Wine and the White House – Lessons in Diplomacy

President Grant State dinner illustration

We could all use a glass of wine, or three, waiting for this year’s election, but have you ever considered what White House residents uncork once they’ve settled in? Turns out most Presidents have a penchant for fine wine.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr.’s Wine and the White House – A History is a lively, historical romp through the Presidential cellars and the traditions that have evolved to make wine an influential part of White House culture. Thomas Jefferson’s well-documented passion for French vintages may have set the stage—and the table—for a legacy of White House entertaining and multiple-course dinners, yet each President since Washington has recognized wine’s intrinsic value when it comes to diplomacy and creating an atmosphere that puts guests at ease. Presidents from Adams to FDR, Kennedy to Clinton, and even those who have abstained, have raised a glass (or in the case of Benjamin Harrison’s inauguration dinner, thirteen) to dignitaries, royals, and celebrity guests filled with wines to suit their tastes as well as the political needs of the occasion.

cover of Wine and the White House book

Ryan, an aficionado of both wine and White House history, gives readers insight into the personal relationship each President has had with wine through letters and notes punctuated with historic images and rare ephemera. Rich with photographs of State Dinners, receptions, holiday celebrations, and intimate gatherings, the book provides an unprecedented look at historic hospitality and the accompanying pomp and circumstance. Ryan shares candid moments in a section of the book devoted to Presidential toasts honoring distinguished guests, including President Nixon’s toast to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1972, and President Clinton’s toast on the eve of the Millennium (which included three toasts, including one to Hillary).

President Gerald Ford holding a glass to toast Queen Elizabeth II
President Gerald Ford shares a toast with Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the 1776 American Bicentennial.

Selecting wines for White House functions was never an easy task. In Wine and the White House Ryan provides an insider’s perspective on the complicated process of selecting, acquiring, storing, and serving wine in the White House. A first-hand account of the intricacies comes in the form of an essay by Daniel Shanks, who served as the first White House Food and Beverage Usher since 1995, as well as musings and reflections by First Ladies, service staff, and social secretaries who were often tasked with aspects of the decision making.

invitation from President Truman for dinner with Churchill, with handwritten notes
Handwritten notes on the menu (note the Scotch martini) for a dinner honoring former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during Harry S. Truman’s presidency.

Wines from Europe’s top regions—French Burgundy and Bordeaux, German Riesling, Italian Soave, Spanish Madeira, and fine Portos—were favored during early administrations, as were wines from Virginia, selected to showcase American viniculture and regional dishes. Many Presidents have included wines from their home state (or that of their guests) in the rotation, hence the Virginian wines and bottles from Michigan, Texas, and even Arizona (a tribute to retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor). California wines, mainly Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Blanc de Blancs, and those from New York’s Gold Seal, Taylor, and Great Western wineries were popular choices during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and remained on White House menus for decades.

dinner at teh WHite House with LB Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson with guests at a State Dinner honoring the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1967.

When the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting catapulted the reputation of California wines around the globe, the White House took note, and California wines soon topped the list—as they still do. Noted oenophile and California native Ronald Reagan chose the finest Napa Valley vintages during his presidency, never serving wines from the same vineyard more than three times. His favorite bottles were flown in for Embassy events he hosted abroad.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush, Sr. initiated “American Wine Week” at the White House which eventually led to the “America only” wine policy in place today. But, as Ryan points out, the policy has proven to be challenging, especially when the White House is entertaining leaders from other major wine-producing countries. The Reagan administration came up with a diplomatic solution to address this dilemma when hosting the French Prime Minister by selecting a wine that represented the best of both countries. For this occasion, a bottle of Opus One, a partnership of France’s renowned Baron de Rothschild and Napa visionary Robert Mondavi, was uncorked, and a potential faux pas was averted. The seemingly simple solution of selecting a wine that connects the U.S. with the visitor’s country is still put into practice today, most recently by Melania Trump when hosting the current French President and his wife.

Over the decades, vintages from most all wine-producing states in the U.S. have made their way to the table, including those from Oregon, Washington, and New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island regions. Notably, Long Island’s Wolffer 2012 Estate Noblesse Oblige Sparkling Rosé was served by President Obama at a dinner honoring the Prime Minister of Singapore.

In Wine and the White House history buffs will feast their eyes on the rare historic ephemera and vintage photographs. Menu cards, bills of sale, vintage bottles, labels, and handwritten notes from White House wine specialists (and even some Presidents) are woven throughout the pages. Lush new photography chronicles the White House collection of glassware, decanters, and service pieces, among them, the massive 700-piece set ordered by President Pierce after a visit to New York’s Crystal Palace Exhibition; and special stems designed to reflect the architecture of the Federal Building produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

closeup of Libbey wine Glass from the 1939 World's Fair
The Libbey Glass Company fashioned a set of “Embassy” glassware to reflect the Federal Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Wine enthusiasts will appreciate reviews of grape varietals and reflections from renowned winemakers around the world whose iconic wines have long graced White House tables. For those looking for an at-a-glance list of wines served during each Administration, there is a complete chronology of every bottle poured at a White House event since World War II.

