You may recall the smiling photograph of Senator Obama on the campaign trail in North Carolina with his hand wrapped around a cold brew, which raised the question as to whether he was also into wine. People magazine–and by the way, CBS “60 Minutes” through its camera angle that caught a fleeting glimpse of a kitchen wine rack on national television–set that record straight. He drinks wine, which for many oenophiles is as refreshing as news from the Executive Mansion gets these days!
Turns out that the new residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will not be cellar aging wine anytime soon–the subterranean vault installed by our third president for his collection of over a thousand European bottles has long since given way to less romantic rather workaday uses. In its heyday, according to ledgers tucked away in the Library of Congress, the mansion’s dusty cellar enclave was home to some 20,000 bottles (but not all at once) purchased by Thomas Jefferson for entertaining over his two terms. When you consider it was the man not the office that paid the tab–in those days presidents didn’t have expense account budgets–even by today’s standards that’s a downright generous flow of executive cheer.
Jefferson was a social animal. CUNY professor and author John P. Diggins unearthed John Adams’ reaction to his successor’s penchant for entertaining: “I dined a large company once or twice a week. Jefferson dined a dozen every day.” A day’s selection was regularly loaded into dumbwaiters that the ingenious chief executive had designed — allowing bottles to be secreted away out of sight of visiting dignitaries but handy enough to grab at a moment’s notice. Loaded daily with wines removed from the cellar some 16 feet below the east colonnade, White House servants had little reason to intrude on private functions–and privileged executive conversation. Today, according to longtime White House wine wrangler Daniel Shanks, the executive mansion’s SOP is to stock wines in a temperature-controlled holding area near the well-appointed kitchen (not too far from the original stairs that connected the old cellar to the dining area above), keeping just enough wine on hand for upcoming events. It still amounts to dozens of cases, along with the random bottle left over from other functions, all inventoried much like any restaurant wine cellar, but under the shadow of something akin to the watchful eye of a government auditor poking around now and then–if not in reality, at least in spirit–because ultimately everything at the White House is meticulously inventoried.
All wines served at the executive mansion are purchased wholesale directly through the wine producers themselves, or procured from local distributors. No donations of wine are accepted any longer and–especially in a post 9-11 era–bottles that show up unannounced are summarily destroyed, the moment of sad reality documented in a snapshot sent to the would-be giftor with a simple note of “thanks but–.”
Receiving a ratified invitation to a White House affair promises both the flash and substance of graceful hospitality and memorable cuisine. But, the job of guaranteeing that fact is left to a triad of officials–of which Shanks is part–who are leaders of the executive mansion’s permanent household staff, a 100-plus member cadre that does not typically depart with the old administration, often staying on as continuity in managing the inner workings of the executive mansion. Shanks and his peers (along with a few outside consultants) select wines to be served at each diplomatic event. Their ultimate challenge is to impress without causing a political gaffe in the process.
Shanks balances wine expertise and food pairing skills with diplomatic discretion, so a wine’s provenance is paired with guests’ cultural sensitivities (for example by pouring a particular American wine because the winemaker was raised in the visitor’s country, or because the varietal originated there.) Sometimes the White House matches wine to guests first, menu second, with the ultimate goal of neither offending the dignitaries nor the cuisine. Shanks believes it’s just the reality of politics. Serving kings alongside sultans and ambassadors keeps everyone on their toes as they consider customs, traditions and sensitivities.
It becomes a puzzle of international proportions, wherein the perfect kitchen and wine pairing recipe can run afoul of politics, creating a recipe for social blunder. Back in November, when financial contagion was continuing to spread to all corners of the world, sending Asian, European and South American stock markets reeling, President Bush hosted a summit on financial markets and the world economy. Finger-wagging newswires picked up on the summit’s wine choice, pointing to “a $300 bottle of 2003 Shafer Hillside Select” as an admittedly distinguished but poorly-timed pour.
For some of us, selecting wine for life’s important occasions is a high social stakes decision (Will my wine aficionado boss be disappointed if I serve this wine tonight? Is this wine important enough for the wedding party?) For those in the White House, one slip-up can attract national scrutiny or precipitate global consternation.
On the other hand, getting it right can be extremely rewarding. International favor was earned at a May 2007 banquet welcoming Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, as the 2003 Peter Michael Les Pavots Estate cabernet and 2004 Newton Vineyard unfiltered chardonnay were served with crisp flair. The concept: both California wineries were established by Englishmen who had been knighted by the queen for their stature and achievements.
OLD GLORY DAYS
While it was Carter whose administration set the official policy of serving only US wines, the tradition began with Lyndon Johnson. Before that, a President’s taste ruled the roost in a sort of “anything goes” policy.
George Washington never had the opportunity to live in the structure he had designed to be home to the First Family. Nonetheless, he was a generous host who found pleasure in wine (and spirits) service. A recently-uncovered tally reveals that, in August of 1776, the nation’s first President ordered cases of claret, muscat wine and cordials, plus a keg of brandy, likely for entertaining his officers and guests.
By all accounts, Jefferson was the wine guru among the founding fathers. In fact, Presidents Washington, Adams, Madison, and Monroe all benefited from their fellow founder’s intimate knowledge of the world’s top wines. Thomas Jefferson’s vast travels through Europe in the 1780’s certainly set his course for love of the fruit of the vine and a deep appreciation for the timeless classics. In Thomas Jefferson on Wine (University Press of Mississippi), noted Jefferson scholar John Hailman writes,
“Much of what [Jefferson] wrote about the character of …[France and French] wines he encountered could have been written last week, spelling eccentricities aside. ‘Chambertin, Voujeau and Veaune are strongest,’ he says of the red wines of Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits; he declares ‘Diquem’ the best Sauternes…”
Jefferson appeared to have a compulsive need to write, as if he were a suitor in an ardent love affair, the grape his betrothed. At times, he was a bit compulsive, and at others, entirely functional and systematic. For this multi-tasking leader, it was the nexus of business and pleasure, which ultimately became wine’s most defining moment at the White House.
