How Obama can improve White House policy on wine.

How Obama can improve White House policy on wine.

How Obama can improve White House policy on wine.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 14 2009 11:17 AM

Change We Can Taste

Bush's White House served terrible wine. Obama should do better.

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I think this is a pretty unappetizing group of wines. I recently had the '05 Mondavi, and drinking it was like sucking on tree bark—it was obnoxiously oaky. Cloying and buttery, the Newton unfiltered epitomizes the overwrought, blowsy style of California chardonnay, and Kistler isn't far behind. These wines may have presence, but it's not a presence I want in my mouth. Perusing the menus, I found a few good choices. For instance, when Bush hosted a dinner for French President Nicolas Sarkozy several days before Merkel's visit, he served the 2004 Dominus, an excellent Napa cabernet (sadly wasted on both men: Sarkozy, like Bush, doesn't drink). But note the vintages—these wines were hardly out of the barrel when they were opened. This is a disservice to the U.S. wine industry and is probably not doing our foreign policy much good, either. The knock on our wines has always been that they lack finesse and longevity—that they are all about short-term, in-your-face pleasure. In truth, many of them have complexity and elegance, and some can age brilliantly. By limiting his selections to juvenile behemoths, Shanks is perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype about American wines. (American wine drinkers, too—the rap on us is that we only like 'em young and obvious.)

These bruisers could also be sending an unhelpful subliminal message. Diplomacy is a subtle art, and when it is conducted à table, it requires subtle libations. Mellow wines promote conviviality, encourage reflection, and create goodwill—the very things state dinners are presumably meant to foster. A hulking cabernet that assaults the senses and flattens any food that gets in its way hardly lubricates the path to world peace. Indeed, serving such a wine might even be construed as a sign of hostile intent: Tonight we smash your palate; tomorrow your palace. Shanks was hired by the Clintons, but his preference for slam-dunk wines has been in keeping with the tenor of Bush's foreign policy—you might even say he's the vinous George Tenet. For this reason alone, it's time to put something different in the decanter.

So, what must Obama do? He can start by replenishing the White House cellar. He's pledged to create or save 3 million jobs over the next two years; he should set a goal of having 3,000 bottles laid away by the end of his first term. An executive branch buying spree will once again give the presidency a wine stash worthy of the office while also making a small but meaningful contribution to the ailing economy. There is no need to load up on trophies like the Hillside Select; there are lots of sensational wines that can be purchased for less money. Indeed, wine prices are now tumbling in response to the financial maelstrom, and amazing deals can be had at auction and retail.


At the same time, a new approach to wine service ought to be implemented at once. The Bloomberg piece indicated that Shanks will be staying on after Jan. 20; if that's the case, he can now leave the youth and vigor to Obama himself. Henceforth the emphasis should be on maturity and finesse. Instead of the '05 Mondavi, make it a wine like the 1996 Château Montelena Estate, a glorious Napa cabernet that will bend even the most obdurate foreign leader to our will (and which can be found these days for less than $100 a bottle).

There is one other change that Obama might consider: lifting the ban on foreign wines at the White House. Under Lyndon Johnson, it was decided that only American wines would be served during official functions, a stricture that remains in place. (Richard Nixon, a Bordeaux man, supposedly got around it by having the waitstaff secretly pour him his beloved Château Margaux; apparently, Tricky Dick was also Tricky Drinker.) Back in the 1960s, the world had no idea that our vineyards were capable of turning out decent wines, so it probably made sense to reserve the stage exclusively for homegrown cabernets and chardonnays. But four decades on, American wines hardly need a presidential seal to certify their worthiness, and it can reasonably be assumed that the politics of the issue has changed, too—a country that just elected a guy named Barack Obama president is unlikely to erupt in nativist anger should a French or Italian wine occasionally grace the White House menu. If a visiting head of state comes from a wine-producing nation, why not uncork something special from his backyard? Treating the Spanish prime minister to a great old Rioja or the Chinese president to an acclaimed boutique merlot from Shanxi province would be the ultimate gesture of respect and might even prove to be a diplomatic masterstroke. Suffice it to say, we could use a few of those.