The tall drink of water sitting across from me and gesticulating as he alternately discusses California’s budget reform and oak-barreled Chardonnays at Terroir in Tribeca (tagline: “The elitist wine bar for everyone!”) is very conspicuously drinking only water tonight. Gavin Newsom, six foot three and almost blindingly handsome, would stand out anywhere. The 43-year-old has been in the news since 2004, when, as a young San Francisco mayor, he declared gay marriage legal within city limits, contrary to state law. But he’s since lost some of that destined-for-big-things sheen; in 2009, he bowed out of his bid to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento and settled for playing second banana to Jerry Brown. It’s taken some getting used to. “In San Francisco, you’re the mayor of not only a city but a county,” he says. “As lieutenant governor, you’re not governor. It’s a completely different thing.” He’s in New York not to raise campaign money but to stump for the two Napa Valley wineries he founded, PlumpJack and Cade. That he will not let the grape pass his lips is a concession to the political career he is not yet ready to let go of.
“I do lunches and dinners for a living,” he explains. “You learn to discipline and pace yourself, because you’ll collapse.” Also: “What if you’re at your uncle’s birthday party tasting a lot of wine and you get an eleven o’clock emergency phone call?” So while business partners John Conover and Gordon Getty (yes, that one) have enjoyed bacchanalian indulgences, Newsom has been the “simpleton” ordering a turkey sandwich in the corner. He has other rules, too: Don’t eat the passed hors d’oeuvre; always get Diet versus regular Coke. “I never worked out until I became mayor, literally!” he says.
Today, Newsom’s vinous abstinence is less related to official decision-making capacity or body consciousness than to not wanting to show up “drunk, with purple teeth” for the Morning Joe segment he’s taping later. So instead, he sniffs. Our waiter brings over three bottles of white, their labels pointed away so we can test Newsom’s skills. He nails the first one, a Riesling, on its distinctive turpentine scent. The next one has “more of a floral quality,” he says. “It’s lemony. Chenin Blanc?” Correct! I tease him for still refusing to taste so much as a drop. “Do you want to do TV with me?” he replies. He picks up the third glass. “Christ, that’s funky. It’s more of an exotic varietal. It’s not a blend, is it?”
Newsom gives up and instead starts telling me how he recently bought back into his wine businesses after divesting when he was mayor.
“Where were you mayor?” our waiter wants to know.
“I knew it! I knew it had to be you. Because of the hair.”
Newsom’s hair is a sight to behold. The slicked-back style he’s settled on goes with his image as a smooth maneuverer. This is, after all, a guy who admitted in an election year to sleeping with his best friend’s wife and still got over 70 percent of the vote. (Now married to the actress Jennifer Siebel Newsom, with a son due in June, he’s remained friendly with his first wife, Fox News contributor Kimberly Guilfoyle.) He showed up to Terroir wearing a Ralph Lauren suit and carrying an iPad. But he insists: “It’s just L’Oréal Clean Gel from Walgreen’s, $3.99. The cheapest stuff out there.”
Asserting working-class bona fides is big with Newsom, who grew up tasting wine with his dad and Gordon Getty and has known Jerry Brown since birth. He’s quick to point out that his wealth came in connections, not money. That his parents split when he was 2, after which his mother worked two jobs. That his first job after college involved delivering orthotics. That he’s overcome severe dyslexia. And that it all gave him the hustle to start his cafés, inns, wineshops, and wineries—fourteen businesses in all. He and his friend John Hickenlooper—who went from brewpub owner to mayor of Denver to governor of Colorado—often talk about how their hospitality experience has made them better public servants. “Best training in the world,” says Newsom. “The gas goes out or the chef quits or your winemaker gets a job for two times the money and equity at another winery, and you have to deal with that. That’s like politics. There’s always a crisis you can’t predict.”
Being the guy who’s selling $100-plus bottles of Cade Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in an era when candidates are judged by whom you’d rather slug Budweisers with may not play on a national level, but Newsom remains unapologetic. “Obama drinks wine. Nixon drank wine. Bush didn’t drink anything, but we served PlumpJack wine at the Bush White House multiple times. Clinton had a personal wine cellar.” Plus, he points out, “Christ turned water into wine, not water into beer.”