Wine, The Partisan Party Crasher

It’s 5 o’clock in D.C. Perhaps our gridlocked politicians could try humanity’s oldest social lubricant.

“It’s a lot easier to demonize someone you don’t know well than someone you do know well,” says Terry Nelson, a major Republican operative. Ain’t that the truth. If you believe the cable news channels, the Democrats and Republicans speak completely different languages with each one believing the other is channeling the devil.

As any couple’s therapist will tell you, one of the best ways to bring people together is to focus on what they have in common and try to strengthen this ‘bond’ so that other issues can be amicably worked out. We may not be at the point where we need to assign each congressional committee a shrink, but I could not think of a better time for our representatives to share their mutual love of extracurricular activities with members of the opposing party – just not at the taxpayers’ expense.

The pleasure I am referring to is wine and the Congressional Wine Caucus is a great model for cooperation. Set up by Mike Thompson (D- CA), this bipartisan group works on a host of issues like interstate shipping with a general consensus that transcends party lines.

I asked Thompson if he has noticed the spirit of collaboration found in the Congressional Wine Caucus seeping into other areas of policy among members. “You chat socially and I think it improves your working relationship with your colleagues down the line.”

Wine and politics, the perfect pairing.

I also talked to several of the Beltway’s palates, from different points on the political spectrum, to see if they ever share their Ridge Zins or Conterno Barolos with ‘the enemy.’

“Actually, I do, a good amount,” said Jeffrey Browne, a wine drinker since his student Eurail days and a principle at CAPAD Communications, a consulting firm that works with Democratic candidates. “I have some of my most interesting conversations with Republicans.”

But wait, what do Republican enophiles have to say about this? Nelson concurs with Browne, “It’s interesting for me to hear their perspective on what’s going on. In those discussions people try to be pretty objective of what’s going on in their party.”

Dan Hazelwood, who has been involved in Republican politics almost as long as he’s been a wine drinker, admits, “I tend to socialize more with Republicans but drinking wine is not necessarily a partisan perspective.” Doug Heye, former Director of the Republican National Committee and current Burgundy fiend, shares the feeling: “There is nothing partisan about it.”

I  met Heye on a trip to Champagne in 2008. As a long time San Francisco resident, my political bubble was shattered not only by Heye but by Sam Dealey, a self described “libertarian conservative” and prominent D.C. journalist who, on this same journey, became my late night drinking partner in crime. Meeting Heye and developing a friendship with Dealey opened my eyes to the “other side” – and helped inspire this article.

Which begs the question, can wine serve as a mediator of sorts between opposing political views?

“It’s an icebreaker, “ Hazelwood acknowledged, “It creates a bridge to have a dialogue without rancor.” Khalid Pitts, owner of Cork Wine Bar in Washington D.C. told me, “Any day you can walk through Cork and see people from all sides talking politics or about what they’re doing this weekend. You see staffers with other staffers coming across the aisle.” Keep in mind, many who are serving in both houses have started off their careers as staffers.

Richard Schlackman of RMS Associates, a fiscally moderate and socially liberal Democrat from San Francisco, can often be found sharing a bottle of Spanish wine with Alex Castellanos, a top Republican media consultant, when he is in the nation’s capital.

“Just a couple of weeks ago I was at Cork Wine Bar discussing  politics and the state of the world with Alex. We agreed upon how good the 1991 Lopez de Heredia was.”

Is that all they could see eye to eye on?

“ While you may not share everything, you share a love that transcends politics,” Dan Kully, a progressive Democratic and partner at Kully Hall said.

“It’s a good medium to have a conversation whether it’s about politics, sex or the local ball team,” Browne says.

Dealey concurs. “Any time you can connect with someone on a personal level you get beyond the colleague relationship to friend status.”

It seems oenophiles on both sides of the aisle can agree wine is a bridge to facilitating dialog. Perhaps the next budget debate should start off with a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs and depending on how long it goes, finish with a Hunt Country ice wine from New York. For the love of Bacchus, please crack open a bottle, give a glass to your nearest adversary, and start talking.

Image: Jenny Downing