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Red Wine, White House

Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan: wine lovers in the White House. Here's the story of how they and their successors helped propel American wine to the top of the world

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: February 17, 2012

Richard Nixon resigned just in time. Had the cantankerous president loitered in the White House too long past 1974, he would have found it increasingly difficult to pour his favorite Bordeaux wines at official receptions. Nixon favored Château Margaux, specifically; they kept a bottle on hold for him at all times at the '21' Club, his Manhattan haunt of choice. In those days, you could afford first-growths on a president's salary, but Nixon was still known to nurse a glass of the claret while the waitstaff had been instructed to pour cheap stuff for his dinner guests, obscuring the label with a napkin.

Nixon would be the last admitted Francophile, winewise, in the Oval Office. Beginning in the Johnson administration, it became a matter of course to serve American wines at state dinners; by the time Ronald Reagan took his place at the table in 1981, this was rigorously enforced, according to current White House director of food and beverage Daniel Shanks, who left Napa's Domaine Chandon to take that post starting in the Clinton administration. "We were trying to show that there was something [in the U.S.] of great value," Shanks said. "I think everybody still considered European to be the measure at that point."

Though he did not always cut the most sophisticated figure, Nixon was probably the most wine-savvy U.S. president since Thomas Jefferson. His appetites were known to be varied—he tired of Champagne because of its omnipresence at state receptions—and they sometimes got him in trouble. Pres. Eisenhower sent his brother Milton as a handler with the then-VP on a delicate 1959 trip to the Soviet Union because, drunk, Nixon could be a geopolitical liability. (To no avail: Milton tattled that Nixon was six martinis deep by the start of one important dinner.)

Despite his preference for French wine, Nixon presided over some of the first memorable flourishes of American wine in diplomatic history. On his watershed 1972 visit to China, with Premier Chou En-lai, he popped the 1969 Blanc de Blancs from Napa's Schramsberg Vineyard. (For privately celebrating his success with Kissinger, it had to be a 1961 Lafite, though.) Years later, in jest, comity or a stunning show of prescience—we shall see—Nixon suggested that someday the Chinese might make better wine than the French.

American sparklers have never left the presidential scene since. Reagan and George H.W. Bush poured Sonoma's Iron Horse while wrangling with Gorbachev in the late '80s. These, as well as Chandon, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate, remain in the rotation, according to Shanks, alongside relative upstarts like Gruet in New Mexico and Westport in Massachusetts.

Not long after Nixon left office, a future winemaker took his place: Jimmy Carter was a farmer in a line of farmers, and his grandfather had worked 15 acres of grapes. When Wine Spectator spoke with Carter in 2005, he had been making his own wine from the family recipe for 15 years.

"Wine has been the beverage of choice here for all but three presidents is my record," Shanks said. "Wine for us is not a new culture. So I think we may have been ahead of the curve as far as national consumption, and now the national consumption is probably just catching up with our habits."

That really began in the 1980s, when Americans embraced American wines, the Commander in Chief chief among them. Ronald Reagan only took up drinking on the advice of a doctor and never slugged 'em back like Nixon did. But he was a Californian, and he often decamped to his ranch in Santa Ynez to contemplate matters of the world in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country. What's more, one of Reagan's closest confidantes, deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, maintained a line of wine advice and supply back to California merchants. Through Deaver, the White House amassed stocks of Beaulieu Vineyards, Robert Mondavi, Buena Vista, Louis Martini, Inglenook, Simi, Sterling, Grgich Hills, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Montelena, Acacia and more—as accurate a snapshot of California fine wine in its salad days as any.

Reagan's wine selections had a real effect on the visibility of American wine. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau ordered a case of 1976 Jordan Cabernet after delighting in it. Brooks Firestone, of Firestone Vineyards, reported that his sales increased tenfold once Reagan started drinking his wines; when Reagan visited Buckingham Palace, the Queen served Firestone to him. As for Deaver, he ultimately suffered from his hobby, and at his perjury trial, he blamed alcoholism for errors in judgment and memory lapses.

Today, White House hospitality staff try to "theme" state dinners in a way that connects foreign guest and American host. "Wine in a lot of cases is easy," said Shanks, when there is a history of a shared experience. For example, Shanks recently served a Greek delegation wines from Topolos and Lolonis, California outfits started by Greek immigrants. During the Clinton years, when French president Jacques Chirac came to dinner, Franco-American winemakers jazzed up the menu, or "new" French varietals in American soil—Syrah and Viognier—were served. Clearly, West Wing selections remain ahead of the curve: Only a decade and a half later, French winemakers at Cayuse, Peter Michael, Robert Mondavi and Melka craft American benchmarks, while Syrah is no less American than Cabernet and Merlot.

So it's instructive to look at what the president is drinking today if you want to divine the American palate of tomorrow. There are limitations these days, beyond, one imagines, no six-drink spree on an empty stomach if you are leader of the free world. State dinners only last an hour, so Shanks consults with winemakers about decanting and choosing assertive cuvées. The food staff is expected to be so seamlessly excellent that, paradoxically, "if we get noticed as being wonderful and a part of the evening, we've made inroads, because being here is so experiential that we don't really stand out unless something really incredible hits." Within this framework, Shanks has served wines from "19 or 20" states, Idaho to Pennsylvania, North Carolina to Massachusetts. If you thought California wines were nonstarters in the 1970s, take note.

