Thursday, February 23, 2012

The wine lover's guide to the Republican primary

In 1928, alcohol policy was a huge issue in the Presidential campaign. The Democratic candidate, New York governor Al Smith, believed in ending Prohibition. The Republican, Herbert Hoover, ran on a socially conservative agenda that gained him the support of the Anti-Saloon League.

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.

Rick Santorum

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

Mitt Romney

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

Newt Gingrich

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

Ron Paul

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.

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Tommaso said...

Hello Blake,

I'm afraid that you drew the wrong conclusion from the Ron Paul quote,

"If you're a consistent person and you think the government should be regulating personal behavior..."

Ron Paul doesn't think the government should be regulating personal behavior. He's pointing out the hypocrisy of those who are against the legalization of illegal drugs (i.e., the regulation of personal behavior), but don't have a problem with alcohol or nicotine.

W. Blake Gray said...

Tommaso: That may be true, but just look at Paul's other quotes about alcohol; they would fit in nicely from the politics of 1915.

For a guy who claims to be a libertarian, he's very judgmental of his fellow Congressman who have a glass of wine with dinner. But don't believe me -- google it.

Kent Benson said...

Blake, I did google it, and I still think you are misreading Paul’s comments. In virtually every quote I came across where Paul was critical of alcohol, it was a deliberate juxtaposition with illegal drugs in an effort to make his case for legalizing drugs. In other words, his point is, in many respects, alcohol is much worse than pot so why is alcohol legal and pot is not?

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: I agree that that is Paul's main point, and frankly I agree with it as Paul's main point.

However, as a wine lover I am very uncomfortable with somebody running for President attacking alcohol as "dangerous." You should be too. This is not a man who's going to do anything to make it easier for us to get the wines we want. When the Wine Institute stands up to fight raising "sin taxes" on wine, where will Ron Paul stand? Where do you stand?

Peter O'Connor said...

Just take a look at Ron Paul’s website.
He is a proponent of free trade and rejects protectionism.
Paul supports the “elimination of the income tax and the IRS”, and says he leans toward a flat tax: “but I want to make it real flat, like zero.” In 2007 he pledged to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses".
That’s precisely what he’s been doing ever since.

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: What does that have to do with this column? This is not about income tax, it's about alcohol policy. Don't change the subject.

Subsequent commenters: I'm sorry, but I will delete all subsequent attempts like this to boost your candidate if they do not relate to the specific topic of alcohol law.

Peter O'Connor said...

I am not an American citizen and I do not live in the US; but I still don’t get it.
Why are you concerned that an anti-tax freak like him might support “raising [state-levied] sin taxes on wine”?

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: Government isn't free. Paul's version of government might come cheaper than others', if he were to get us out of Afghanistan, for example. But we still have national debt to pay and revenue has to come from somewhere.

If you reduce income tax, as Paul suggests, you're going to need revenue from elsewhere. Now, he could just be fiscally irresponsible like George W. Bush and leave the next President to try to clean up the unpaid bills. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one. Bush never really talked about fiscal responsibility, and Paul does. So money would have to come from somewhere.

But this still gets away from my main point: the guy talks about Prohibition like it's an option. That's scary.

I don't know what country you live in, but here in the US, there are still neo-Prohibitionist forces. One-third of American adults do not drink alcohol at all. It's not a given here that American adults will maintain the right to enjoy a glass of wine with our meal in public. In fact, you could be arrested in most of the US for drinking a glass of wine in a public park.

Neo-Prohibitionists have not had any real political power since Strom Thurmond died. Ron Paul talks like one.

I don't want somebody in the White House who thinks alcohol is dangerous. That would change the culture in this country in ways that go beyond laws that might be passed. Those one-third of the US who are non-drinkers would wield a lot of political power with a leader. Let's keep them dormant on this issue.

New Hampshire Wineman said...

Blake, back in the '60s & '70s I read High Times and OMNI mags, voted for whoever would legalize Weed, and voted for the peanut farmer, but when the whole ship was about to sink I put my smoking priority behind more important imperatives and voted for California's gift to America (RR). Now, some new prohibition seems to scare you, but keep in mind that Paul has nearly no chance, and there is NO chance that wine will be illegal in America, at least not from conservatives, maybe another group of people, which ostensibly appears to be gaining political power beyond their their numbers, I can think of, will want to outlaw alcohol and may vote that way, but with the Gay and Women's-rights groups you maybe just ignoring them. You have in this article!
A greater threat to OUR beloved wine is that competition will be diminished and small to medium sized wineries will go out of business and prices will rise.

Thanks for letting me join in,

G.W. is not and was not a Conservative in my book.
You have your opinions, but "Truth" is not about opinions, and though I agree with you about the "Truth" of residual prohibition, the Hegelian Dialectic in our leadership is The Imperative which has lead us to the difficulties we are in.

Kent Benson said...


In my view, your assessment of Ron Paul couldn’t be more off base. Paul is a libertarian, live and let live, outlaw virtually nothing kind of a guy. You have totally misinterpreted the quote you cited. Paul was not suggesting, or even hinting, that prohibition should be an option. He was only saying that it is inconsistent for opponents of the legalization of drugs to support the legal sale of alcohol. If these people were consistent, they would advocate prohibition.

Are you truly suggesting that Paul’s position is that marijuana should be legalized and alcohol prohibited? Just because Paul thinks members of congress drink too much doesn’t mean he is an active opponent of alcohol. It means he doesn’t like working with a bunch of drunks. He calls alcohol “dangerous” in order to emphasize the absurdity of “safer” illegal drugs, not to justify its prohibition.

Paul is a champion of free trade. While I agree, he is a strong proponent of states’ rights, I would expect him to side with any attempts to reduce encumbrances to trade.

You warn that Ron Paul may raise taxes on alcohol in order to boost revenue. Ron Paul wants to dismantle the welfare state and abolish almost every Federal agencies created in the last 50 years. If he were to have his way, there would be little need for revenue. You are truly barking up the wrong tree here.

Where so I stand? I oppose virtually all taxes which are not based upon usage. I particularly oppose “sin taxes”. I think they are counter productive, and ultimately, morally wrong. Why should drinkers, smokers, and gamblers pay for the government services the rest of us use?

W. Blake Gray said...

I'm fascinated that all the comments -- every single one -- come in defense of Ron Paul.

Nobody wants to defend Newt Gingrich? Nobody wants to argue for or against Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum?

Ron Paul isn't polling very well nationally, but he's apparently doing very well with readers of The Gray Report. Maybe my blog is Maine, without the lobster.

Kent Benson said...

You mistake attempts to correct your assessment of Ron Paul with support of Ron Paul. All of the responses were about Ron Paul because he's the one candidate that you seem to most misunderstand. If you had characterized Newt as a faithful family man, you would have gotten just as many comments about him.

W. Blake Gray said...

Look, what don't I understand about the fact that he calls alcohol "dangerous"?

Kent Benson said...

I've already explained why he called alcohol dangerous. For some reason you insist on interpreting it to mean something else. There's nothing left to say.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent, it's not acceptable or excusable in my mind for a Presidential candidate to call alcohol "dangerous."

Alcohol is a part of daily life and has been for millenia. It is often a highlight of daily life. It is good for your health. Show me where Ron Paul says any of those things.

Ed said...

Your blog is biased because you make a living writing about alcohol. There is nothing good that can be written about alchol. The health benefits are from the grape juice not from the alcohol. It is a drug that wrecks havoc in families. The world would be much better if alcohol did nott exist. Peole would have increased confidence, productivity & connected.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thank you, Ed. Views like yours are EXACTLY why I fear politicians attacking alcohol.