A curious news story popped up in the Sonoma County Press-Democrat this summer, just as a bipartisan group of US senators was trimming the sails on Joe Biden’s infrastructure plans and sending their own $1.2 trillion package to the Senate floor: The Wine Country paper of record reported that one of those senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, had traveled to the city of Sonoma in August 2020, where she earned $1,117.40 as a paid intern at a winery.
According to the Press-Democrat, Senator Sinema worked at the California winery for three weeks last summer, and has also traveled to Sonoma for a fundraiser held on her behalf at a luxury inn that charges $950 a night for a room during peak season. Why would a sitting senator—earning a taxpayer-funded salary of $174,000—take a paid internship at a winery? Well, Sinema is apparently a serious wine buff, in her own way, who perhaps subscribes to literary lush Charles Bukowski’s view that politics is like “sucking wine through a bent straw.” (Bukowski was sucking wind in the original.)
Around the same time as the Press-Democrat internship article appeared, back in Washington, D.C., all the headlines were about how Sinema played a key role in keeping the infrastructure negotiations on track by encouraging her fellow “moderates” to guzzle some more wine and get back to work when talks broke down. She supplied the wine, while plonky plutocrat Joe Manchin opened his houseboat on the Potomac to the lubricated legislators. It all sounded rather immoderate, if not completely decadent, if you ask me. And anyway, isn’t excessive alcohol consumption supposed to impair your judgment, not enhance it?
The appellation of the wine Senator Sinema shared with her colleagues is unknown, but it’s probably fair to speculate that it wasn’t a bottle of Three Buck Chuck purchased at Trader Joe’s. Who knows, maybe it was the D.C.-based We The People label, “an American brand dedicated to Conservative values…where every sip is another step toward Freedom”—or rehab? Or federal prison? Or ending the filibuster? Or supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage? It’s unclear. But what is known from her disclosure report is that Senator Sinema took the internship last year at the Three Sticks Winery. Why that particular winery when there are hundreds of viniculture operations in the region? We’ll get there. But first, let’s take a Wine Country tour of some of those options.
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Senator Sinema could have taken a job at the biodynamic Puma Springs Vineyards, whose owners are very active in local and national Democratic Party politics, as well as being very pleasant people who love dogs. Or she could have headed to Pachyderm Winery and picked grapes for owner-funkmeister Les Claypool, bassist for the hard-popping alt-metal band Primus (and a past supporter of Howard Dean for president). Senator Sinema might have deployed her bubbly bipartisanship at the Korbel vineyards—if for no other reason than to further demonstrate her “champagne tastes” as against the “beer wallets” in Arizona who feel betrayed by her lurch to the luxe since becoming a senator. She could’ve doubled-down on her bipartisan bona fides with an internship at Republican John Jordan’s vineyard, and flashed her “Fuck Off” ring at anyone who had a problem with that. Or she might’ve taken an internship at the Mira Winery in Napa Valley, one of the few minority-owned wine businesses in the region, or at Equality Vines in Sonoma County, promoted as the first “cause wine” portfolio dedicated to equality for all people. Which would have been pretty woke. But no.
So again: Why this particular wine operation? One possible answer aligns with what Sinema’s former supporters in Arizona say about her: She has abandoned the progressives who brought her to the dance and prefers to do the Wah Watusi on behalf of the 1 percent these days.
Three Sticks is owned by William S. Price III, a cofounder of TPG Capital, one of the largest private equity firms in the world, with $108 billion in assets under management. Price is currently identified as a partner emeritus at the firm and has reportedly focused on his multiple vineyard holdings since 2006, according to his Wikipedia entry. Over its history—TPG’s first leveraged buyout fund was created in 1994—the company has created some 20 distinct funds and has partnered with a cross section of investors and venture capitalists, including Goldman Sachs, the Bain Group, and Blum Capital, the last of which was founded by Richard Blum, husband of the center-right California Senator Dianne Feinstein.
At the influencing-policy level, according to data compiled by the follow-the-money watchdogs at Open Secrets, TPG Capital spent more than $3 million lobbying lawmakers over the past two years, and in 2020 TPG affiliates and employees sent nearly $1.7 million to candidates for higher office—with about 80 percent of TPG campaign largesse going to Democrats. That includes a top-10 TPG Capital contribution of $6,800 to Sinema’s Senate campaign. Goldman Sachs takes the top spot on her manifest of contributions at $31,200, according to Open Secrets. Also in her top 20: Millbrook Capital, whose founder, John Dyson, owns a few vineyards himself, including one in Sonoma County.
The optics here are enough to have you seeing Sideways. Recall what a mere dinner at the French Laundry did to Governor Gavin Newsom last summer. But what of the ethics? Senate Rule 37.1 states that a member can’t receive any compensation if that compensation would “occur by virtue of influence improperly exerted from his or her position as a member.” The rule was written as a “broad prohibition” against members or their staff deriving any benefit “directly or indirectly, from the use of their public positions.” If I’m reading that correctly, it may be problematic for a member to reach out to a potential employer and say, “Hi, I’d like to do a paid internship at your winery, and by way, I’m a sitting US senator”—especially if the guy who owns the winery is a founder and partner in an investment firm that contributed $6,800 to your Senate campaign. A snobbish oenophile might take a sip at these facts and fairly observe that Senator Sinema’s wine-soaked politics offer a bold and colorful bouquet of disparate notes, with a hint of corruption.