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.

With an economy in crisis and two wars to prosecute, Barack Obama will have lots on his plate when he becomes president on Jan. 20. But it would be a great service to the nation, to say nothing of his own palate, if he and Michelle Obama could also give some consideration to what will be in his glass. The White House needs a new wine policy. Sure, having a commander in chief who actually drinks wine will be a big improvement. However, it won't be enough. During the Bush era, wine service at the executive mansion has been hostage to a profoundly misguided strategy that has turned this most civilized of beverages into an unnecessarily crude instrument of statecraft. Candidate Obama promised change we can believe in; here's an opportunity to deliver change we can taste.

As with so much else, the Bush administration has given Obama the opening he needs to act swiftly and boldly on the wine front. During November's emergency economic summit in Washington, the White House poured the 2003 Shafer Hillside Select at a dinner for the world leaders in attendance. The Hillside Select is one of the so-called Napa cult cabernets; it is made in small quantities (1,800-2,400 cases per year), receives gushing scores from Robert Parker and other critics, and commands hefty sums as a result. The 2003 goes for around $250 a bottle. Although the White House said that it paid wholesale, the fact that it opened such an extravagant wine at a gathering intended to avert a global economic meltdown caused widespread indignation.

With the bitter taste of Shafer-gate lingering in the mouths of many Americans, Obama has a chance to take the White House wine program in a new direction. The need for a change of course was made shockingly clear in a recent interview that Daniel Shanks, who handles wine duties at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., gave to Bloomberg's Elin McCoy. According to Shanks, the White House currently stocks around 500-600 bottles. That is pathetic and another example of how America's infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate. During his eight years in office, Thomas Jefferson amassed a 20,000-bottle collection, which he kept in a cellar that he had built under what is now the West Wing. Two centuries later, that space is being used for other purposes, and the president of the United States has less wine in his basement than I have in mine.

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Even more dismaying, though, was what Shanks revealed about the process of choosing wines for state dinners. He told McCoy that because only 55 minutes are allotted for the actual meal, it is essential that the wines served on these august occasions "have presence." And what did he mean by "presence"? "A perfectly aged cabernet may be great in the glass," he explained, "but it can't stand up to the intense atmosphere of a White House state dinner. You have to have something with youth and vigor." Delicate wines will be overlooked; only strapping, assertive ones have what it takes to be "noticed in the context of the White House experience," as Shanks put it. In other words, the desired effect is shock and awe, achieved not with cruise missiles but fruit bombs.

Curious to see what this has meant in practice, I visited the White House Web site, which posts the menus for visiting foreign dignitaries. In October, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined President and Mrs. Bush for dinner, and among the wines broken out that evening was the 2005 Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon reserve. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was served the 2005 Kistler Carneros chardonnay and a 2004 Caymus cabernet when she supped with the first couple in November 2007. Six months earlier, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were given the 2004 Newton unfiltered chardonnay and the 2003 Peter Michael Les Pavots, a Bordeaux blend from Sonoma County.