Darwin Bond-Graham and Will Parrish, ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER
If you’ve followed the Anderson Valley Advertiser for any length of time, you’re no doubt aware that the wine industry wields inordinate political power, not only here on the North Coast, but at the state-wide level also. Whether they’re fighting to prevent regulation of their enormous appetite for water, or greasing the political gears for a big forest-to-vineyard conversion, the wine industry’s major players are deeply involved in politics. As case after case has shown, the wine industry tends to get its way with respect to water, zoning, labor laws, subsidies, and more. But what is it, specifically, that makes the grape-based booze industry so powerful?
For one thing, there’s the cultural stature of the beverage itself. To appreciate fine wine is to signify membership in a learned, privileged order. No other luxury item is as capable of serving as an expression of ruling class solidarity as premium wine. And, it should be noted — if only for the purposes of this particular article – that California’s ruling class certainly includes most of its elected officials and many of its would-be regulators.
Every bit as important is the fact that the wine business has become a juggernaut of free market capitalism (although underwritten partly by taxpayers, as per the socialism-for-the-rich structure of the larger economy). The California wine industry annually reaps about $20 billion in revenue, much of it through exports to Europe, Canada, and Asia. The industry has become so profitable that most of the North Coast’s officials, from county supervisors to members of Congress have internalized the notion that, perforce, their role is to do virtually everything they can to facilitate the industry’s continued growth.
That’s especially the case owing to the wine industry’s thorough integration with Northern California’s all-important real estate sector. More than any other artifact or image, it is the vineyard and wine glass that have come to epitomize the “good life” of Northern California for a global market of real estate investors, vacation-takers, and home buyers. Crushed grapes and autumnal vineyards became a symbol, and an important economic component, of the region’s land boom in the 1990s and 2000s. The grape-alcohol plantations, fetishized as “family estates,” or “small farm vineyards” served, through a peculiar symbiosis, to both “preserve” the pastoral countryside, while simultaneously increasing land values, thereby creating a market for both McMansions and tract housing, and all the attendant gentrification and sprawl that was the basis of economic growth between San Francisco and the Oregon border until 2008.