Talking agriculture with Virginia’s wine lobbyist

Talking agriculture with Virginia’s wine lobbyist

“I’m advocating for small business people and farmers,” says Matt Conrad when I call to find out more about the man who twists state politicians’ arms on behalf of Virginia vino. The General Assembly session just wrapped up last weekend, so the Virginia Wine Council lobbyist should have a few minutes to breathe. “Small business people and farmers” is not just a catch phrase for Conrad, who grew up on a Virginia farm that’s been in his family since the 1750s. Sheep, chickens and tobacco were the stuff of his childhood, and although he went on to be the lead legislative attorney for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, his new job has him getting his hands dirty once again, rhetorically at least. “We’re always trying to strengthen the connection,” he says, “or at least the perception of that connection, of wine to agriculture.”

Legislators were happy to see Matt Conrad, who lobbies for the Virginia Wine Council, on Virginia Wine and Vine Legislative Day.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that the Charlottesville area lost 8 percent of its farmland over the last five years. Despite that, Conrad sees a bright future for his industry. “The type of agriculture that Virginia vineyards are doing,” he predicts, “is probably the future of agriculture in Virginia.”

“There was a time decades ago where small farmers produced their goods and either raised them for personal consumption, or sold them on their own through local distribution.” Then, Conrad continues, farming became commoditized, and the farmer lost touch with the people who bought and ate his products. Wineries, as Conrad sees it, are coming full circle back to the good old days of farming, of “growing, producing and selling on site.” Drinking local, in other words.

But even farms need lobbyists. Lobbyists to draft legislation, find sponsors for the legislation, and, when the politicians are in session in Richmond, attend meetings where they discuss that legislation. “In those meetings,” Conrad  says, “if you’re not present, you’re losing.” From January through March, he meets with legislators individually every day, in their offices or, if need be, in the halls. Sometimes, he comes bearing gifts, as at the recent “Virginia Wine and Vine Legislative Day,” where, he says, he “brought individual bottles of wine for each of the legislators. …We were the most popular folks in Richmond that day.”

But is it all free wine and legislative roses? Or does Virginia wine have any enemies? “There’s a tension in Virginia,” he says, “between traditionally rural areas and the expanding urban areas. …I think that localities would often like to have the opportunities to regulate farm wineries more.”

A recent bill, for instance, would have allowed Fairfax County to revoke the ABC license of an establishment, if that establishment was felt to be bringing down property values or disturbing the “usual quietude and tranquility” of the area. Given the problems wineries sometimes have with their neighbors, the bill was definitely a threat. Conrad made sure the bill was defeated.

And now that the session is over? Will he take the time to visit the farm wineries he’s been fighting for? “I intend,” he says, “to visit as many wineries as possible, hopefully one or two a week. …I want to get to all of them.”