Pressing Grapes Into Wine With Your Taxes

attkisson grapes

These federal scientists aren't researching a cure for cancer. Their discoveries are meant to help the grape and wine industry, and your tax dollars are about to provide them with a brand new state-of-the-art facility.

The Center for Grape Research is to be built here in the heart of New York's Finger Lake wine country.

Congress has earmarked more than $11 million dollars so far for the building and hundreds of thousands more for research. That's not to be confused with the $2.6 million they've earmarked to study grapes out in California.

It's not as if Uncle Sam wasn't already investing millions a year in grape research: there are 25 full-time federal scientists working on nothing but grapes. The special earmarks are tax dollars added on top of that by individual members of Congress.

Some of them at a meeting of the House Wine Caucus, including Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., the driving force behind the New York Grape Center.

He proudly defends earmarking millions of your tax dollars for the project in his home state.

"So when you have a Congress, and particularly an executive branch, dealing adequately with the internal needs of the country, I'm gonna try to step in and meet those needs as best I can," Hinley said.

But the Grape Research Center is not in the same category as roads and bridges and basic needs.

"Well it is," Hinley said. "It's part of basic needs, because it's part of the basic infrastructure of the nation."

"It's become a zero-sum game in which every earmark takes away some money from competitive programs," said Kei Koizumi, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Koizumi is worried that politicians, not scientists, are determining how research tax dollars are spent.

"The research dollars tend to go to the states or districts of powerful politicians who sit on the money committees of Congress. So it's not evenly distributed," he said. "A scientist who lives in a politically powerful state has a much better chance of getting earmarks than another scientist."

Congressman Hinchey sits on the powerful House spending committee called Appropriations - and says the cost of the Grape building is negligible.

"The cost of this building is what we spend in Iraq in two hours," Hinchey said.

But if you compare anything to the cost of the war in Iraq you can make it sound very tiny, Attkisson said.

"Well it is tiny. It's tiny in comparison to what we're spending in a wasteful way," Hinchey said.

But the "tiny" earmarks add up.

  • Six million dollars to research new uses for wood
  • Millions more for the Appalachian Fruit Lab
  • Hundreds of thousands for potato breeding
  • And millions to study animal waste

    Does Hinchey have any idea what the total number of research earmarks was last year?

    "Offhand, I don't know what the total is," he said.

    It was $2.6 billion.

    "Research earmarks? Two-point-six billion is not nearly enough," Hinchey said.

    Which is a pretty good indication there's much more to come. And it better come fast.

    Wine may improve with age, but the Grape Research Center just gets more costly. What began as a $20 million project is now closing in on $30 million, and the first brick hasn't even been laid.

    • Sharyl Attkisson
      Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

      Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.