145 congress people and senators count themselves as members.
Congressional Wine Caucus
Credit: Bill Clark/Getty Images

On Wednesday June 7th, Congress was debating a new healthcare bill, probing into the Trump Campaign’s connections with Russia, and staving off a nuclear war with North Korea. Still, in the early evening, over 30 members of the House and Senate gathered in the Capitol’s Rayburn Building, for a wine reception held in conjunction with the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Some of the politicians were members of the Congressional Wine Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral group that advances the interests of America’s vast wine industry. Others were their colleagues who simply love wine. Earlier in the day Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA), who co-chairs the caucus, was handing out invitations on the floor of the House.

During the two-hour reception the congressmen tasted selections from notable wineries like Comstock, Ferrari-Carano, and Dutton Ranch. The winemakers were so excited about getting to meet the politicians, they brought their best vintages. They shared stories about how they fared during the droughts earlier in the year and now the floods. They explained the winemaking process and the new technologies they used. They told the officials what they needed from government to do even better. Congressmen from across the aisle listened to the folks from California and also enjoyed a rare opportunity to talk and laugh together.

No one wanted to leave, said Karissa Kruse, President of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

“We put all the bottles away, and the Congressmen were like, ‘Wait! We didn’t get to try that Cabernet.’ We had to say, ‘Ok, We’ll bring that one back out, but this is your last glass.’”

This is one of the many bonding events held by the Congressional Wine Caucus, a government organization that currently includes 145 members of Congress. It was started in 1999 when Thompson had just been elected to office. He grew up in Napa Village, worked in the wine business his entire life, and still owns his own vineyard that sells sauvignon blanc grapes to neighboring wineries.

He knows what a big deal wine is to this country. The California wine community alone contributes over 160 billion dollars to the economy every year. “That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of tax dollars,” he said.” Every state in the country now grows grapes or makes wine. And every Member of Congress represents constituents who buy, sell, and enjoy wine. Vineyards also play a big role in protecting the environment and rural communities. “These farms are growing grapes, and if it wasn’t for that, they would be growing houses,” he said.

When he joined Congress he felt like the wine industry didn’t get the attention or respect it deserved, he said. “So we started the caucus to make sure that not only what is happening in congress got to the wine community but what was happening in the wine community got to congress.”

The caucus started holding receptions to bridge the worlds of federal government and wine. In 2007 over 150 Congressmen showed up to hear Chuck O’Rear, a National Geographic photographer, talk about his new coffee table book that profiled the country’s wine growers. “We had 10 or 15 folks who were featured in the book, and every one of them was from a state where you would not imagine anyone growing grapes or wine,” said Thompson. Sonoma used the reception to profile its aggressive campaign to be the first wine region in the country to reach 100 percent sustainability.

The politicians started furthering issues facing the wine industry. When the glassy winged sharpshooter, an invasive insect species, was destroying vineyards in California, the caucus gathered stakeholders to work out a plan to eliminate the vector (it was a tricky issue because it lived in plants it didn’t destroy, meaning farmers outside of wine had little incentive to do anything about it.) When the government takes on tax reform this fall, the group will fight to make sure tax codes make sense for the wine, beer, and spirits industries.

Another issue the caucus is looking at right now is immigration, especially with DACA. They recently had an event where they heard the stories of Mexican-American vintners. “They were bought to this country as children, picked grapes with their parents in the field, and they grew up and now own their own wineries,” said Thompson. “It’s a real American success story, and it’s illustrative of the data. The data shows that immigrants are two times more likely to start a business than their native-born counterparts.”

Still, the most pressing issue the caucus might be battling is partisan politics. While representatives come to receptions to enjoy great wine, they leave with new friends across the aisle. It’s become a tradition for bipartisan groups to go out to dinner after wine receptions where they inevitably start talking about issues like health care, foreign policy, and immigration. “Now anyone at that table can pick up the phone and call anyone else at that table,” said Thompson who recently hosted a dinner at his house where he served pheasant and walleye. “We are all deeply capable of being able to balance our policy assignments with our wine interests.”

As for Kruse from the Sonoma County Winegrowers, she was surprised, if not shocked, that such a large and diverse group of Congressmen turned up in the same room at such a tricky time in American politics. “We laugh that wine is the one thing that brings both sides of Congress together,” she said. “It’s the bipartisan beverage of choice.”