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Change in 2009? The White House Wine Cellar

vickib Jan 14, 2009 07:42 AM

Just read an interesting article on Slate about the state of the Executive Wine Cellar under the last few administrations:

http://www.slate.com/id/2208229/

I would love to see some more diversity the the First Cellar, myself.
My favorite factoid from the piece is that, while the current collection is approximately 500 bottles, Thomas Jefferson had 20,000.

  1. Chinon00 Jan 17, 2009 07:16 PM

    With respect to serving non-US wine at the White House I see nothing wrong with it. And why must doing so somehow imply that we don't have great wine? Why can't it merely be a sign of deference to a guest? I'd be extremely flattered if this were done for me.

    1. TonyO Jan 17, 2009 06:45 PM

      There is so much rhetoric floating around today that it makes my head spin. OK, I understand we are all immigrants, we all share the same planet, we need the extend to proverbial olive branch, blah, blah, blah. I am very tempted to inject some political statements here, but I will try to stay on topic.

      If anyone sincerely thinks that the President should be concerned about the state of the wine cellar I would be shocked. I'm sure many are longing for the days of Camelot but before we pop the cork, we must work to earn such a privilege. I for one, hope that the cork that is popped is from a bottle of Argyle Brut rather than some French Champagne. God Bless America, it's people and our wine.

      1. WineAG Jan 17, 2009 05:59 AM

        Thanks for bringing the Slate article to our attention... very interesting and I agree with the author on many points... particularly bringing the cellar up to speed in size (500 bottles... are you kidding me?) and in scope (there should be a broader range of wines. I think it should be predominantly American wines, but not exclusively). Somehow I think someone should make sure storage conditions are what they should be.

        The escalation of prices has been a problem for world leaders around the globe, even France. You may remember a couple of years ago the selling off of the finest Grand Cru's in Paris that had been assembled by Chirac when he was in office... as they said it didn't look right to open wines that were worth thousands of dollars. Of course this was a political statement by the new Mayor more than anything else.

        http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/2...

        The selling off of the French cellar was sad. Wine shouldn't be looked at for what it's worth today... most great wines typically appreciate as they age. I see the point of "appearances", but that's the point of cellaring wines... you buy them upon release and they appreciate as they age... the comeback could be that they only paid $50 for the bottle. Where do you draw the line? Should they sell off the fine art that's hangs in these places that are worth millions of dollars? The million dollar furniture? Why single out wine? If we follow the mentality of selling off things that are worth a lot of $$$, the White House and other "palaces" of the world would be furnished by Ikea... how sad would that be?

        I disagree with all the flap over the Shafer Hillside. I love this wine and consider it one of the finest American made wines. It is a great example of American winemaking and find it a very appropriate choice for a dinner hosting many of the world powers. This got totally blown out of proportion when they had that economic summit. The news channels all reported that they served $500 bottles of wine... to help prove their point. I sent emails to all media outlets reporting this to correct their mis-information, but not one changed their tune... didn't expect it either... the story didn't work as well.. Point is of course, that this is not a $500 bottle... even on restaurant wine lists this recent vintage is typically btw $300 -$400.... it retails for around $200... and of course they paid probably around $130. Too much for a dinner like this? I think not. Keep in mind that the other wines served that night were VERY modest in price... wines retailing for around $30 and $50 if I remember correctly. I would guess that the White House spent more in FLOWERS that day than they did on wine... was that too extravagant?

        Of course food and wine is a big part of most CH'rs lives. It is reasonable that others would say don't serve any wines over $50 in the White House, cause they don't see the value in spending more. I understand those sentiments, just respectfully disagree.

        I hope that Obama get's the wine program back on track. If they need help I'd be willing to lend a hand... pro bono.

