White House or Wine House? The United States presidents’ favourite wines

by Nov 3, 2020News0 comments

Gerald Ford toasts with Queen Elizabeth II. Credit: White House Historical Association

Gerald Ford toasts with Queen Elizabeth II. Credit: White House Historical Association

Dear reader,

As we last updated this post (January 20, 2021), Joe Biden is the 46th American president, months after defeating incumbent president Donald Trump. United States issues and political preferences aside, our main issue here, as you know by now, is wine.

So why not make an overlook of the favourite wines of the American presidents throughout time, from Washington to Trump?

I’m Breno, head of content at Alti Wine Exchange. Let’s dig into the history of wine among the U.S. presidents.

What are the preferred wines of the American presidents?

From George Washington’s love of Madeira, to Thomas Jefferson’s French adorations, to JFK and Nixon’s respective appreciation of Champagne and Bordeaux, to the later promotion of American wines for state dinners, there’s much to discover on what the most powerful men in the world enjoyed having.

Thanks to this seemingly never-ending election and also to Wine Enthusiast’s recent account, we were inspired by Fred Ryan’s new book Wine and the White House: A History to show you a glimpse of this centuries-old history.

 

Credit: Wine Enthuasiat, Instagram

Credit: Wine Enthuasiat, Instagram

 

Luxury to the brink of bankruptcy

The Wine House (sorry for the pun), or White House, has been home to the tradition of wines ever since Thomas Jefferson moved in, in 1801. Literally: Jefferson built a wine cellar under what today is the West Wing, in a certain house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

After years living in France as U.S. ambassador, the third American president became famous for his consumption and imports of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhône – to the point of, by the end of his life, he nearly went bankrupt for purchasing so many expensive wines.

Madeira enthusiasts

But even if the president who years before had drafted the Declaration of Independence and used to toast over a few (three or four) nightly glasses made history in making the White House a nearly sanctuary for wine, no one other than George Washington, the first U.S. president, was also a big fan.

It is well-known that Washington was an enthusiast of Madeira, commissioning casks of the fortified wine from the Portuguese Atlantic island for aides and confidants — and celebrating the Declaration of Independence over a toast of it. His successor, John Adams, and other subsequent leaders, such as John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan, were all also very fond of this Portuguese delicacy.

Bypassing Prohibition

The drinking habits of US presidents have been widely documented throughout the centuries, and among them, wine has been a personal favourite of many.

Woodrow Wilson’s bottles survived Prohibition

Woodrow Wilson’s bottles survived Prohibition

While James Madison was known to be a Champagne-loving president, James Monroe was nearly engulfed in a scandal after 1,200 bottles of Burgundy and Champagne were charged to an account that Congress had separated for furniture for the presidency.

Calvin Coolidge, instead, wasn’t much of a drinker, but enjoyed Hungarian sweet beauty Tokaji.

(A note: arguably one of the most celebrated US presidents, Abraham Lincoln was a very seldom drinker.)

Herbert Hoover had a wine collection that went to the drain with Prohibition – grudgingly presided over by Woodrow Wilson, who was staunchly against the Congressional decision to enforce this dry period. Wilson is said to have been was able to bypass the law and take his wine collection to his post-presidential residence.

A 007-inspired JFK

Frank Sinatra and JFK enjoyed wine and talks (GAB Archive)

Frank Sinatra and JFK enjoyed wine and talks (GAB Archive)

John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline (Jackie) were French enthusiasts in many aspects. Champagne, among them. While Jackie had Veuve Clicquot as her favourite, JFK, appreciated Dom Pérignon thanks to early James Bond films. Inspired by the great late Sean Connery’s 007 role starting with Dr. No, Kennedy started serving the bubbly to other world leaders in his famously fancy state dinners, with different wines served throughout the courses.

(Curiously, Ryan reports how JFK, in 1961, served a 1953 Mouton-Rothschild to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev before screening him ‘From Russia with Love’ later on.)

 

They called him ‘Tricky Dick’

nixon+toast+wine.jpgInfamously known as Tricky Dick for the scandals that plagued his two-term-cut-short presidency, Richard Nixon was a Bordeaux fan. While the embattled president would have Château Margaux or Château Lafite Rothschild poured for him, his dinner guests unknowingly received more ordinary wines (wrapped in towels so they wouldn’t see their label), according to Ryan.

“Over the years the practice became known as ‘pulling a Nixon’”, he writes, as per Wine Enthusiast’s account. Wow.

America (wine) first

obama trump wine.jpg

In spite of nearly never drinking, Jimmy Carter would go “America First” in terms of starting to serve mostly U.S. wines at the White House.

Californian Ronald Reagan, who Ryan worked closely with, is praised by him for having promoted the California wine industry as president (but, personally, with a soft spot for Bordeaux).

Bill Clinton (a fan of the curious cider-lager mix known as snakebite), George W. Bush (in spite of having quit drinking many years before), and Barack Obama (a beer fan) continued the policy of preferably serving American wines, betting on Napa Valley, Sonoma and Oregon’s produce.

Trump vs. Biden: out of the few in common, teetotalism

The 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, instead has his own winery, led by son Eric in a Virginia estate.

Speaking of politics, it is hard you will find anything that bonds Trump and his successor, Joe Biden. However, both are fairly known for being teetotalers because of the struggles lived in their families.

As the New York Times reports, Trump has repeatedly mentioned over the years how he witnessed his brother Fred’s struggle with alcoholism, which would eventually cost his life. While he every now and then toasts with wine, his famously preferred drink is Diet Coke.

Biden, instead, has frequently spoken about alcoholism and addiction in his family, saying this potentially genetic compound made him stay away from alcohol.

***

Politics aside, wine is already part of the White House traditions. Let’s see what the future brings.

Until next time!

 


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