Wine choices in the new free world


Andrew Jefford remembers his visit to Donald Trump’s winery in Virginia, and considers boycotts old and new amid an unstable political climate across the so-called free world.

Inside the Trump winery. Credit: Andrew Jefford
Inside the Trump winery. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Just over a year ago, I visited Donald Trump’s Virginia winery. It was a beautiful October day of long shadows and golden sunshine; the stately mansion on the hill was prefaced by manicured lawns and sinuous drives.

At that stage, Trump was just one of a number of Republican candidates seeking presidential nomination; but by dint of the insult and affront which characterised his campaign and monopolised social media, he had already accrued media attention worth $100 million, despite having spent a mere $2 million on his campaign. Little changed subsequently, other than the figures. As readers may have heard, he won the election.

Inside the Trump winery

Trump vineyards in Virginia. Credit: Andrew Jefford
Trump vineyards in Virginia. Credit: Andrew Jefford

The estate (Virginia’s biggest, at around 80 ha) was run by charming professionals, and the wines were all competently crafted, with a California rather than a European cast. The staff reported to Donald’s son, Eric Trump, whom General Manager Kerry Woolard described as “one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Eric asks a million questions, but he will never tell you that he’s an expert, and he never over-rules what Jonathan [Wheeler, the long-term winemaker] and I decide.”

A bottle of Trump sparkling wine. Credit: Andrew Jefford.
A bottle of Trump sparkling wine. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Like most US wineries, Donald Trump’s relies on Mexican workers to tend the vineyards. Nineteen of them come over from Mexico for nine months a year on the USA’s H-2A program, which allows “agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the US to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.”

It was hard not to recall the winery owner’s remarks as he launched his campaign on June 14th 2015. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” I’d love to know how Donald Trump’s vineyard workers felt about those remarks as they laboured over his last two harvests. Were all 19 the sort of Mexicans which the morally unblemished Mr Trump might feel he could ‘assume’ to be ‘good’? Or did the 19 include the odd rapist?

Grand Cru Drive street sign inside the Trump winery estate. Credit: Andrew Jefford.
Grand Cru Drive street sign inside the Trump winery estate. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

At the time of writing, Donald Trump has not yet abandoned his promise to build a gigantic wall along the 3,100 km of USA-Mexican border, at an estimated cost of $25 billion – to be invoiced to Mexico. The rescission of his most wild and ill-considered electoral promises has, though, already begun, two months before he takes office. Historians may come to regard his election campaign as, more than anything else, an unscrupulous exercise in social-media manipulation for an age which had not yet learned to consume its social media in moderation.

2016 has been a ‘black year’

For those who believe in courtesy, tolerance, the respect of difference, in internationalism, in multi-culturalism and in helping those whose lives have been shattered by war and other forms of catastrophe, 2016 has been a black year around what was once proudly called ‘the free world’. Hungary’s president Viktor Orbán declares migrants, such as those fleeing Syria’s civil war, as “a poison” and a threat to “Europe’s Christian culture” – remarks of such perversity, theologically speaking, that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Turkey’s president Erdoğan is carrying out the most brutal campaign of internal repression ever undertaken by a NATO member. The president of the Philippines likens himself to Hitler and embraces extra-judicial killing. Emboldened by Britain’s planned ‘Brexit’, anti-immigrant nationalist parties across Europe are calling for the break-up of the EU, the politico-economic union which has maintained peace and stability in Europe since 1945, and brought prosperity and security to millions of European citizens.

Fresh debate over South Africa

Meanwhile, wine lovers fret as to whether they should resume their moral boycott of South African wines after a Danish documentary film reveals continuing inadequacy in farm-worker conditions in a few Cape wineries. Is there not a misjudgement of significant proportions here? Everyone wants to see progress in worker conditions on Cape wine farms; much has been achieved since 1994, even if much remains to do. South Africa, though, is a country which has accepted some 2.2 million migrants in recent years without those usually long-suffering and dispossessed people being described by successive presidents as “a poison”. Extra-judicial killing is not government policy there; in contrast to Turkey, journalists can still write what they want, and documentary film-makers film what they want, and judges decide what they want, in Johannesburg and Cape Town. As they do.

Are boycotts useful?

Should wine lovers concerned with social and racial justice consider boycotting US wine? And how about ‘Christian’ Tokaji and Egri Bikavér? What about Turkish wine? What about Sherry, the European wine region with the most investment from the Philippines? Would it not be better for European drinkers to turn their backs on perfidious English sparkling wine? What can the ordinary consumer do to register alarm and horror at the draughts of snake oil being liberally poured into political discourse, and avidly gulped down by the credulous, around ‘the free world’? Our external impact, whether we like it or not, comes primarily from our role as economic actors.

Well … no. In my view, boycotts of this sort are counter-productive and often hurt those they are designed to help. Boycotting US wines would be senseless: it was, after all, Hillary Clinton and not Donald Trump who won the Presidential election in California, Oregon and Washington, where most US wine is produced; she also, of course, has now won an astonishing two million more votes than Donald Trump across the nation. (Had these figures been reversed, Mr Trump was planning ‘revolution’.)

“We should pay credit to the Mexicans,” I heard a Napa winery owner say earlier this year. “They do everything here, they are the best workers, they work so dedicatedly; I get so angry when I hear that fool of Donald criticising the Mexicans.” Agreed, the speaker was Frenchman Christian Moueix, but many Napa owners and vineyard managers share his opinions. Drinking US wine is one of the most agreeable ways in which you might support the USA’s Mexican population against the barbs of Trump’s shrillest and most hysterical supporters.

‘No nation can be reduced to its political elite’

What is true of US wine is still more true of Turkey’s. It is hard for any of us living outside Turkey to imagine how beleaguered the nation’s wine producers (courageous of necessity) are feeling at present, and how easily circumstances might suddenly and catastrophically turn against them. Please, try to drink a bottle of Turkish Boğazkere or Őküzgözü before Christmas. Perferably both.

I have no idea how Hungary’s wine producers feel about their nation’s President — but since Tokaji is a mellowing, civilising influence, I hope that most are ashamed of his mean-spirited and unchristian defence of ‘Christian culture’, and would wish to disown it. Rodrigo Duterte is surely not the Philippino business community’s choice of President; it’s best, therefore, to carry on drinking sherry.

No nation, remember, can be reduced to its political elite, and persuasive engagement is always preferable to its opposite. After a year in which coarse and rancid language, and the coarse and rancid thinking which accompanies it, demeaned and fissured ‘the free world’, let’s hope we can drink (and argue) our way towards a more tolerant, respectful and open-hearted 2017.

Translated by Oliver Zhou / 周维

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