You may have some questions about that famous “wine cave” fundraising dinner in Napa Valley last weekend. I may be able to help, as I was there.
The location for the event was the Hall winery near St. Helena, Calif. Yes, it’s a beautiful place, and, yes, that chandelier over the table was kind of remarkable. The whole scene that evening left me and my partner slack-jawed.
Our host was the celebrated and pioneering female winemaker Kathryn Hall and her husband, Craig. She served as ambassador to Austria under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Hall is wealthy and has a beautiful home, and she chooses to use both to advance candidates and causes she believes in.
Anyway, who else was there? Well, I mentioned my partner. He’s a professor at a community college in the Bay Area. There was also a dean from another local community college system.
We sat next to a former flight attendant and a local city councilwoman. I’m confident neither are billionaires, and before that night, I’d bet none of us had ever met one.
In the Los Angeles debate Thursday night, and after, I heard Sen. Elizabeth Warren ask darkly what the “closed-door” dinner conversation among us “billionaires” was about.
Allow me to lift the veil. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg took questions for about an hour before departing (from what I could see, without so much as a sip of the prized wine). A physician asked what the mayor would do to expand access to primary care for the uninsured. A woman across the table asked what he would do to extract us from seemingly endless military entanglements in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The college dean wanted to hear more about the mayor’s plans for higher education, including to reduce dropout rates. There was a question about the crisis of climate change.
A young college student from Georgetown attended with her father. She described the experience of seeing guards posted in response to anti-Semitic threats on campus and asked what the candidate would do to combat hate speech in America. An Asian American man spoke of experiencing prejudice in our country and asked what the mayor would do to restore civility in our politics.
Of the roughly 50 folks in attendance, plenty were people of means, and certainly all of us who were able to go to an event like that should consider themselves lucky. (For the record, I am neither a billionaire nor a millionaire. Oh, how I wish.)
But the whole experience fell well short of proving Warren’s suggestion that that “billionaires in wine caves" will pick the next president. Nor is it an example of “corruption” — a word some Democratic candidates use far too casually to describe political and policy opponents in either their or the other party. Let’s save that term for folks who plainly belong in a jail cell and those who’ve taken up residence in one already.
Warren’s most damaging suggestion doesn’t really stand up if you check it out. She suggested in the debate that we were drinking $900 bottles of wine. Perhaps no one will care, but out of respect for pesky facts, allow me to report: That didn’t really happen, either.
The wine, a 2016 cabernet, is the host couple’s signature bottle and it was very good. But it is available online for $185 per bottle — far more than I’ve ever paid in my life for a bottle of wine, but not unusual for wine collector enthusiasts. (I know a few; I wish I knew more.) Checking the price point isn’t hard to do.
Speaking of price, my bet is that you probably want to know: How much did it cost for me to go?
To attend the dinner, donors were asked to “max out” — to contribute the maximum allowed by law to a primary candidate. I made my first contribution to Mayor Pete back in May at a San Francisco fundraiser that was attended by close to 1,000 people. I’ve made additional contributions since, including buying a bumper sticker from his campaign shop. (It’s not every day in America that a gay man has a realistic chance of becoming president, so yes, my partner and I probably qualify as enthusiastic.) All of these contributions count toward the individual limit of $2,800.
So, exactly how much more did it cost to attend that infamous wine cave dinner? In my case, the answer is $11.
Surely Democrats can find more important things to debate in the United States of America at this dark hour.
Bill Wehrle is a vice president of a health-care company and lives in San Francisco.