When British Prime Minister David Cameron visits President Barack Obama this week, one detail may stay bottled up: the labels on the wines the White House pours at the state dinner tomorrow night.
For Obama’s first three state dinners, honoring the leaders of India, Mexico and China, the White House released the name, year and appellation of wines — all-American — paired with each course.
Part of a tradition observed by previous presidents, including George W. Bush, that disclosure stopped after Obama’s dinner last year for Chinese President Hu Jintao. One of the wines served on Jan. 19, 2011, was a top-rated 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state that originally sold for $115 a bottle and went for as much as $399 by the time of the dinner. The price the White House paid per bottle was not made public.
At the next state dinner, on June 7, 2011, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the menu made public by the White House didn’t include details on the wines.
“An American wine will be paired with each course,” stated a note at the bottom of the menu released by the White House. So went as well the menu released for the Korean State Dinner honoring President Lee Myung-Bak on Oct. 13, 2011.
Tyler Colman, who writes the Dr. Vino wine blog and teaches at New York University, said in an interview that the shift in menu protocol may reflect political considerations given the sluggish U.S. economy.
“They’re probably sensitive to displays of wealth at a time when the economy is not firing on all cylinders,” said Colman, whose blog had noted the absence of wines on the German state dinner menu the White House released.
Still, keeping the wine list under wraps undercuts promotion of U.S. winemakers at a time when markets in developing nations such as China have potential to be “really hot” for U.S. labels because of the rising middle- and upper- income classes, he said.
A state dinner “isn’t a picnic or casual get-together,” and it’s justifiable from diplomatic and trade standpoints for the White House to spend money to showcase fine American wines, Colman said.
Dorothy Gaiter, wine and food editor for the quarterly France Magazine and a former wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said Obama was private about his wine preferences before his election.
‘Good for America’
If the Obama White House has decided to stop publicizing which American wines are served at official events, she said, “I don’t understand this. It’s good for America.”
Rick Small is co-owner of the Woodward Canyon winery in Lowden, Washington, whose 2009 Chardonnay was among the wines poured for the German dinner.
He and his wife noticed the shift because they had gotten billing on the menu when their wine was served at a Clinton administration dinner. He said he didn’t know why the practice was changed and that it probably does help the industry overall to have U.S. wines publicized by name.
At the same time, Small said, it’s an honor to be chosen at all. “You’re not going to get pushy about it since they picked your wine,” he said.
The White House declined to comment for this article or to make available Daniel Shanks, the usher who has managed wine selection since the Clinton administration, or social secretary Jeremy Bernard. First Lady Michelle Obama’s office referred questions to the White House press office.