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Presidents’ Day – White House Wines

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In honor of Presidents’ Day today, here’s a fantastic story by Dick Rosano – “Wine Service in the White House” – from Wine News.  Read about how wine service has changed throughout presidencies in the White House!

Wine Service in The President’s House – By Dick Rosano

The guard is changing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and as the new administration settles in, all eyes will again be focused on The White House. It is an auspicious time for our nation’s most storied residence, which celebrated its bicentennial in November. Not only will the new president bring his own vision and policies to the 200-year-old estate, but his personal sense of style will influence the manner in which visitors and dignitaries are entertained.The President’s House, as The White House was known in 1800, was designed under the direction of George Washington (although he never slept there) to showcase the majesty of the new republic. It was expected to look and function like an imperial residence, entertaining visiting dignitaries in lavish fashion and dazzling citizens with its grandeur. Parties were expected to feature the best food and the finest wine, and it was hoped that guests would leave with unforgettable memories of their time spent in the company of America’s First Family.

Over the course of two centuries, the house has changed greatly, but its role has not. An invitation to a White House social event still holds the promise of exquisite cuisine and superb hospitality. For White House officials, however, modern-day state functions present even greater social and political challenges.

In less lofty settings, hosts generally choose the wine they serve based on its affinity for the food on the menu. But protocol prevents The White House from being so straightforward. Wines chosen for service at state dinners must pass tests more exacting than those of the palate – given the difficulties and potential pitfalls of catering to kings, queens, ambassadors and the occasional emperor.

When planning the menu pairings, the guest of honor’s religious affiliation, cultural traditions and dietary habits are considered. And because only American wines are served at official White House functions, selecting a bottling that both accommodates the menu and honors the guest is what turns the otherwise simple process of wine pairing into an affair of state.

The challenge is managed by a small staff of experts inside and outside The White House. Presently, three men jointly plan the menus for the many state functions held at The White House every year.

“With the range of wines we have in our national cornucopia,” says Daniel Shanks, who was hired in 1995 to serve as The White House’s assistant usher, “we can satisfy any set of circumstances.”

Because it is imperative not to embarrass a visiting dignitary, sometimes the perfect match must be sacrificed in favor of making the politically correct pairing. Shanks, who was formerly the manager at Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon restaurant, must therefore carefully tiptoe through the minefield of potential wine choices that might suggest a slight or insult. A wine made from a grape with a certain geographic heritage, for example, or one made by someone with a particular ethnic background, might be interpreted as an intentional comment about the guest’s politics. Imagine the repercussions were a California “Champagne” served to a French diplomat? In The White House, such gaffes would be more damaging than serving a corked wine, and must be avoided at all costs.

Wine service at The White House did not always cater so strictly to guests. For many years, it was selected to suit the wine tastes of the sitting president.

Washington’s plan for The President’s House was grand, with its Palladian architecture and Empire furniture. Its floor plan closely resembled that of his beloved Mt. Vernon, but he did not live to see the mansion completed. Washington left office in 1797 and died two years later. The first president to sleep under its roof was his successor, John Adams, who moved in November 1, 1800, in the waning days of his single term. He and his wife, Abigail, had little time for the niceties of entertaining, however. Like most of the buildings surrounding it, the mansion was raw and unfinished – the East Room was even used by Mrs. Adams for hanging the family laundry up to dry.

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