Eight administrations later, by large measure the zeal for wine had waned, but not the patient and practiced art of wine service. In 1845, a senator’s wife penned a diary entry detailing a 4-hour affair of state at the Polk White House (heretofore believed to be a teetotaling era). She described glasses filled with six shades of wine from pink champagne to ruby port and sauternes which “formed a rainbow around each plate.” Clearly, the artful elegance of wine appreciation had somehow endured.
Just a few years after Napoleon’s cousin Prince Napoleon Jerome was called on to organize the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris at which the historic Bordeaux classification was unveiled, President James Buchanan won the vote back in America. His was to become an era of self-indulgent beverage service: a penchant for spirits “of fine caliber” caused him to periodically snub liquor merchants who delivered champagne to the White House, using it as an excuse to venture out on Sundays to personally track down more “fitting” bottles, mostly cognac, and some rye. A season of temperance set in. Around 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes (under pressure from the First Lady who was caught up in the bellicose spirit of the Women’s Temperance Movement) altogether banned wine and liquor service at the mansion. And while Woodrow Wilson attempted to stop prohibition’s “noble experiment” by veto, it nevertheless passed, and immediately clamped down on liquor commerce with historic vengeance. Oddly, there is evidence that White House liquor service may have continued during prohibition under Hoover’s watch, during the “pressure cooker” days of the depression. Not too long afterward, prohibition started unraveling early in 1933 as FDR put pen to paper on new freedoms for the emaciated wine and spirits industry, ultimately ending the year with prohibition finally dead and buried.
In the ’60s and early 70’s, both John Kennedy and Nixon loved their French wine. As a result, given the intervening political sensibility of pouring only US wine at diplomatic functions, Richard Nixon took his Francophile tendencies into private quarters, or instead, sometimes sought the cultural anonymity of a champagne flute delivered tableside, gleaming with fresh-poured ribbons of dancing bubbles, no label in sight.) Rather surprisingly, in the past sixteen years, even as the political parties have moved in, out, and back again, the executive mansion’s service procedures remain largely unchanged, except for the recent continued emphasis on a dazzling array of American-centric menus at state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons. The culinary artistry happens in a compact kitchen populated at times by up to five sous chefs and service staff, under the hands-on supervision of Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford appointed to her position in 2005 by First Lady Laura Bush after White House chef Walter Scheib vacated the post a few months earlier. (Comerford is also a member of the wine selecting triad along with Dan Shanks and his boss Stephen Rochon).
As for wine’s influence on her life, according to the White House, Chef Comerford has shared “experiences with some of the nation’s most innovative chefs in the California wine country and San Francisco restaurants to produce original dishes with American flavor.” Celebrity super-chef John Ash, who was one of those inspirations, gives high praise to this member of the White House’s powerful wine triumvirate, “Chris is a master at taking unusually simple ingredients and building a magnificent taste experience…and her understanding of wine as an ingredient in the overall meal is just as savvy.”
EXECUTIVE POWERS AND PRESS OPS
The world recognizes that the White House is America’s Presidential Palace and a powerful symbol. But not too often do we see that power leveraged on behalf of the business sector. Accidental or intentional brand association with the White House can create consumer magnetism of mythical proportions. Literal case in point: back in the Reagan era, First Lady Nancy Reagan received a package from David Berkley, the Sacramento wine purveyor who had been offering wine advice to the White House staff for more than a few years. It contained samples of a California wine then largely unknown, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay. Mrs. Reagan liked it and, subsequently, the White House staff began serving it, and the late Pulitzer prize winning San Francisco columnist Herb Caen picked up on the story, dubbing it “Nancy’s Wine.” The rest is history for what is now America’s leading chardonnay.
Twenty years later, history may be repeating itself. In a pre-election People magazine profile on Barack Obama, he was quoted as saying that the same wine is a staple at his Chicago address. Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson responded by sending two congratulatory cases with his best wishes, expressing hope that the wine might bridge the political divide to become a favorite of yet another White House administration, this time Democratic. It therefore comes as no surprise that White House policy does not endorse specific wines, the previous example notwithstanding. A spokesperson for the Obama administration who admitted to having spent a bit of time responding to media’s fleeting interest in non-allergenic canines amid earth-rocking crises, was markedly cheerful when we probed for answers about wine service–a role managed directly through the office of the First Lady. Understandably, the spokeswoman indicated that “…with a long and celebrated history of hosting dignitaries at the White House, [the new administration] would focus on the overall purpose and message of the gathering, and not just one component such as the specific wine being poured.” But with a sort of chuckle, she did admit to being open to suggestions. It was all we needed.
Taking her casual offer literally, we turned to Chicago Master Sommelier Joe Spellman who attended the University of Chicago and lived near Mr. Obama for a while before each moved on: Joe to renowned Charlie Trotters restaurant and beyond; the young Barack Obama up the rungs of the political ladder that led to the executive mansion. “As for White House wine protocol,” Spellman ponders, “I would plan on continuing to feature the rich spectrum of wines and styles offered across America – not just California, or even West Coast: New York, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and more.” He continues, “Yet, we should give ourselves permission to feature wines of a visiting dignitary’s country, as a display of respect and honor.” Then, as an after-thought: “Who knows, maybe they’ll need a Master Sommelier. One from Chicago. What an honor that would be!”
And a new chapter in House wine begins.