        1 Reply
        1. re: WineAG
          vickib Jan 17, 2009 06:03 PM

          I would think that having beautiful wines in the French cellars would be a point of pride, and think it's a shame that they sold them merely for appearances. I also think your point about the appreciation of things such as furnishings, etc., is on point. Sometimes we get carried away with trying to look "virtuous."
          While I haven't had the pleasure of sampling the Shafer Hillside, I think it is entirely proper for the White House to serve the finest products that America produces. I would also expect them to serve the best meat, fish, cheese, vegetables, etc., that we make. Additionally, just from my own perspective, I think that having some wines from other countries is a good thing, also. You could look at it like this: America is a nation of immigrants. We come from everywhere, and a great many of these countries produce wonderful wine. In my view, having a nice little Italian collection would honor not only Italy, but the many Americans who are of Italian origin, etc. Beautiful wines come from all over the world, and, like the people from these countries, who have contributed to who we are, these wines influence American wine, which, of course, would not exist it its current form without those from the Old World.

        2. Midlife Jan 16, 2009 10:36 AM

          I'll applaud the use of American wines at the White House and think the Duckhorn and Golden Eye selections are great.

          But the Slate article refers to the serving of 2003 Shafer Hillside Select and mitigates it's cost by saying it was purchased wholesale. I'm curious as to how the White House is able to purchase wine at wholesale pricing when I doubt that it is a licensed restaurant or wine retailer. Does it somehow qualify for licensing as a private club? I'm glad they pay as little as possible but wonder if this isn't a WineGate coverup. ;o)

          3 Replies
          1. re: Midlife
            Caralien Jan 16, 2009 10:43 AM

            The WH has it's own dining facilities, full professional kitchens, and catering staff, so a restaurant license wouldn't be out of the ordinary, particularly for health, sanitation, and budget. Then again, it is the office of the President, and wholesale pricing can be asked for if an entity is purchasing large quantities (even I've gotten wholesale pricing when asked for it; it's still taxed, but the per bottle costs are much less)

            1. re: Caralien
              Midlife Jan 16, 2009 01:08 PM

              Yes. I'm sure they get great pricing if only for the exposure. I was thinking more along the tax-free line, but you're probably exactly right.

            2. re: Midlife
              Bill Hunt Jan 16, 2009 04:54 PM

              Midlife,

              I feel the same as you. However, will admit that I feel this way, because I was not in attendence. Give me Shafer Hillside Select and I am usually a very happy camper. You and I should have been invited! Now, it's our duty to the country to bring this scheme down - impeachment, censure, whatever... Their guest list was just short by two.

              Hunt

            3. PolarBear Jan 16, 2009 07:02 AM

              If the inaugural luncheon is any indication, I'd say things are looking up....

              http://uk.reuters.com/article/reuters...

              Personally, I'd have gone with Honig rather than the Duckhorn SV, but it's nice to see the 05 Goldeneye Pinot paired with the duck. Page two of the article has a link for those who wish to replicate the meal.

              2 Replies
              1. re: PolarBear
                Caralien Jan 16, 2009 09:01 AM

                CH: http://www.chow.com/food_and_cooking/7032
                Full Menu: http://inaugural.senate.gov/luncheon/index.cfm

                But Korbel? Seriously? There are better sparkling wines from any other vineyard in the US (aside from Cook's). I know, it's labeled "Special Inaugural Cuvee", but I really don't get it. The stuff is awful and overpriced.

                (yes, I've read that it was served at the inaugural luncheons for Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. too:
                http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi... )

                1. re: Caralien
                  Bill Hunt Jan 16, 2009 04:52 PM

                  I have not had this particular cuvée, but would *tend* to agree that there are likely many better domestic producers, from which to choose.

                  Still, I was not invited to the tasting, so maybe they found elements that do not jump out at me now. Would love to read the transcripts from that tasting.

                  Hunt

              2. b
                Brad Ballinger Jan 15, 2009 06:50 AM

                As much of a Europhile as I am, I can understand and even support the all domestic wine policy started by LBJ. Yes, perhaps some of the foreign dignitaries have influence enough to get well-reputed U.S. wines in their own countries, but I wouldn't be surprised if they haven't had that much U.S. juice.

