Home Wine Business Editorial Government / Regulations Wine Industry Champion Michael Kaiser: Fighting for the Future of America’s Wineries

Wine Industry Champion Michael Kaiser: Fighting for the Future of America’s Wineries

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“A lot of people don’t understand how much trade associations such as WineAmerica do for you, even if you’re not a member.” —Michael Kaiser

By Laura Ness

 

Michael Kaiser never expected to work in the wine industry. But TODAY, as executive vice president and director of government affairs for WineAmerica, it’s his job to be the “eyes and ears,” and “first line of defense,” for the American wine industry in Washington, D.C. “That includes direct advocacy with members of Congress and their staffs, as well as work with executive branch agencies such as Treasury [TTB] and the USDA,” says Kaiser.

WineAmerica, founded in 1978 in New York’s Finger Lakes region, advocates on behalf of American wineries. It primarily works for wineries outside of California, advocating for them much like the California Wine Institute does for its members. Kaiser has been working at WineAmerica for nearly 18 years. 

Top down challenges

America’s wine industry faces more challenges today than it has at any time since Prohibition. As a highly regulated controlled substance, wine is under attack from a variety of players, including the World Health Organization (WHO). “There is a growing anti-alcohol sentiment out there right now,” says Kaiser. “The WHO is telling people no amount of alcohol is safe, and governments around the world are looking at that.”

There’s also pressure at the state level to increase taxes on consumption in an effort to curb abuse — a policy, he says, that has not borne fruit. Oregon tried it and found the people who abuse alcohol will continue to do so. 

“Additionally, we see younger generations not drinking wine at all, or drinking very little of it,” observes Kaiser. The challenge is keeping wine relevant and helping wineries navigate this new reality.

But, says Kaiser, “Our biggest issue is the dysfunction of our government. The TTB must approve every label and permit. If the government shuts down, wineries that need labels for spring bottling won’t get necessary approvals. Back in 2018, we had a 16-week shutdown and the COLA approval backlog extended into July.” 

Working to benefit all

Kaiser, who grew up in Monmouth County, N.J., has a bachelor’s degree in American studies and political science from Rider University (NJ). In 1999, he moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a master’s degree in political science, after which he worked for two lobbying firms. A job search through a nonprofit agency led him to WineAmerica. That was the summer of 2006.

“When I started, I knew nothing about wine, wine laws and regulations,” says Kaiser. “They said that didn’t matter at all. I just needed to know how the government works.” 

Or, in this case, how it doesn’t. 

“I have lived in D.C. for 25 years, 18 of them working with WineAmerica, and I’ve never seen it like this,” says Kaiser. “Congress hasn’t done appropriations the proper way: everything is kicked down the road.”

For example, Congress was supposed to pass a farm bill last year authorizing USDA programs such as the Market Access Program, a special fund that helps wineries from California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Texas market their products overseas. The bill also addresses agricultural issues such as the spotted lanternfly and other pests that threaten vines. “That funding is nonexistent right now,” says Kaiser. “I don’t think people realize how all this important work is impacted [by dysfunction in the government].” 

Celebrating successes

Still, WineAmerica has made much progress over the years, including the landmark Small Producers Tax Credit. “That ensured excise taxes did not increase for the smallest wineries, when they did increase for larger producers,” says Kaiser. “In 2020, we worked with beer, cider and spirits producers on the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act. That expanded federal excise tax credits for all wineries. It was certainly the most significant legislative achievement in my 17-plus years with the organization. I am also particularly proud of our work on behalf of the industry during the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020.” 

Expanding shipping options for wineries and consumers is among his goals. “We are one of the most heavily regulated businesses in the country, and we need to not have any more regulations. We would like to see the USPS be allowed to ship alcohol like FedEx and UPS.”

That permission is firmly opposed by the wholesalers, which have never liked direct-to-consumer shipping (now available in 47 states). “They are constantly trying to combat it,” says Kaiser.  

It all comes down to the nitty gritty of politics. “A lot of people don’t understand how much trade associations such as WineAmerica do for you, even if you’re not a member. Our work benefits the entire industry. When I meet with a member of Congress or a state legislator, they ask, ‘How many wineries are in your district? How many are members of your organization?’ If I can say that at least 50% are members, it helps with lobbying, because we represent the majority.”  

That said, Kaiser is quick to point out that WineAmerica is not a marketing organization. “Our mission is to promote the industry with policymakers.”

Finding the bright spots

With all these headwinds, what keeps him hopeful? “[Wine] has been around for centuries,” says Kaiser. “It’s an agricultural product that people have made all over the world as part of their daily existence. It’s an extension of the dinner table. [Wine is] not like cigarettes. A moderate level of wine consumption is fine. Fast foods, on the other hand, are a real problem!”

Wine is, for many consumers, a local product, he continues. “In much the way you want to know where your food comes from, with wine, you can go to a winery and see how it is made. 

“When tasting rooms were closed during COVID, wineries went virtual with tastings, and consumers got to spend time with the actual winemakers and vineyard managers,” says Kaiser. “That one-on-one interaction helped consumers really connect with this product. More people bought DTC than ever before. We were one of the first industries that could reopen, and we survived well. It’s a testament to the product and the people.”

Kaiser thinks the industry needs to remind consumers that wineries and vineyards practice responsible and sustainable farming. “They are stewards of the land. Would you rather have a winery or a strip mall?” 

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Laura Ness

Laura Ness is an avid wine journalist, storyteller and wine columnist (Edible:Monterey, Los Gatos Magazine San Jose Mercury News, The Livermore Independent), and a long time contributor to Wine Industry Network. Known as “HerVineNess,” she judges wine competitions throughout California and has a corkscrew in every purse. However, she wishes that all wineries would adopt screwcaps!

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