The most powerful person on earth has a pretty puny wine cellar.
President Obama, who commands more than a million troops, can launch nuclear weapons, has his own 747 and a battalion of Secret Service agents, has to make do with a wine cellar that is the “size of a walk-in closet”.
Neither the White House nor the official sommelier would return phone calls or emails seeking to determine the exact size of the cellar and what it held. But a reliable source, Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, has visited it a few times.
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“So I can tell you it’s the size of a small walk-in closet,” she said. “They have JIT (Just in Time) inventory ... They have to as they have way too many events to particularly cellar anything.”
The Obama administration broke with the tradition of releasing the full state dinner menu after it received a lot of flak over a 2011 feast for China’s leader Hu Jintao. He was treated to 2008 DuMol Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($60), 2005 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($317) and 2008 Poet’s Leap Botrytis Riesling ($95).
Some, including a number of congressmen who weren’t invited, complained about the cost. Since then, the Obamas have been about as forthcoming on the wines served at state dinners as teenagers are about sharing their Instagram messages with their parents.
When the first couple did break their own rule in February, announcing the wines they would serve to French President François Hollande, some conservatives in the media slammed Obama for serving three “cheap” wines: Morlet “La Proportion Doree” 2011 ($60), Chester-Kidder Red Blend 2009 ($52) and Thibaut-Janisson “Blanc de Chardonnay” ($30) to accompany a meal in which American caviar and dry-aged beef played central roles.
For the record, the White House sommelier chooses the wines served, usually in consultation with the first lady. The White House pays for them, but gets the wholesale price. Politics, diplomacy, and policy play major roles in the selection. Only three wines are served these days as the actual dinner usually lasts less than an hour.
Back at the turn of the 19th Century, Thomas Jefferson built a proper cellar under what is now the West Wing to hold some of the 20,000 bottles he had collected during his ambassadorship in France. Dinners that began late in the afternoon lasted well into the evening and it was not unusual for eight to 12 wines to be served.
As for today’s paltry wine pantry, many blame Prohibition – that period between 1920-1933 when alcoholic beverages could not generally be legally produced, transported or consumed in the U.S. President Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, did not believe in Prohibition, but still did not serve alcohol to White House guests in public or private.
It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover and Prohibition was repealed that wine – and whisky – returned. Roosevelt was known to be partial to Scotch and also dry martinis. Jefferson’s cellar had been re-purposed by then, and a pantry just off the kitchen became the wine cellar.
Jimmy Carter, who after leaving office became a vintner, is credited with decreeing that only American wines should be served at the White House. Ronald Reagan – a former governor of California – was only too happy to continue the tradition. Reagan’s deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver, a fellow Californian, was unaware of the pantry wine cellar. So, tucked away in a corner closet of his office, Deaver kept about two dozen bottles including '79 Grgich Hill, '79 Jordan, '80 Sterling and '80 Silkwood, which both the president and he would sample regularly.
When he did find out about the tiny official cellar, Deaver shrugged off building a better one. "Why," he asked a reporter, "do you need a wine cellar when I can call up and get a wine here within six to eight hours if I have to? We already have the best of America available to us."
Daniel Shanks, the White House sommelier, who has held the official title of assistant usher for food and beverage since the Clintons were in the White House, did not return calls or emails for this story. But he did write an undated article for the White House Historical Association in which he discussed how he chooses wines for the various occasions.
He prefers to serve aromatic wines with youth and vigor “that carry a strong impression of their presence, yet balance and purity on the palate,” for state dinners where meals are not the primary focus of the evening. Shanks cited Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, Viognier, Riesling and Pinot Gris as having a "wine presence" above the glass.
The first course wine is almost always a white wine and "has to withstand the vagaries of schedules, because it is poured before the guests enter the dining room." Shanks writes. As for diplomacy, he researches what was served the last time a head of state visited and tries to feature winemakers from that country, who have established U.S. wineries.
As for whether a president is a spendthrift or a cheapskate, Shanks writes: "We at the White House are given a public trust that we will be prudent in executing our duties. Many of us in the profession learned long ago that, in wine, high prices do not guarantee high enjoyment. For that reason some 'trophy wines' may never appear on the president’s table."
If it can give any comfort to the Obamas, John F. Kennedy also received criticism about his entertaining. Nine days after his inauguration, the Kennedys gave their first official reception. It was the first time anyone could remember that a bar had been placed in the state dining room, another in the East Room, and butlers were mixing martinis and pouring vodka, Scotch, bourbon and Champagne for guests.
“The next morning the papers screamed ‘Liquor in the White House’, ‘Bars in the White House.’ Nobody talked about anything else. This was the whole news,” Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary Letitia Baldridge recalled. “And the WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union) and every Baptist Belt congressman started complaining.”