                Also, I would expect countries pour wine (or other beverages) from their homeland when they host dinners. The last thing I would want to do is go to a dinner in France and have my host open a Mondavi Cab.

                When I was in the Netherlands several years ago on business, I spent my free weekend visiting wine enthusiasts I had only know on line. We met in Belgium. Everybody brings several bottles. The first one I opened was a White Burgundy. Our host commented, "Let me get this straight. The wine was made in Europe. You bought it in the United States, and then brought it back to Europe?"

                10 Replies
                1. re: Brad Ballinger
                  Caralien Jan 15, 2009 07:52 AM

                  The author of the Slate article certainly got it wrong suggesting that we serve wines from the diplomat's country instead of our own. I don't recall which first lady made the gaffe of getting a ridiculously expensive tea for her host in China (who was shocked), only to be told later that said tea was for medicinal purposes only.

                  There are so many fine wines and foods produced in the US, which should be showcased during state (and other) dinners.

                  Schramsberg was served by Reagan a number of times:
                  http://www.schramsberg.com/story/toda...

                  1. re: Caralien
                    TonyO Jan 15, 2009 08:05 AM

                    Well said. Taking pride in America may not be politically correct in some circles, but it should be in the Oval Office !

                    1. re: TonyO
                      hotoynoodle Jan 15, 2009 08:29 AM

                      just curious if anybody knows: does sarkozy only serve french wine? berlusconi only italian?

                      american wine has more than come into its own since lbj was in the white house. i think it might be nice to broaden the field a bit. global economy and all that.

                      1. re: hotoynoodle
                        Caralien Jan 15, 2009 08:43 AM

                        From a practical standpoint, there's nothing wrong with serving domestic goods, considering the cost of international shipping and from an ecological perspective. US Wines and spirits outside of the US are so completely overpriced that it wouldn't make sense to serve it in countries known for excellent domestic goods (ditto cranberries--about $10 a bag in Paris, 1995). In the US, however, the price for French wines are on par with their prices in France (this delves more into economic politics, however, which CH doesn't want us to debate upon).

                        I believe it's fairly standard for heads of states in their own countries to serve food which showcases domestic product. When travelling, they eat whatever is served to them, and it's considered good public policy to break bread locally.

                        When in Rome, eat and drink Italian.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle
                          b
                          bclevy Jan 15, 2009 05:40 PM

                          I am a dual French/American citizen, and I am astonished at
                          the naievete of your question. A French president who would serve
                          any non-French wine for a state dinner would be in major political
                          trouble. Ditto for an Italian prime minister serving non-Italian wine
                          and a Spanish prime minister serving non-Spanish wine.
                          Sarkozy, like his predecessor Mitterand, can have a mistress
                          living in the Elysee Palace if he wants to, and the French public won't
                          bat an eye, but if he serves Australian wine, he is dead meat.

                          I may be narrow minded, but I view it as the duty of the American
                          president to be the ambassador for his country's products.
                          So I expct any American president to stick to American wines.
                          I would also like to indicate that the Slate writer is obviously
                          letting his political dislikes influence his views. Because of
                          speeches, it is well known that it is essentially impossiblle
                          to do more than nibblling at state dinners (it is always
                          recommended to eat before). So from a wine perspective,
                          a state dinner is not a dinner but a wine tasting event. Thus
                          strong powerful and perhaps young wines will fare better
                          than older sublle wines. The WH wine director knows his/her
                          stuff, the Slate wine critic is full of hot political air.

                          1. re: bclevy
                            t
                            tmso Jan 16, 2009 11:02 AM

                            Somebody seems to have forgotten the hysteria around a certain Mlle Bruni! As though the French don't have a sense of propriety...

                            But yes, the state cellar in wine producing nations will pretty much be required to have 99,999% wines from that country. (The exception being oddities that the country doesn't produce -- I wouldn't be surprised if l'Elysée has some Xérès in the caves, but I wouldn't expect it either.) The funny thing about the US is that it both is and is not a wine nation, thanks to the vagaries of geography, history and immigration.

