The Grape Vine: A Brief History of Wine in the White House
By Gina Trippi
Wine in the White House dates back to Thomas Jefferson who, having become accustomed to French wine on his diplomatic missions to France, built a wine cellar under the West Wing to store up to 20,000 bottles! Ordering wine by the barrel from Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal and serving four to six wines with dinner daily, he racked up a $10,000 bill for his eight years in the White House (1801–1809).
After Jefferson’s administration, the cellar hit hard times. Hard liquor was the alcoholic beverage of choice for decades. By the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, with his preference for martinis, Jefferson’s cellar had been repurposed and wine was stored in the pantry.
Through the Kennedy administration, French wines were still served at official dinners. The menu for a 1961 luncheon to honor Princess Grace included Dom Pérignon and Puligny-Montrachet. It was Lyndon Johnson, according to Bloomberg News, who decreed only American wines should be served in the White House. By the time Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the California wine industry was taking off. While only serving American wines at official dinners, Nixon preferred Bordeaux when dining with family. He started his own tradition, serving Schramsberg’s Blanc de Blanc for his “Toast to Peace” in 1972 with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai. Schramsberg sparkling wines have been served at official state functions by every president since.
Just before Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, Chateau Montelena from California won a tasting in Paris, putting Napa Valley forever on the wine making map. Few knew that Carter was a winemaker himself! Wine Spectator reports that his grandfather had worked 15 acres of grapes in Georgia and Carter had been making wine from the family recipe for years.
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, the tradition of serving American wines was “rigorously enforced” according to Daniel Shanks, a sommelier from Napa Valley later hired to be Usher of Food and Beverage for President Bill Clinton, a position Daniel still holds. During the Reagan administration, the White House cellar grew to include California wines, like those from Grgich Hills and Stag’s Leap.
Most Americans, however, still considered European wines to be the standard when Clinton became president. Daniel says Clinton—who served Gruet and Roderer Estate, wines that are still in rotation at the White House today—was determined to promote the quality of American wines.
Today the White House plans themed dinners that connect foreign dignitaries and guests with the American experience. Daniel said the White House recently served a Greek Delegation wines from Topolos and Lolonis, California wineries started by Greek immigrants.
And it’s not just California wines on the table. Daniel says he has served wines from “19 or 20 states, Idaho to Pennsylvania, North Carolina to Massachusetts”—including Biltmore’s Blanc de Blanc.
But as much as we focus on the wines at the White House, Daniel says the guests are really focused “on one thing—the President.”
Gina Trippi is the co-owner of Metro Wines, 169 Charlotte Street in Asheville. Committed to the community, Metro Wines offers big-shop selection with small-shop service. Gina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.575.9525.