Winemakers For and Against Recall Uncork Their Coffers

*Some of the big players support Davis, but Schwarzenegger has his backers among vintners.

By Rone Tempest, Times Staff Writer

HEALDSBURG, Calif. â€" Luxury sedans and SUVs decanted well-heeled passengers into two Alexander Valley vineyards on a recent evening for fund-raisers that reaped promises of about $300,000 for Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign.

"We feel that he's got a lot of guts, a lot of courage to step away from the lucrative movie career," said Kevin Barr, 46, a Healdsburg grape farmer and one of 100 guests at a $1,000-a-head event at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards. Another 40 supporters showed up the same night at nearby Jordan Winery for a $5,000-a-plate dinner with the actor-cum-politician.

Although Schwarzenegger enjoys support in this bucolic corner of Sonoma County known for prestigious wines and Republican politics, much bigger players in the state's wine industry â€" including E.& J. Gallo, Robert Mondavi Corp. and the California Wine Institute â€" are actively opposing the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Gallo, the nation's second-biggest winemaker, has pumped $100,000 into a committee dedicated to keeping Davis in office.

"We are very concerned about the recall process and what it means for good governance in California," said Milo Shelly, Gallo's vice president.

"There are always two wine industries represented in Sacramento," said Mark Murray, spokesman for Citizens Against Waste, a recycling lobby group that regularly butts heads with wine interests, most of whose bottles are exempt from California's recycling law.

"There's all the picturesque Napa and Sonoma wineries who are mildly influential in the Legislature. And there is Gallo, which is as significant a major power player as anyone in Sacramento. Sometimes the two work together; sometimes they are apart."

"Vintners are a very independent group," agreed Mondavi's vice president, Herb Schmidt. "Half the time we can't even decide which way the sun will come up in the morning."

Whatever their political differences, the men and women who run California's wine industry have some common interests in the outcome of the Oct. 7 election: They don't want higher taxes on their products, and some, particularly here, don't want Indian casinos in their midst. And so far, they have given $297,000 to candidates and committees in the recall campaign, state records show.

Healdsburg is one of the few Republican strongholds in wine country, said Sonoma State political science professor Donald Dixon. "In terms of voting, it is the most conservative area."

Both Russ Green, who hosted the Hoot Owl Creek event, and Tom Jordan, host of the $5,000-a-plate dinner, made their money in the oil business before buying wine properties.

Green has previously hosted fund-raisers for former Gov. Pete Wilson and 1998 GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren. Jordan bankrolled his son's unsuccessful GOP race for a state Senate seat.

But potential tinkering with regulations that affect the wine business gets everyone's attention here.

Davis never proposed raising liquor taxes to help solve the state's fiscal problems. But three of the candidates to replace him if he is recalled â€" Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, independent Arianna Huffington and Green Party member Peter Camejo â€" have liquor tax increases in their budget plans.

Bustamante proposes raising the tax on wine from 20 cents a gallon to 45 cents to bring in about $210 million.

The industry is also concerned, said Michael Falasco, lobbyist for the California Wine Institute, that a new governor might seek to grant local authorities the right to set liquor taxes. Such a policy once was pushed, but subsequently withdrawn, by Wilson, co-chairman of the Schwarzenegger campaign. The Wine Institute gave $45,000 to anti-recall efforts.

A nightmare scenario, said Falasco, is a proposal by the California Medical Assn. that a nickel-a-drink charge be added to bar tabs to fund the state's beleaguered trauma centers.

That is contained in a bill by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and, argued Falasco, could open the beer, wine and liquor industry to the same kinds of lawsuits currently plaguing the tobacco industry.

Then there is the local distaste for casinos, the crowds they attract and the traffic they bring. Veronica Citti, 37, is a bartender from Healdsburg whose family has grown grapes for generations. Since last year's building of the new River Rock Casino on a hill overlooking the Alexander Valley, Citti said, she has been run off the road five times by reckless drivers.

"Because of the casino " Citti said as she served drinks at the Alexander Valley Store and Bar, "we are getting all kinds of undesirable people."

Healdsburg Police Chief Susan Jones said that although auto theft and home burglary rates are up, she could not say how many such crimes, if any, were due to the presence of the casino.

Citti said that Bustamante's acceptance of casino contributions and his advocacy of higher liquor taxes have turned her against him. "I'm for Arnold," she announced.

She's not alone in her alienation from Bustamante. "I do not accept the fact that sovereign Indian nations can give donations to U.S. politicians," said Hank Wetzel, proprietor of the 600-acre Alexander Valley Vineyards.

Wetzel, 52, supports Schwarzenegger, who has labeled tribes as special interests and criticized candidates who accept their money. Wetzel's father, a former Los Angeles aerospace executive, bought the vineyards in 1962, and his mother, Margaret, attended one of Schwarzenegger's recent fund-raisers.

Still, with the California wine industry suffering from the slow economy and a grape glut, some here find any potential change in the status quo suspect.

"I think there is a rising tide against the recall," Schmidt said, "because of the chaos that will ensue if it is successful.

"The message is getting through even to Republicans that it is not a panacea for the state's problems to just switch the governor."

Sonoma State political science professor Andy Merrifield said that despite the casino issue and the strong pocket of Schwarzenegger support in Healdsburg, he expects the recall effort to fail in Sonoma County. More than 50% of voters there register as Democrats, fewer than 30% as Republicans.

"With typical voter turnout," Merrifield said, "the 'no on recall' side should be successful. Among the candidates, Bustamante should still come out first, with Schwarzenegger second."

Meanwhile, folks are fairly low-key about their political differences. As guests pulled into the Schwarzenegger fund-raisers, several of them exchanged friendly jibes with protesters standing outside.

One of the demonstrators, Mario Lopez, a 30-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Guatemala, said he worked for years in the Alexander Valley grape fields before landing a job at a local food bank.

Lopez said he feels the recall effort is unfair. "They are blaming the governor for things that were out of his power," he said.

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