On mixing wine and politics

Many people were horrified to find out how many members of the US wine industry donated to the party of Trump. Wait a minute, says Robert Joseph

Photo by visuals on Unsplash
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

We are living in exceptionally febrile times. On the one hand, there’s the literal feverishness of Covid-19 and, in the US, of the cultural divide between people who passionately support and who actively despise Donald Trump.

Karl Storchmann of the Association of American Wine Economists (AAWE) has thrown fuel onto this fire by tweeting the contributions of some members of the US wine industry to political candidates since 2016. As of June 3rd, the Trump-Pence campaign had apparently received over $600,000, while Joe Biden, their Democrat opponent got a mere $55,000. 

The difference in the sums involved allowed Storchmann to suggest that the “US wine industry overwhelmingly supports Trump.” Given the impact of Trump’s policies – specifically the 25% tariff – on some European producers, this announcement may have raised a few eyebrows.

So are American producers supporting a president whose policies are hurting parts of the wine trade?

Not necessarily.

In terms of dollars spent, the AAWE conclusion may be correct but, as the respected blogger Tom Wark points out, the figures on which it is based date back to 2015 and take no account of the number of individual contributors. Wark’s calculations show that in 2019/20 Bernie Sanders received money from 2,079 donors compared to the 1,284 who sent cash to Trump. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the president.

In any case, these figures must be set against all the other wine businesses operating in the US, including nearly 10,000 wineries and 46,740 importers and distributors. Stated simply, no-one can have any idea of how the wine industry, as a whole, feels politically.

In any case, non-Americans should note that Americans sometimes give money to a political candidate or party for reasons other than their personal beliefs. In the US, politicians are expected to spend huge sums on their campaigns and one way they raise these funds is from donors – including via political lobbyists, whose lobbying industry was worth a staggering $3.47bn in 2019.  A former lobbyist, Jimmy Williams, described  how the system works in an interview with VOX.

While acting for wine and spirits distributors, he was bluntly asked by a Nevada congressman why they hadn’t answered requests for donations. When Williams responded that he’d “take care of it” the lawmaker responded that he “supported every one of our pertinent legislative issues, and then we all shook hands and walked out”. Contributions were presumably then made and the legislation the clients wanted was passed into law.

This is the kind of lobbying that almost certainly helps to explains why parmesan and single malt whisky are subject to Trump’s 25% tariffs, but Prosecco and blended Scotch are not. 

Plenty of legislation will be welcomed by industry members even if they disagree fundamentally with the man or woman who authored it. Wine-loving California Democrats, for example, were probably delighted by the passing of a bill in 2006 that allowed non-profit arts trusts to obtain licenses allow them to ‘sell and serve alcoholic beverages to the public’.

The anti-alcohol group Alcohol Justice, however, openly suggests that the Republican senator, Jeff Denham, who was behind that legislation. may have been influenced by the $42,000 contributions he was given by ‘Big Alcohol’.

Presumably, the ‘1,000 California wineries and wine-related businesses’ that belong to the California Wine Institute were also looking for favourable outcomes from the nearly $300,000 the organisation spent on political contributions in 2006

Over the next few months, in the run-up to what is certain to be an aggressively-fought election, a lot of wine industry people will take firm public positions on one side or other; some already do so on social media. But others may decide where to give their support pragmatically to the politicians most likely to advance their cause.

If Donald Trump were to win a second term, one of these causes might well include trying to dissuade him from imposing another 100 percent tariff on French wine in reprisal for President Macron’s tax on multinational technology giants. 

For French producers – and other non-Americans if and when any administration moves towards protectionist measures – a US industry with effective lobbying skills may be more important than one with congenial political leanings.  

Robert Joseph


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