                            And one ought to fear for the future of our presidential caves here: Sarko is a tee-totaler. Our only hope is that the cumulative bureaucratic inertia of Mitterand and Chirac are no match for the little guy's puritanism.

                            1. re: tmso
                              b
                              bclevy Jan 16, 2009 03:30 PM

                              Fear not. Based on Chirac's track record for food and wine purchases
                              as mayor of Paris, he must have left the Elysee cellar fully stocked for
                              decades. Another issue left uncovered by by Slate's article is whether
                              there exists any correlation between the leadership offered by a president
                              and the quality of the wine he/she drinks. So far the evidence is mixed.
                              Thomas Jefferson and Jacques Chirac were probably the most avid wine
                              drinkers among presidents of their respective countries. Unfortunately,
                              while historians rank Jefferson among the top 5 US presidents, Chirac
                              is not faring too well so far.

                            2. re: bclevy
                              Bill Hunt Jan 16, 2009 04:46 PM

                              Some great lines in the first paragraph. My mind raced, but not on food related topics...

                              Good point about a head-of-state being " the ambassador for his country's products." Were I a guest at the White House, for a state-dinner, I would anticipate US wines.

                              Only state-dinner that I have attended was in the UK, and, IIRC, all wines were French, and quite good. Interestingly, the stemware was probably worth a king's ransom, but was rather ill-suited for the wines. Lovely to look at, too heavy and poorly balanced, and quite thick with beautiful facets cut into it. Now, as an aside, we were probably better off with the service of FR wines here. I've had several UK wines, and they are "interesting," but not really ready for "prime-time."

                              Now, in the UK, we had a full, multi-course meal (seems it was seven courses), with wines for each. As it was also a four-hour affair, there was plenty of time to actually dine, and also converse with Lady X to my right. Do not know how the White house handles similar, so cannot comment.

                              Hunt

                          2. re: TonyO
                            Bill Hunt Jan 15, 2009 04:51 PM

                            Though it begs to have some political comments made here, I will refrain, as the Chow MODs have gotten my attention.

                            I do agree that serving the products of one's country is a great thing.

                            When we have visiting guests from abroad, we seldom restructure our wine list, from what we would serve any other guests.

                            Now, if our guests are from Mosel, I do not pull out a domestic Riesling, and *might* serve a GR Riesling, but only if that is the best choice, IMO.

                            Still, if I were involved, I'd broaden the cellar, if for no one, but me - greedy as I am.

                            Hunt

                        2. re: Brad Ballinger
                          Bill Hunt Jan 15, 2009 04:46 PM

                          Brad,

                          You make a great point. We spend a good deal of time in the UK. I pour over wine lists all over London, and am appaled at the choices of US wines, available, and their horrible prices. The same is true for the wine shops. I can easily understand why many in Europe and the UK have a poor impression of US wines. Given that a bottle of BV Coastal Cab is likely to be £70 (about US$110 now), it's no wonder that the average citizen thinks that US wines are plonk, especially considering the price-points.

                          I've taken to sneaking a few bottles of Biale and Turley Zin into the UK, for my wino-buds. They allow as how they have never tasted US wines like these. When I tell them the US price, they shudder. I can think of 1,000 other US wines, and not just big fruit-bombs, that would do the same thing to them. When some have traveled to the US, they are amazed at the quality of wines from the US. Even disregarding the exchange rates, they marvel at the low price.

                          OTOH, disregarding my $ vs £ situation, I do love the European wine selections in London. Though it has changed in the last few years, the selection of white Burgs at the UAL Intl' FC Lounge was better than many US restaurants' choices, AND they were free. There were flights that I was glad that I was NOT seated in an exit row...

                          We're probalby about 5:4 white Burg to US Chard, but that's because we're usually going to have the wine follow us to dinner.

                          Were I the President, or the keeper of the cellar keys, I'd add a few Euro-wines, just because I like them, and there are Consulate couriers all around. Still, it pleased me, when the Clinton White House chose a fairly obscure AZ red (good wine, BTW), as the "house red."

