following year, Espy and a friend attended a dinner event in Washington, D.C., attended by other politicians and hosted by Mondavi.
Espy was eventually forced out of office by reports that he had abused his Cabinet position by accepting free travel, sports tickets and other gratuities prohibited to executive branch members. An investigation of Espy's activities was initiated by Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz to track Espy's trail, and the Mondavi wine and dinner came up on the radar screen.
Somehow Smaltz and his team of lawyers managed to spend $20,000, according to the government, to discover Mondavi's $394 indiscretion. Not to worry; Mondavi will cover the sum in a settlement that includes an additional $100,000 in civil damages to be paid to the U.S. Treasury. Just for good measure, the winery will pay another $30,000 to help fund a program on ethics at a California business school. In exchange, no criminal charges will be brought against Mondavi or anyone who works for the winery.
Mondavi's mission has always been to educate the public to the joys of wine and "the good life." It's a hard lesson to teach without a tasting component. If Espy's aide had visited an apple orchard and come back with a selection of the various apples grown there, I wonder if it would have raised eyebrows back in Washington. Or if Espy had attended a beef producers' conference where hamburgers were served, would that also have been viewed in the same light? Perhaps, but I doubt it. You see, for some people, wine and the good life are still a sin. And when you sin, you've got to pay for it--and pay dearly.
Still, there is no excuse for breaking the law, and I do not endorse Mondavi's, or anyone's, crossing the legal line. But the punishment should fit the crime. We're talking about six bottles of wine and a dinner event attended by the wrong guy--a Cabinet member. Is that really worth $150,000 in fines?
Perhaps a more appropriate punishment might have been for Mondavi to invite the entire U.S. Senate to lunch at a great D.C. restaurant and serve them a wide variety of California wines. At $100 a plate, it would have cost the winery $10,000 to give every U.S. senator a quick lesson in the good life and the importance of a long lunch hour--with wine, of course.
The problem here revolves not so much around ethics, but around a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of certain lawmakers about the culture of food and wine. This culture is based on farming, art, eating well and eating healthfully, conversation and communication--all important facets of a civilized lifestyle. Winemakers share bottles and host dinners; it's part of the daily package.
Sometimes laws are wrong, but it takes us a while to figure it out. Prohibition was a good example of this. Why does our nation struggle so with its relationship to wine and eating well? People who enjoy good food and wine together often find a platform for healthy dialogue; for that matter, it's only when they stop talking and leave the table that wars break out. So let's toast the puritans in Washington--and invite them to dinner. There may be hope for them yet.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.