Cloak and daggar wines at the White House

14th Mar 2012

On a sunny Saturday morning it seems that my quiet wine reading time has lead me into the bitter intrigue of American politics.

On a sunny Saturday morning it seems that my quiet wine reading time has lead me into the bitter intrigue of American politics. Anyone would think I was reliving my youth studying politics at University, and here was me thinking that politics be left to the politicians? Not today, it seems.

This week President Obama has once again come under attack, not for his policy of welfare reform, or indeed his resolve to remove troops from foreign soils. No, it was for his wine cellar at the White House. It all started a year ago when the menu and the matching wines were announced for the State banquet for the Chinese President Hu Jintao. So this is a curious thing. If you didn’t already know, the White House has had a policy in force since the 1960’s (since President Lyndon Johnson’s days) where all wine served for “official” state functions will be American. Well, it’s a nice principle to have, rather patriotic and good for morale, don’t you think? And lets face it, there is rather a lot for them to choose from, you could be in worse countries in the world to be patriotic about your home grown wines couldn’t you!

It’s important to point out that the wines aren’t chosen wily nilly, but go through an arduous process to be finally selected for such grand occasions. Daniel Shanks, formally long time Manager of the restaurant at Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon winery oversees the process. His official title “Usher” (not the singer) means he is responsible for all food and beverage operations and takes the selection of wines for each event very seriously. Each wine that is chosen for such events are examined and re-examined, for flavour, balance with food and of course, political correctness. Shanks comments that “A state dinner isn’t about food and wine, its bonding time…a country or issue is driving it, and the wine has to augment that” . It seems a shame in some ways that so much time and effort by so many people results in a rapid 55 minute 3 course dinner with 3 matching wines for 130 people – the standard formula for a State banquet.

So, back to last January. At this particular banquet, Shanks chose the Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005 from Washington to accompany the food. At the time it was selling for about $115 a bottle, not cheap (about £73 a bottle) but apparently very good. So good in fact that the infamous Robert Parker saw fit to score it a perfect 100 points. The culmination of the White House endorsement and the perfect Parker score shot the selling price to nearly $400 per bottle. 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.”

The reaction from the White House, in rather gun hoe fashion was to refrain from commenting about the wines in advance from then on. This has created rather more interest in the whole affair than I think was intended. The cloak and dagger approach to the wines for the state banquets not only lends itself to intrigue in its own right, but by not naming the wines, those very wines involved miss out on a very important opportunity to announce their participation. Without any doubt at all, the wines that are served at these events go on to receive renewed interest and recognition than possibly would otherwise occur. And as is sometimes the case in this crazy world of commerce, increased demand does seem to see an increase in prices. Now, wines being priced according to how much someone is prepared to pay for them rather than what they are worth is a whole other discussion. A very interesting discussion, but definitely one left for another time.

But, just like a restaurant will pick up new guests from a good review in a paper and this has to be a good thing for both the restaurant and the new dining guests, so the same will be said for the wineries. The fact that the White House has bowed to the pressure of the media to the detriment of these said wines to acknowledge the pride in serving home grown wines at state banquets, is I think is rather sad.


Further reading