                          Interesting thread,

                          Hunt

                        3. Bill Hunt Jan 14, 2009 07:40 PM

                          Considering President Bush's abstinence from alcohol, I can understand why the White House cellar might not be that large.

                          I'd wager that for state dinners, wines are brought in for each event and not drawn from the cellar.

                          Going back some years and an administration, President Clinton chose an Arizona red blend for the “official White House wine.” That was unique, and it was a good wine, not often found outside the state of AZ.

                          Now, had I been elected President, I’d have come with a much larger cellar. It would have featured wines from many parts of the globe, but unfortunately would not have been representative of a few spots, some of which are “up-n-comers.”

                          I do not know President-elect Obama’s tastes in wine, if he has any. It might be interesting to see how the White House cellar changes over the next few years.

                          Also, we must remember that President Jefferson was one of the few oenophiles to occupy the White House. Most have been more along the lines of Bourbon & branch. This is unlike the cellars of the heads of state of many other countries.

                          Does anyone know how President Bush, the elder, stocked the cellar? Last comments that I have read were for President Clinton, and the Callaghan Buena Suerte Cuvée.

                          Hunt

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Bill Hunt
                            vickib Jan 14, 2009 08:33 PM

                            Some indication of Obama's tastes may be gleaned from the choice of wines at the inaugural dinner. I read that there will be 2 wines, both from Duckhorn. The white will be their Sauvignon Blanc, and the red will be their Goldeneye Pinot Noir. Don't know specific bottles. I got this from today's LA Times.

                            1. re: vickib
                              hotoynoodle Jan 15, 2009 07:59 AM

                              according to a chicago newspaper article, obama is supposedly fond of kendall-jackson chardonnay, which is now doing a push.

                              i've met the white house wine director numerous times over the years. (interesting he has stayed through several administrations.) he was very polite about the lack of bush's interest in wine. however the selection of wines for dinners is generally his -- the president has more important things to decide, lol -- so just like any sommelier, he chooses wines to complement the meal.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle
                                Bill Hunt Jan 15, 2009 04:27 PM

                                Thank you both for that insight. I am also a fan of Dan Duckhorn, so I have no quibbles there. I guess we need to expose him to some other Chards, both domestic and imported, but then one's taste is one's taste. Some years back, we were at a resort where the upper-end restaurants all had K-J Vintner's Reserve as their upper-level Chard. I complained. Near the end of the week, we dined in some of the lower-end restaurants. All of a sudden, I was wishing that they HAD K-J's VR Chard! BTW, what wine goes best with "crow?"

                                Now, I must say that I have enjoyed the K-J "Grand Reserve" Chard on many instances. I find these to differ more, vintage to vintage, and to be much more interesting wines. One just does not see these that often on wine lists. The retail price-points are not that far apart, but so many restaurants stop at the VR. While not a favorite of mine, it's still much better than many - and it IS consistant, year to year. Kinda' like a "house style" in a Tawny or Ruby Port.

                                Interesting about the White House Director of Wine. Thanks for sharing. For the last 8 years, it was probably a good thing that he/she was at the helm. I've been to too many dinners, where a non-wine drinking host chose the wines. Many were total disasters. Good to have an expert on hand for this. What an interesting job!

                                Hunt

                                1. re: hotoynoodle
                                  Icantread Jan 16, 2009 09:59 AM

                                  Kudos to choosing Duckhorn. I haven't had the Goldeneye, but love the Merlots

                            2. The Chowhound Team Jan 14, 2009 06:33 PM

                              Folks, we've had to remove some overly political responses and want to remind everyone tha our focus here is chow, not politics. Please feel free to discuss the wines mentioned, what wines you'd suggest the White House stock, what types of wines should be served at diplomatic functions, etc. but please avoid making political statements about current or former presidents, or politics in general. Thanks.

                              1. TonyO Jan 14, 2009 06:27 PM

                                Oh, and page two gets even better with the suggestion of stocking foreign wines. Brilliant ! Maybe the Prius can be the official car of The Whitehouse as well.

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