The title of this book may be “White House Wine: A History,” but a truer subtitle might be “An Encyclopedia.” Everything you wanted to know about wine and the presidents are within this beautifully designed book. Plus, you go behind the scenes in the White House to visualize the historic selection and acquisition of wine and learn the social and historic implications of serving wine at the historic venue.
The author, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr, is the CEO and publisher of the Washington Post. His access to the political scene, his in-depth reporting, and his passion for wine shine through. I’ll share a glimpse of the cover table book and highlight two American vintners who have served their wines multiple times at the White House.
Early wines from Europe
The book gives a brief overview of wine history and segues to the wines served by the presidents. George Washington was a “Madeira man,” and the early presidents adored their Madeira, Port, and sherry. Thomas Jefferson was the first to take a strong interest in wine, ordering a “pipe” or barrel of many fortified wines and other French classics such as Chateau Lafite and broadly wines from Germany, Italy, and Hungary. Jefferson encouraged Americans to buy French wines and also planted vines at Monticello, and encouraged American viticulture. The residence of the early leaders was the “President’s House” until Washington, D.C. White House opened as James Monroe’s presidency began in 1817.
Wine at the White House always reflects the social attitudes toward alcohol. The temperance movement of the 1840s and 1850s reflected President Zachary Taylor’s minimum order for wine. President Andrew Johnson, the first president, impeached, was a heavy drinker; yet the most recent president impeached was Donald Trump, who did not drink. Warren Harding was president during the beginning of Prohibition, but he was personally, as reported by Ryan, “anything but” against alcohol.
Though the records show that President Harrison visited California and ordered California sweet wine during his presidency in the late 1890s, the history of American wine in the White House gained speed in the 1960s. President Johnson held a record 53 state dinners and favored California wines, including those from Wente (Chardonnay, then called Pinot Chardonnay), Beaulieu Vineyards, and wines from New York State. However, Johnson’s most impactful wine dinner may have been for the Italian president in 1964 when he served Charles Krug wines from Napa. Aware that Charles Krug had been acquired by Cesare Mondavi, an Italian immigrant and run by his sons Robert and Peter, Johnson invited Robert Mondavi to the dinner. Mondavi’s wife wore a mink coat to the event, which Robert’s brother Peter considered an extravagant gesture. This conflict between the brothers resulted in Robert’s departure from Charles Krug and his launch of Robert Mondavi Winery, which helped jump-start Napa Valley’s fame.
But it was President Reagan who took command of showcasing California wine. He leaned on Sacramento retailer David Berkley, who knew the Reagans from his years as California Governor. Since the Reagans wanted to promote California wines specifically, Berkely became the unofficial, unpaid wine advisor to the White House.
California wines showcased
From the Reagan era, Napa wines such as Shafer Vineyards have been served at the White House. President George H. W. Bush served Shafer Hillside Select for Queen Elizabeth II on May 14, 1991. Doug Shafer confirmed to me that his late father John always honored a request from the White House not to actively market the service of their wine at the White House directly to the public. But the White House always sent them copies of the menu. Though neither Doug Shafer nor his father had participated in official dinners when their wine was served, Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez was an honoree at the White in 2003 as a leader in the Hispanic community.
David Berkley made a practice of selecting lesser-known wineries to be served at White House functions. At the famous Geneva meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985, Berkley chose Iron Horse Vineyards 1983 Blanc de Blancs—quite an interesting selection for a relatively unknown Sonoma County winery. From Joy Sterling’s perspective as the partner and CEO, the fame from the Geneva dinner was a turning point for the winery. “Iron Horse was so new. Our first vintage of bubbly was in 1980, so this honor completely changed the trajectory of the winery. All the historians agree that the two superpowers were poles apart until that moment when they were clinking glasses with Iron Horse sparkling wine. As you can imagine, since then, my family has taken complete credit for ending the Cold War,” said Sterling with a smile.
Sterling lists 14 times that Iron Horse wine has been served at the White House, spanning six consecutive presidential administrations. Of course, the official State Dinners are the most well-known events where wine is poured. Yet, the book also mentions the many luncheons and other events attended by the president domestically and internationally.
The State Department held a luncheon for Xi Jinping, hosted by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, which Sterling was invited to attend. “We were in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room. Ming Tsai was brought in as a special chef. The guest list was a Who’s Who in American diplomacy and business. It was an exhilarating experience.”
White House wine service
The White House food and beverage staff now includes professionally trained sommeliers who continue the practice set by Berkley of selecting wines from around the country, from Washington State to Michigan and accommodating the complex decisions around wine service at the White House. From decanters to glasses, everything is unique to the era and the personality of the Presidents.
In the chapter “The White House Collection,” Ryan depicts the gradual purchase of items from Europe to the U.S. Ordered from France, the first silver decanters were imprinted as the ‘President’s House’ since the White House was not built until James Monroe relocated there in 1818. Though he knew the Civil War was brewing, Lincoln specified his long-used, patriotic collection from Brooklyn to be adorned with the Presidential seal featuring a large eagle and shield, a part of his collection. Later. Stemware reflected styles from the art deco era of the 1930s to the gold-rimmed glasses that Trump rented.
Wine at the Biden White house is a bit of a mystery. This book was published in 2020 before the election that year. Though President Biden may not imbibe, we can surmise that wine continues to be offered at the highest level of service at the White House.
Feature photo: Watercolor print of White House place setting by Sarah Maycock – White House Historical Association