The 3rd Corner
Palm Desert, CA, USA —  February 18, 2012 6:19pm ET
Why do you not comment on the man who made history? Mike Grgich who has had 4 white house dinners and 5 presidental terms!
Robert Lapolla
san diego, CA USA —  February 22, 2012 1:08pm ET
Obama served Goldeneye pinot noir at his inauguration banquet.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  February 24, 2012 10:11am ET
What a great piece on the presidents who started it all.
Marco Antonio D Azevedo
Sao Paulo, Brazil —  January 8, 2013 9:49am ET
It's easy to "theme" state dinners when receiving greek and french delegations. I wonder what they serve when the President of Brazil come over... LOL
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  February 18, 2013 1:43pm ET
It makes sense that the article starts with Nixon, since the wine of choice during the Johnson administration was Cutty Sark.
Peter Crage
North Carolina.  —  February 18, 2013 5:26pm ET
Nice article.

Unfortunate though we still find it necessary to throw Nixon under the bus.
John Calmeyer
Healdsburg CA USA —  February 19, 2013 11:36am ET
Nice article, Ben. The winery that preceded us on the estate here at Windsor Oaks, Balverne Cellars, was given a huge shot of publicity when it was served by the Reagan administration at a state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Balverne is still remembered fondly by many and its winemakers, Doug Nalle and John Kongsgaard, have of course gone on to produce many noteworthy wines.
Joanna R Breslin
San Mateo, CA, USA —  February 19, 2013 11:53am ET
When Nixon lost the 1962 California gubernatorial race, he famously said "you don't have Nixon to kick around any more".
This, and his subsequent actions, ensured that we will ALWAYS have Nixon to kick around!
Harvey Posert
napa valley ca us —  February 19, 2013 12:23pm ET
what a pleasure to read this accurate historical column! i was at wine institute 1965-l980 and saw this transpire.
the only funny thing missing was that johnson first told american embassies abroad to serve ca wine and we had to set up educational materials to handle this, including giving classes at the state department!
harvey
Ben Odonnell
New York —  February 19, 2013 1:22pm ET
Thanks, all, for your comments, especially those of you who were in the mix when all this was unfolding. Great story about the embassies, Harvey. How far we've come.

And perhaps we can think of Pres. Nixon as a man complex as his beloved Bordeauxs.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Trent Preszler
Cutchogue, New York USA —  February 21, 2013 5:37pm ET
Ben,

There is one huge omission from your otherwise well-researched article about U.S. Presidential drinking habits. A Merlot from Bedell Cellars on the North Fork of Long Island, and a Finger Lakes Riesling called Tierce, were served at the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Luncheon -- considered the world's greatest power lunch. The entire Supreme Court and all living Presidents, Vice Presidents, and First Ladies, plus leaders of both houses of Congress, sat down for lunch minutes after the Inauguration of Barack Obama. And they toasted with New York wines.

This landmark moment was profoundly significant because it marked the first time in history that New York wines were served at a Presidential Inaugural Luncheon. Until now, that honor had been reserved for California wines only -- and by omitting New York wines from your article you seem to be carrying on that tradition. No matter, we have become accustomed to being overlooked. In fact, just this week we learned that Long Island wines were not included in the Wine Spectator iPad App (although the Finger Lakes was).

I won't speculate on the reasons why you omitted New York wines in your round-up of Presidential drinking habits, but it certainly is surprising since the Inaugural Luncheon news was covered by Wine Spectator, Washington Post, NY Times, ABC News, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Politico, and about 60 other prominent media outlets. Charlie Rose ran a wonderful piece on CBS News about New York wines at the Presidential Inauguration that is worth watching (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKAMfRnemBU&feature=youtu.be).

In your closing paragraph you said, "So it's instructive to look at what the president is drinking today if you want to divine the American palate of tomorrow." YES, indeed! The President drank New York wines at his Inauguration, so by that divining rod the "American palate of tomorrow" is already here today, right in your own backyard.

Sincerely,

Trent Preszler, Ph.D.
CEO
Bedell Cellars
North Fork of Long Island
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  February 21, 2013 5:55pm ET
Dear Trent,

Thank you for writing and updating this article with the 2013 information in the comments. This article was actually published in 2012 and recirculated on President's Day this year, so there was no intended omission of New York wines as they had not yet been served when this was written.

WineSpectator.com—as you noted—did cover the New York wines served at this year's Inaugural Lunch very prominently in this article, which was featured on our homepage for several days:
http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/47897

Regarding the vintage charts, we just this year added a Finger Lakes vintage chart to our lineup of charts on our website and our WineRatings+ app for iPhone (it will also be appearing on our mobile site for all smartphones shortly). James Molesworth reviewed more than 2,000 wines from the region, and more than 300 in the past year alone.

As executive editor Thomas Matthews explained elsewhere, we are very particular about unveiling vintage charts; we require that a critical mass of wines has been evaluated so that we can be sure we are presenting the best information to our readers. We only just added Austria and New Zealand charts in 2012, and we will continue to add more charts in the future.

So far we have 1,000 reviews of Long Island wines, and Tom encourages wineries to submit more wines to our blind tastings, as our blind reviews form the basis of our charts.

Best wishes,
Dana Nigro
Managing editor, WineSpectator.com

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