Diplomacy

Wine, the New State Secret


Given the U.S. debt held by China, Stephen Colbert said the Hu dinner "should have been a sweatpants potluck with box wine and a sleeve of Oreos"

Photograph by Lawrence Jackson/White House

Given the U.S. debt held by China, Stephen Colbert said the Hu dinner "should have been a sweatpants potluck with box wine and a sleeve of Oreos"

When British Prime Minister David Cameron visits President Barack Obama this week, one detail may stay bottled up: the labels on the wines the White House pours at the state dinner tomorrow night.

For Obama’s first three state dinners, honoring the leaders of India, Mexico and China, the White House released the name, year and appellation of wines—all-American—paired with each course.

Part of a tradition observed by previous presidents, including George W. Bush, that disclosure stopped after Obama’s dinner last year for Chinese President Hu Jintao. One of the wines served on Jan. 19, 2011, was a top-rated 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state that originally sold for $115 a bottle and went for as much as $399 by the time of the dinner. The price the White House paid per bottle was not made public.

At the next state dinner, on June 7, 2011, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the menu made public by the White House didn’t include details on the wines.

“An American wine will be paired with each course,” stated a note at the bottom of the menu released by the White House. So went as well the menu released for the Korean State Dinner honoring President Lee Myung-Bak on Oct. 13, 2011.

Tyler Colman, who writes the Dr. Vino wine blog and teaches at New York University, said in an interview that the shift in menu protocol may reflect political considerations given the sluggish U.S. economy.

“They’re probably sensitive to displays of wealth at a time when the economy is not firing on all cylinders,” said Colman, whose blog had noted the absence of wines on the German state dinner menu the White House released.

Still, keeping the wine list under wraps undercuts promotion of U.S. winemakers at a time when markets in developing nations such as China have potential to be “really hot” for U.S. labels because of the rising middle and upper income classes, he said.

A state dinner “isn’t a picnic or casual get-together,” and it’s justifiable from diplomatic and trade standpoints for the White House to spend money to showcase fine American wines, Colman said.

Dorothy Gaiter, wine and food editor for the quarterly France Magazine and a former wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said Obama was private about his wine preferences before his election.

If the Obama White House has decided to stop publicizing which American wines are served at official events, she said, “I don’t understand this. It’s good for America.”

Rick Small is co-owner of the Woodward Canyon winery in Lowden, Washington, whose 2009 Chardonnay was among the wines poured for the German dinner.

He and his wife noticed the shift because they had gotten billing on the menu when their wine was served at a Clinton administration dinner. He said he didn’t know why the practice was changed and that it probably does help the industry overall to have U.S. wines publicized by name.

At the same time, Small said, it’s an honor to be chosen at all. “You’re not going to get pushy about it since they picked your wine,” he said.

The White House declined to comment for this article or to make available Daniel Shanks, the usher who has managed wine selection since the Clinton administration, or social secretary Jeremy Bernard. First Lady Michelle Obama’s office referred questions to the White House press office.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest declined to disclose which wines were served at the German or Korean state dinners, identify wines from non-state dinners, make menus of past meals available for inspection or answer questions about the shift in practice.

Earnest also declined to say whether the White House would release the names of wines at the Cameron dinner. The White House has promoted its release of other documents and data. On March 8, it announced a website, www.ethics.gov, to expand access to government databases tracking White House visitor records, lobbying disclosures and Federal Election Commission reports.

“From the day he took office, the president committed his administration to work towards unprecedented openness in government,” said the official statement announcing the site.

At the state dinner for Hu, the 2005 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley from Washington state, one of the wines poured that night, was $115 a bottle at release, the winery’s general manager, John Ware said in an interview.

The wine earned a rare 100-point rating from wine critic Robert Parker. By the time of the White House dinner, Ware said, it sold for $300-$350. It was listed for as much as $399 per bottle, according to wine websites.

Ware said the winery was approached by the White House and asked to choose which of its wines to serve. The price the winery charged the White House was “closer to the $115″ than to $399, Ware said, while declining to name the price.

Afterward, he said, the winery’s profile in Asia got a “pretty significant” boost.

The White House selection drew derision.

The day after the Hu dinner, the anti-Obama website Gateway Pundit carried a posting entitled, “Sacrifice Is For the Little People… Obama White House Serves $399 Bottles of Wine at State Dinner.”

Comedian Stephen Colbert said that, given the U.S. debt held by China, the Hu dinner “should have been a sweatpants potluck with box wine and a sleeve of Oreos.”

Other changes were taking place at the White House at the time. Between the Chinese and German state dinners, the White House changed social secretaries, hiring Bernard that February.

Since the start of his presidency, aides also have avoided endorsing specific brands such as which golf clubs Obama favors.

Not all wines served by the administration are shielded. At Vice President Joe Biden’s dinner last month for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the list included a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hall winery in California’s Napa Valley. The wines sell for $22.99 and $48.99 per bottle, respectively, on the wine.com website. Vintner Kathryn Hall was U.S. ambassador to Austria during the Clinton administration. She didn’t return calls for comment.

Wine has been regularly served at the Executive Residence since 1800, except from 1877-1881 under President Rutherford B. Hayes, Shanks wrote in 2007 for an article for the Journal of the White House Historical Association.

In the 20th century, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were known for their familiarity with French wine. The policy of serving American wine took hold in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, according to an article in last month’s Wine Spectator. Ronald Reagan, a former actor and California governor, raised the profile of his home state’s wines.

Ulises Valdez, 42, of the Valdez Family Winery and Tasting Room in Cloverdale, California, said he is “still celebrating” having his 2008 Silver Eagle Vineyard Chardonnay served at the White House for the Mexico state dinner on May 19, 2010.

Valdez snuck into the U.S., from Mexico, as a teenager and found work picking grapes. He got amnesty during the Reagan administration. Today he owns a vineyard management company and the winery. “This is the beauty of the U.S.—if you’re a hard worker and good and honest you can do it,” he said.

White House menus can be a point of pride and business builder for individual vintners whose wines are chosen.

Kerry Murphy, proprietor of DuMOL Wines in Orinda, California, whose wines have been served at the White House since 2002, said he’s become a collector. “God knows how many menus I have—I love ‘em,” he said.

“I’ve been blessed by the association,” Murphy said. “It sets the wine to high standards,” he said, because the White House “can buy whatever they want.”

His Chardonnays sell for $50-$60 per bottle.

After his 2008 Russian River Chardonnay was served at the Hu dinner, he said, “our sales in China quadrupled.”

“I think that has a lot to do just with exposure from that one dinner,” he said. “It makes me feel good because we’ve got some dollars coming back” to the U.S. from China. “That’s a patriotic thing in itself.”

With Jasmine Zhao
Talev is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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