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.
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