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. oregon wine tours