Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Democrat or Republican? The politics of California wine country

Very few people in the wine business want to talk about politics. It's bad business, because they want to sell wine to both Republicans and Democrats.

I love to talk about politics, and I've been talking to people in California wine country for a long time. But I'm not about to bust anybody for conversations they may have thought were off the record. People could get fired if their name were to show up in a blog post supporting a candidate -- any candidate. I'm not Donald Trump; I don't wake up in the morning hoping to say, "You're fired."

So this post is about generalities, not specific people.


The wine industry cares more about immigration than most, and on the whole is very pro-immigration. The industry cares about environmental regulations, but there is no unified stance: plenty of people are disdainful of the government's ability to write sensible laws. Everybody would come together to fight more sin taxes on alcohol, but the powerful distribution arm of the wine industry likes red-tape regulations on distribution and sales, and so do some of the largest wineries because they realize it gives them an advantage.


The overwhelming majority of winemakers in California are Democrats. This makes sense, as they are scientists. Because of this, the media and to a lesser extent the public gets the sense that the California wine industry is strongly Democratic -- something Napa Valley Vintners would not like you to believe, as Republicans buy a lot of expensive Cabernet. In the media, we exalt winemakers, often too much (yes, me too.) Statistically, winemakers don't have that many votes, nor do they donate much money. Maybe the wine industry does lean Democratic, because California does in general, but it's not a landslide. Read on.


This is the most complicated and interesting category.

Vineyard owners are farmers, and farmers tend to be Republicans. Farmers tend to be salt of the earth, hard-working, socially conservative people, and that's generally true of California vineyard owners as well. However, there are a few issues that separate grapegrowers from the national trend. First, you won't find many if any vineyard owners who aren't extremely pro-immigration. This is different from agribusiness farmers who can mechanize everything and don't need field hands tending the crop. Second, vineyard owners are very sensitive to global warming. It's interesting to discuss Presidential politics with a vineyard owner because they want a decent moral conservative leader, but they don't want a climate-change denier or an immigrant hater. The Republicans have won this group for many elections in a row but nobody with a vineyard wants to see Donald Trump build a wall.


Owners of most big businesses tend to be Republicans. California is a little different, but not that different; Democrats tend to forget how much national Republican funding comes from this state. Also, many California winery owners are people who were successful in other businesses and brought their political beliefs with them when they bought a winery.


Vineyard workers tend to be extremely socially conservative, even more so than vineyard or winery owners. They also tend to be Hispanic. An immigrant-sympathetic Republican can own this group. I'll bet George W. Bush won this group handily. Probably not the case this year. To the curious: Yes, there are still plenty of illegal immigrants in farm labor, but because vineyards pay better than most farms they hire a much larger percentage of citizens with voting rights than other farms.


These folks really could lose their job for talking politics, so don't try to cajole them into it. But if you want to know where they stand, take a look at the voting record of people who live where most tasting room staff lives. Most tasting rooms are on the Democratic north coast rather than in the Republican interior. It's probably that simple. But don't ask them.


If they're good, nobody knows. Plenty of marketing people have expressed liberal views to me but if they're any good, they've read my election endorsements in the past. I'll bet one of my conservative friends who writes about wine has had entirely different conversations with some of the same people. One thing to remember about wine sales reps: There are a lot of white males, more so than other industries, and white males are more likely to be Republican.


Many cellar rats are young winemakers-in-training. They have the duties of a winemaker without the pay. Unsurprisingly many of them are very liberal. But the people who have worked in the same winery for 25 years, doing a job without taking many vacations and getting nice healthcare from the company while watching the government subsidize healthcare for others ... I've had more than one conversation with a very liberal young cellar rat cut short by shouted orders from a winery lifer.


Small wine shop owners are small businessmen, who tend to be Republican. Something about wine leads some in California to be more liberal than you'd expect. I have those conversations all the time. But that's small shops on the coast, where I shop.


Somms tend to be liberal. There are exceptions, but Republican sommeliers are in the service industry and are aware that their views aren't popular with their peers. Still, if you're going to strike up a politically liberal conversation with anybody in the wine industry, somms are as likely to respond as anyone outside of winemakers. It brings up an interesting philosophical question. There are certain wines that seem to be popular with Republican diners, and sommeliers generally insult those wines when the public's not around. Is it the wines themselves, or the customers who order them without consulting the somms?


