Thursday, February 23, 2012
The wine lover's guide to the Republican primary
Hoover won and became one of the most unpopular Presidents in US history. Franklin Roosevelt beat him in 1932, then quickly moved to end Prohibition and celebrated by drinking one of the first legal beers in the White House.
Alcohol policy is not a big issue in 2012, but it might as well be, given the low state of discourse between the Republican candidates. Rather than decide which of the remaining quartet is the most severe conservative, I thought I'd take a look at what their election might mean for wine lovers. I spent some time researching their backgrounds on alcohol policy and the results surprised me.
Longtime readers know I'm a Democrat, so you can take this post with as much salt as you like. I doubt that anyone is going to vote for any of these guys based on how they feel about wine. But in the case of at least one of these candidates, if you're a wine lover, you should.
Like Al Smith, Rick Santorum is a Catholic. When it comes to alcohol policy, that means a lot.
Wine is part of the sacred rituals of the Catholic church, which is why a few wineries like Concannon were allowed to keep making wine during Prohibition. The Vatican consumes more wine per capita than any other country.
If you talk with Catholic winemakers, it's striking how, if you get them on the subject of religion, they see wine as God's gift -- a huge difference from evangelicals.
Santorum himself is not a wine lover. But he is a beer drinker, and apparently a relatively knowledgeable one. He says he does beer tastings and likes stouts, bocks, white ales and wheat beer. This makes him a connoisseur compared to President Obama, who had Bud Light at his beer summit, perhaps because he didn't want to be distracted by flavor.
It's hard to imagine a Catholic beer lover putting greater restrictions on alcohol. Santorum isn't a casual Catholic; for better and worse, his beliefs on policy seem to be driven by church doctrine. The only reason he doesn't get an A here is because he hasn't to my knowledge ever made such a statement on the record.
Wine lover's grade: B
Romney is a Mormon. He doesn't drink. "It's a religious thing," he told People magazine. Romney claims that as a "wayward teenager," he tried beer once and didn't like it.
But when it comes to policy, Romney's record is not as scary as his personal behavior.
I don't know if Romney deserves any credit for Utah liberalizing its alcohol policy, but the fact is that it happened on his watch as the guy running the 2002 Winter Olympics, so he must have at least not opposed it. Utah has been a much easier place to buy a drink ever since. In fact, one of my favorite distilleries, High West, is now based there.
More significantly, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney showed not only an understanding of wine direct shipping, but even attempted to get a sensible law promoting it through the Legislature.
In 2005, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that would have allowed only wineries that produced less than 30,000 gallons per year to ship to state residents. Romney vetoed it, citing its "anti-consumer effect, as well as its dubious constitutionality."
In January 2006, Romney introduced a more fair direct shipping bill, saying, "It's time we end the monopoly wholesalers have over wine sales." Amen. The bill did not pass, but I give Romney full credit for trying, and that's the single best quote for wine lovers I found from any of this year's candidates -- including President Obama.
The only reason I won't give Romney an A is that it's hard to reconcile his personal beliefs with his legislative past, and he is not a politician known for consistency. But his record on alcohol policy is reassuring.
Wine lover's rating: B
The good news: Gingrich is a converted Catholic. The bad news: Perhaps that will prove as permanent as his first or second marriage.
I couldn't find any evidence online of Gingrich drinking wine or cocktails. He did apparently have two Guinness beers in South Carolina, which is comforting.
The worrisome thing about Gingrich is his alleged devotion to states' rights. State laws, not federal laws, are the main source of headaches for wine lovers today. As with the Massachusetts legislature example above, even liberal states are constantly trying to find a way to restrict residents from buying whatever wine they want whenever they want it.
The more power the federal government has in alcohol policy, the better. State legislatures are much more prone to corruption from the campaign funds the big beer wholesalers spread around. With the possible exception of California, new state laws regarding alcohol are almost always bad news.
Gingrich is also more willing than the other candidates to go arch-conservative to win brownie points from his party's right wing; this was the way he worked as Speaker of the House in the '90s.
Gingrich would be a disastrous President for wine lovers. The only reason he doesn't get an F is his conversion to Catholicism. If he wins, pray he doesn't switch back.
Wine lovers' grade: D
Here's the candidate that surprised me. Paul is a libertarian known for supporting the legalization of marijuana. He's also a medical doctor who should know well the health benefits of alcohol.
(A reminder: heavy drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. So if you're a teetotaler, you better grab a bottle and start guzzling, you've got some catching up to do.)
But Paul is an active opponent of alcohol. He calls it dangerous. He complains that his fellow members of Congress drink too much of it. And he said this on CNN:
"If you're a consistent person and you think the government should be regulating personal behavior, you should be in favor of prohibition of alcohol."
Wow. A 21st century politician talking about Prohibition -- our greatest national mistake since slavery was legal -- as a potential policy alternative. Be very afraid.
Wine lovers' grade: F
Conveniently, the battle for the best Republican candidate for wine lovers comes down to the same two candidates who appear to have the best chance of getting the nomination.
The difference between Romney and Santorum on alcohol policy is both large and small. One candidate doesn't drink but has a track record of positive legislation; the other has little track record, but holds strong religious beliefs that appear to guide his legislative actions.
I respect Romney's record, but he spends much of his time on the campaign trail disavowing it. So if forced to choose between them based on alcohol policy alone, I'd have to pick Rick Santorum. Somebody get me a drink.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM