Wine In The West Wing

Wine In The West Wing

Deciding which wines to serve at White House affairs has evolved from a matter of taste to a political statement.

Few things please a vintner more than learning that his or her wine has been served at a state dinner at the White House—but his pleasure may ebb when he learns he can’t promote the selection. Most simply frame the event’s menu for their tasting rooms, but aren’t able to discuss the subject on the record. By speaking with numerous sources, however, including some who rationalize that talking to a journalist isn’t “promotion,” we have found out how wines end up on the White House table.

“Our first requirement is that the wines are of very high quality and match the food,” says Daniel Shanks, the assistant usher responsible for wine selection at the White House.

It’s a fascinating process, but is one that is a bit clouded in mystery. Government officials don’t talk about the process much, because they want to avoid charges of favoritism or misconduct. “People criticize whatever you do,” says Sacramento, California wine merchant Darrell Corti, who is close to the process.

To start with, the White House pays for the wine. “We don’t solicit donations,” says Shanks. He also says that he pays attention to cost, trying to be judicious in spending the taxpayers’ money. “We look for good wines with the right flavor profile at reasonable prices,” not the big-ticket cult wines you might imagine.

The White House doesn’t maintain a deep cellar of old vintages, either. “We try to serve wines from new viticultural areas, new wineries and new varieties,” says Shanks. “We like to focus on new directions.”

Nevertheless, politics and diplomacy do play a part; foreign sensitivities are taken into consideration and an attempt is made to serve wines from a variety of states. “It would be easy to just draw from the Bay Area of California,” notes Shanks, who once worked at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley, “but we try to showcase the whole country.”

200 Years Of Wine In The White House
Of course, the history of wine at state dinners goes back to the founding of the United States. George Washington loved wine, and was reportedly especially fond of Madeira, a wine that seems as relegated to history as he is. Washington, however, didn’t live in the White House. It was only completed in time for the last part of John Adams’s term.

The most noted wine enthusiast to occupy the White House was undoubtedly Thomas Jefferson. He created a cellar for the wines he imported from France and Italy, and served the finest wines and foods to his guests. Jefferson even tried unsuccessfully to grow wine grapes near his beloved home at Monticello in Virginia, but it has only been in the last few decades that others have succeeded in taming Virginia’s difficult grapegrowing environment.

Elaborate meals featuring wines continued to be part of formal entertaining in the White House until the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union reared its temperate head in the mid-19th century. When Rutherford B. Hayes became president in 1877, his wife, Lucy Webb Hayes, banished wine and spirits from the White House.

That edict affected public events for decades, though apparently liquor was served privately even during Prohibition. To most Americans during this period, however, “wine was for bums and foreigners,” says David Cancilla, wine manager for David Berkley Fine Wines and Specialty Grocery in Sacramento, who works closely with Shanks.

Gradually the ban was eased, but the service of wine didn’t become visible until the 1960s as President John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, wholeheartedly embraced French cuisine and wine.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, preferred Bourbon to wine, but decreed that only American wines would be served in the White House, a policy that continues today.

Richard Nixon privately preferred French wines, but made a point of serving wines from his home state of California. His toasting of the détente with China in 1972 with Schramsberg sparkling wine, in fact, put that then-little-known winery on the map.

State loyalty extended even to Gerald Ford, who served Michigan wines with little lasting impact. President Jimmy Carter banned hard liquor but allowed wine, and Ronald Reagan was such a proponent of California wines that Corti recalls Reagan being reminded that he was President of the United States, not President of California.

Still, formal dinners at the White House featured French cuisine until Bill and Hillary Clinton hired Walter Scheib as White House executive chef. As the former executive chef at the celebrated Greenbrier Resort in nearby West Virginia, it was Scheib who introduced American cuisine to the White House. He remains in that position, and like any fine chef, considers wine an integral part of meals.

Clinton wasn’t noted as a gourmet, and neither is President George W. Bush, who doesn’t personally drink alcoholic beverages. His wife, Laura, however, appreciates wine. “Laura Bush has a nice palate and appreciates well-balanced wines,” says Shanks, but says she doesn’t get directly involved in specifying wines. “No one has ever suggested to me what wines or regions to feature,” he adds.

She is allegedly fond of Becker Vineyards’ wines from the Hill Country around Austin, Texas. Becker’s Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet was served to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner at the Bushes’ ranch in Crawford, Texas. Becker wines have also been served at the last two annual governor’s meetings.

And though Shanks admits that having a Texan in the White House hasn’t hurt Texas, he insists he doesn’t favor any particular AVA: “We serve wines from 12 to 16 states.” He particularly notes the upcoming wines of Virginia and Long Island, and those of the revitalized Finger Lakes appellation of New York.

A Diplomatic palate
Of course, many different types of meals are served at the White House, from private family dinners to state occasions, such as welcoming foreign heads of state. Wine service can be a minefield of tastes as well as political and diplomatic issues. Since 1981, the White House has conferred with Sacramento wine merchant David Berkley about how best to navigate these issues.

Berkley knew Carolyn Deavers, the wife of Michael Deavers, deputy chief of staff in the Reagan administration. When Reagan was governor of California, he wanted to serve quality California wines, which weren’t readily available in Washington. Deaver called Berkley for guidance. Berkley’s insight and knowledge led to a relationship that has transcended changes in administration and White House staff.

Though Shanks emphasizes that taste comes first, one reality of White House pairings is considering other issues in addition to taste. Shanks noted that the first time French President Jacques Chirac visited, they served French varieties made by French-born winemakers at Chateau Woltner in Napa Valley and Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “Those pairings are fun for us and give a nice tie for conversation.”

A Toast To The Host
Sparkling wine is a must for diplomatic affairs, particularly for toasts. Schramsberg wines seem almost ubiquitous at these events, particularly its Crémant, a slightly sweet wine appreciated even by people who don’t normally drink wine. Often served with dessert courses, it’s an ideal wine for toasts.

Iron Horse, another California sparkling bubbly producer, even created a special wine especially for toasts, says co-owner Joy Sterling. She says the Russian Cuvée, which is slightly sweeter than most sparklers, received is name both from the winery’s location in the Russian River Valley and because it was poured at the first summit meetings between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva and Washington, D.C. in 1985.

Wine has come a long way and is now considered a vital part of official functions at the White House. This is a far cry from the time when prohibition had taken hold or French wines reigned. The growing importance of wine in American culture has been duly and properly reflected in the importance of the choice of wine for presidential dinners.

Published on November 1, 2004

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