In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 21: Antipathy to Celebration

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Sebastopol, California

Traveling companions: none

Event: dinner at the Iron Horse vineyard

First, I’m an idiot. I can not walk and chew gum at the same time. With still photographer Peter Van Agtmael having departed–for Iran!–I have been tasked with taking photos of the trip with my iPhone. I keep forgetting. This was especially tragic yesterday as I visited–courtesy of reader Phil Grosse–one of the more idyllic places on the face of the earth and had my first home-cooked meal in three weeks, a sumptuous event punctuated by ridiculously fresh and entirely home-grown fruits and vegetables.

The vegetable-grower is Barry Sterling. He and his wife, Audrey, are the parents of Joy Sterling, who runs the vineyard these days. All three are committed and active Democrats. But their wine-selling is nonpartisan. An Iron Horse sparkling wine was used when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev toasted at the White House in 1985. An Iron Horse wine has been served, on occasion, at White House state dinners hosted by every President since. (There’s a certain irony to Reagan bringing Iron Horse to the White House: Audrey was the chair of California’s Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was defunded when Reagan became governor. “I wrote him a very angry letter and resigned,” she says.)

Barry was not always a farmer. He was a lawyer before he wised up. “I was tired of dealing with abstractions. I wanted to make something real,” he says. “I figured that if we couldn’t sell it, we’d drink it.” He also started growing fruits and vegetables. “I have 300 varieties of tomatoes on the property,” he said, “and I’d have more, if the kids would let me.” Dinner was served in their lovely home, an 1876 Victorian. By dessert, all their products–and much of their produce–had been tasted (in moderation).

The Sterlings are not only strong Obama supporters, they’re also Nancy Pelosi Democrats–friends of the Speaker. They run their business with rigor and honor. “We take care of our employees,” Joy said. Audrey quickly added that they were one of the few wineries that offered their workers health insurance. But that hasn’t been easy. A few years ago, their traditional insurers–Growers Insurance (a subsidiary of Blue Cross)–said they’d only continue coverage if each policy had a $5000 deductible. “Essentially, they threw us out,” Barry says. Happily, Kaiser Permanente was willing to take them on at a similar rate.

Business hasn’t been fabulous the past few years. Joy travels the country, selling her products, and finds that traffic is spotty in the high-end restaurants that carry Iron Horse. “They’ll be full on Wednesday, empty on Thursday. It’s entirely unpredictable. Given the troubles in the country, there’s an antipathy to anything involved with celebration. We produce a product that’s a drink of optimism. There isn’t a lot of optimism out there right now.”

Barry said he was deeply worried about the country. “I was born on the day of the 1929 stock market crash, so I’ve lived from the Great Depression to the Great Recession,” he said, “and I must say I’m amazed by how little progress we’ve made. We stopped regulating. We dropped taxes to unsustainable levels. I spent a good part of my life in the 70% tax bracket. It didn’t discourage me from working,” he said, referring to the supply-side argument that lower tax rates spur enterprise. “It made me work harder. My father lived with 90% rates during World War II. I’m actually mystified by the greed now. I don’t understand families like Koch brothers,” he said referring to the Republican Tea Party bankrollers. “They have so much money. Why do they need more?”

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.