By Elizabeth Hans McCrone
Terroir is the famous term that has been widely adopted to describe unique characteristics found in a region’s wine, driven by things, such as water flow, soil conditions, climate factors, position relative to the sun, etc.
Far less understood is the political and regulatory atmosphere in Washington D.C. that has everything to do with the ongoing health of an industry susceptible to laws and policies that govern its actual ability to do business.
“People just don’t realize how much policy affects them, and it really does,” attests Michael Kaiser, Director of Public Affairs of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries that has been advocating for the U.S. wine industry in Washington D.C. since it was founded in 1978.
The organization’s stated mission is to encourage the growth and development of American wineries and vineyard enterprises through the “advancement and advocacy of sound public policy.”
Jim Trezise, long-time board member on WineAmerica’s executive committee, couldn’t agree with it more.
“We’re always talking about having a good climate to grow grapes, but we neglect to understand that we also need a good business climate to have a healthy industry,” Trezise affirms. “And if our business climate is shaped by human beings, then what are some of the things that we want our legislators, our government to do for us?”
Through the direction of its government affairs committee, WineAmerica activates what Trezise calls “grassroots, public policy advocacy” to broker communications between constituent wineries and legislators on a variety of complex issues, including excise taxes, funding initiatives, immigration reform, labeling laws and now, even music licensing requirements.
“WineAmerica is basically a shelter that’s protective of the business climate surrounding the wine industry in the United States,” Trezise describes. “It’s the only national organization for the wine industry that exists. It enables us to collar our legislators when they come home or when we visit in Washington, every May. It ensures that our legislators are getting the same message from people around the country.”
One of the messages making its way through the halls of the Capitol these days is the frustration with licensing issues from music royalty organizations like Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC).
Tara Good, WineAmerica’s Director of Operations, is the go-to person to interface with these so-called PROs (Performing Rights Organizations) on behalf of the wineries trying to make sense of their regulations.
“I’ve become the unfortunate industry expert on this issue,” Good says wryly.
Good explains that under federal copyright law, in order for wineries to play any copyrighted music at their facilities – from live bands at an event or background tunes in the tasting room, bar or restaurant – wineries are required to have a license so the original writers and musicians are paid royalties for their work.
“The wine industry fully supports artists getting paid,” Good explains. “The problems arise with actual business practices and clarification with the requirements. What kinds of music need to be licensed? Under what circumstances? What defines ‘public performance’?”
Good describes her role as that of an intermediary, pushing for greater transparency about requirements from the PROs and educating wineries on what might be coming down the pike from a legal perspective.
“We want to be a bellwether to what’s coming up, so wineries can make their business decisions before they get those threatening letters from high-powered lawyers,” Good notes.
Good and Kaiser from WineAmerica also work closely with long-time D.C. advocates, Meyers & Associates.
Larry Meyers is president of Meyers & Associates, a government affairs firm based in Washington, D.C. Meyers himself has more than 35 years of experience with D.C. politics and serves as a Washington representative for WineAmerica.
Meyers’ extended history in Washington includes his positions with then Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the former chair of the Senate Finance Committee and former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Under President Jimmy Carter, he was responsible for both USDA and White House lobbying activities.
Every week, Meyers brings his wealth of expertise and those of his colleagues together in a conference call with Good and Kaiser from WineAmerica to help navigate the often-complicated waters in Washington on behalf of U.S. wine interests.
“Generally, the industry enjoys a positive image in Congress,” Meyers reports. “But you’d be surprised by the number of issues the wine industry faces. It’s our job to understand the political and administrative processes and know who to talk to and when to talk with them on those issues.”
For example, Meyers points out the enormous progress currently being made on a bill sponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden regarding federal excise taxes on the wine, beer, cider and spirits industries.
“It’s a huge advantage. This is the first time we’ve had a coalition of all alcohol beverage groups together on a piece of legislation,” Meyers states. “It covers beer, wine, distilleries and craft brewers as well as the big boys. We all have a bill we can agree on … Being able to take grass roots comments back to decision makers is key.”
Wyden’s bill, S-1562, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, has become a legislative priority and may well be acted on either later this year or when the new Congress convenes after the election. The bill now has 51 co-sponsors in the Senate due in large part to the effective lobbying efforts of both WineAmerica and the beverage industry.
According to Trezise, the coalition building that leads to such legislation is what WineAmerica is all about.
“We like to say diversity is our strength and unity is our power,” Trezise states. “We can accomplish a lot when we’re working together.”