At the extremes, you can tell someone's politics by the wine they're drinking. If it's a $500 Napa cult Cab, it's -- correction, he's -- probably a Republican. If it's an unfiltered cool-climate Charbono, it's probably a Democrat. But anything in between, who knows? Wine sales in this country keep going up because both sides like drinking wine. Isn't it great that there's something we can agree on?

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Jim Caudill said...

For what it's worth, Sonoma County voted for Bernie in the Demo primary....

Aaron said...

I think it'd actually be fascinating to have a study/survey in a place like Paso Robles or Santa Barbara County which are long term traditional farming that's only fairly recently moved over to substantial vineyards & wine making. Although still a fair amount of the traditional farming in place. I think your comments on the tasting room staff might be a bit different for there, although I've never tried (nor will) to talk politics with them.

And I think you're right, that there's a fair split between the big wineries and the many more small and small-medium sized wineries. One probably wants more water rights and getting water from elsewhere, and the other probably wants to be more careful with water use and find a workable balance. I'll leave to guess which is which ;)

Randy Caparoso: said...

Living here in Lodi, Blake, it's ironic that the majority (not all!) of farmers are indeed conservative, but obviously they would be in favor of immigration reform as opposed to just building a wall and deporting every undocumented laborer in sight. But that's the way the world spins: talking to many of them, I know that most will still vote Republican and let the chips fall where they will. Just like most liberal minded people will be simply ignoring conservative aspects of the Democratic nominee and voting for her anyway.

Speaking of sommeliers and restaurants: I worked full-time in the business for 28 years. Most restaurant owners tend to be conservative, but it seems to me sommeliers have always been a mixed lot, politically speaking. Suffice to say, politics rarely enter conversations, and it's neither here nor there.

However, I would not say that sommeliers, as a group, deride or make fun of guests "behind their backs" for the wines they prefer. Frankly, I've never, ever seen that. Sure, among themselves, sommeliers share sentiments, or the fact that they don't like certain Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons, and that they prefer Rieslings and geekier styles of wine. But they never make fun of paying customers.

Sommeliers, contrary to what many people would like to think, are not stupid. If anything, they are among the industry's savviest wine professionals (and I've worked in multiple parts of the industry). Most certainly, they are crafty in the way that they source even *more* wines that their conservative guests might prefer, to load up on their wine lists. Why do you think there are so many old fashioned phonebook sized wine lists modeled after WS "Grand Award" winners out there? Notwithstanding the tiny minority of "hipster" sommeliers, the vast majority of them are catering to conservative tastes, not mocking them!

Paul Franson said...

It's worth looking at who represents us here in wine country (Napa County). U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson (D St. Helena)is a centrist Democrat aligned with progressives on social issues but conservative about money.

He's also a former a paratrooper and hunter who is calling for more responsible control on guns, a former wine industry worker and owner of a small vineyard. He's also very attentive of the needs of the people and businesses in his district.

He's so popular that the Republican party doesn't even bother to really challenge him, though some souls try on their own.

Look at his contributors. They include some extremely conservative winery and vineyard owners. Many are well educated, often in the sciences, socially conscious (think their contributions via Auction Napa Valley and other causes) and have international experience, so it's difficult to see how they could support Trump with much enthusiasm.

Let's not forget that Hillary Clinton was very supportive of the New York wine business when she was a senator, too.

Unknown said...

I'm curious about this assertion of yours:

"To the curious: Yes, there are still plenty of illegal immigrants in farm labor, but because vineyards pay better than most farms they hire a much larger percentage of citizens with voting rights than other farms."

How do you know this?

Hugo Santos

W. Blake Gray said...

Hugo: There have been surveys about the well-being of vineyard workers in various counties that include demographics and I've been covering them for years. You can look these up online if you're interested.

I spend time talking to vineyard managers. I have talked with plenty of legal immigrants working in vineyards, many of them naturalized citizens.

It's possible that some of the vineyard managers I talk to who say they hire only legal workers are lying to me. (Not all of them say this.) But if you ask around in wine country, I think you'll find I don't have a reputation for accepting what's said at face value.

Amalie Robert Estate said...


Unknown said...

Missing from your occupational survey: the politics of California wine writers.