Wine and the White HouseA History provides a staffer’s view inside the walls of the White House. Not just about wine, history, or White House residents, Wine and the White House serves up a lesson in good taste and delicate diplomacy. While no President can put a value on hospitality, when it comes to defining good statesmanship and breaking down social barriers, Ryan skillfully demonstrates that a glass of fine wine is worth every sip.


About the author: Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., is publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. He served in a senior staff position in the Ronald Reagan White House and as Reagan’s post presidential chief of staff. Ryan currently serves as chair of the Board of Directors of the White House Historical Association, of the Board of Trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, and of the Wine Committee of the Metropolitan Club of Washington, D.C.

Wine and the White House – A History
Frederick J. Ryan, Jr.
The White House Historical Association
Hardcover: $ 55.00 US
Pre-order a copy here

Header: Butlers refill wine glasses at a dinner hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1871.

Know Before You Go: What to Expect When You Visit a Tasting Room Now

For the first time, things are looking up since the COVID-19 crisis put New York State on “pause”. Now that virtually all regions have met the criteria allowing limited capacity re-openings, the local wine and craft beverage industry is once again bubbling with optimism. Plans to welcome visitors—even from six feet away—are in place.

From the onset, wine and craft beverage operations throughout the State were deemed “essential businesses,” meaning that people could still purchase alcohol. Consumer support for local businesses was overwhelming. For many stuck at home, curbside pickup, virtual tastings, online offers and attractive delivery options filled the void of a tasting room visit. In the wine industry alone, direct-to-consumer shipping offset nearly 70% of the revenue lost in the tasting room, and e-commerce sales surged an incredible 291%, according to WineAmerica’s winery survey during the March pandemic peak.

But in the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.The State’s multi-phased re-opening plan puts wine and craft beverage businesses in the same category as restaurants, which means outdoor spaces are allowed to open in Phase 2. In Phase 3, indoor tasting rooms get the green light. Just because businesses are allowed to open, however, doesn’t mean that they are required to. Business owners decide when, and how, they will let customers back in their tasting rooms.

In the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.

During the wait, many businesses have been keeping customers engaged in other ways. At Awestruck, cider makers in Delaware County, staff has been posting weekly live videos on social media to tell fans about their new cider flavors. “We pride ourselves on letting the liquid speak for itself, so we’ve tried to be as descriptive as possible,” says market manager Jessica Hubbard.

And, like the team at Awestruck, many business owners have been planning a safe re-opening strategy for months. Fortunately, Cornell University’s Craft Beverage Institute and a team of Cooperative Extension agents are providing clear, safe guidance.

Cornell developed a set of “best practice” protocols for tasting rooms in the State, incorporating recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), federal, state, and county governments, the State Liquor Authority, and organizations like the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. With groundwork laid out by the California Wine Industry, Cornell’s comprehensive guidelines are focused on ways to keep local craft beverage tasting rooms, indoors or out, open for the long term.

For business owners, taking common sense precautions means putting measures in place that not only protect their staff, but that will also allow visitors to have an enjoyable time. “We will be reducing our seating inside the taproom once we are able to re-open,” says Hubbard, “but we’ve added an abundance of outdoor seating so we can ensure our customers’ safety, as well as that of our amazing team.”

For consumers, the new practices may take a little getting used to. Visiting might entail making reservations in advance, entering and exiting through a different door, and following directional and traffic flow signs. Tastings might be timed. And certainly, limiting group sizes, social distancing, and wearing a face covering will become the status quo.

“It’s going to be challenging for wineries to train their staff on safety protocols and insure that visitors are practicing social distancing while at their establishment, says Jude DeFalco, Operations Manager of the Shawangunk Wine Trail, “but our wineries are excited to be re-opening and welcoming back their visitors.”

What is clear is that there won’t be any bands, private events, or group tours for a while yet. Until there is adequate testing, contact tracing, or a COVID-19 vaccine, visitors may be asked to confirm that they understand and will cooperate with the new practices, or may even be asked to sign a waiver. All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.

All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.

For those hesitant about visiting just yet, the New York State Liquor Authority is allowing the current practice of selling wine, spirits, beer and mixed drinks for takeout and delivery to continue for now, so supporting local producers is still possible. To find their latest offers, visit our Curbside Pickup & Delivery Guide.

For those eager to get back to enjoying a flight with friends in a tasting room, or walking through a vineyard with a glass in hand, keep in mind that State and local restrictions will continue to loosen as the Covid-19 crisis lessens. By following the protocols now, Phase 4 (the last step in the re-opening plan) may not be that far off.

“We will see things really pick up as we enter Phases 3 and 4,” adds DeFalco, “people are anxious to get out and see their friends.”

Businesses are just as eager to get back to some semblance of normal. “We are very excited to re-open,” exclaims Hubbard, “and so appreciative of our community’s support. We look forward to welcoming everyone back to our taproom soon!”

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine.