There’s no place more appropriate than the WHITE HOUSE to raise a glass of American wine.
“I love what we do. We labor in obscurity, and that’s a good thing. Being placed out in front is not our purpose.” What Daniel Shanks does in obscurity is choose the wines served at the White House. He has been doing the job since February 1995, when he was brought from California’s Napa Valley — where he was manager of the Domaine Chandon winery’s restaurant — to Washington, D.C., during the Clinton administration. And while presidents have come and gone, Shanks has remained, introducing the ever-widening array of American wines to White House guests at state dinners and receptions.
It wasn’t always American wines in the White House, though. For much of its history, guests drank mostly French selections, with a trickle of varieties from other European countries. The Kennedys preferred Bordeaux. So did Richard Nixon, with his favorite said to be Château Margaux. It was Jimmy Carter who declared that only American wines should be served in America’s national home. And so it has been ever since. That was fine with Ronald Reagan: He had lived in California for more than 40 years, having been governor of the state, and he claimed California wines as his favorites.
Before White House wines became exclusively American, Jacqueline Kennedy saw to it that the glasses they were poured in were made in America. Until that point, White House glassware usually came from Europe and was made in a heavy, cut-glass European style. But after Jackie saw the crystal glasses used at The Carlton Hotel in New York, she contacted the company that produced them, Morgantown Glass in Morgantown, W.Va., and asked for a selection of sample glasses. From them, she chose a clean-lined, elegant pattern called Winelovers’ Glassware and ordered 50 dozen each of white- and red-wine glasses, champagne flutes, water goblets and finger bowls. It was the first non-cut crystal used as the official pattern in the White House, and Morgantown Glass quickly renamed the pattern The President’s House. While the glass company no longer exists, the pattern is still available through replacement companies, and the White House still uses the Kennedy glassware for smaller formal seated services.
Not long ago, relatively few American states made wines worthy of pouring into the president’s glass. Today, Shanks, a soft-spoken, discreet man, feels he can find good wines in about 18 to 22 states. Even in areas rarely thought of as wine producers, “there are usually at least one or two wineries with the talent and dedication to make good wines,” he says. Shanks has served wines from Arizona, Idaho and Massachusetts, among other states, at White House functions. “They showcase the immeasurable breadth of our country’s wine industry.”
If a nearby distributor can’t supply the wine he wants, Shanks goes directly to the wineries, many of which are quite small and little-known. “We pay wholesale for all our wines; we also pay for shipment if I order directly from the winery,” he says. But doesn’t the White House receive donations and samples? It would if it were allowed — but it’s not. “We don’t solicit them for many reasons,” Shanks explains. “First is the security implications. Second would be the sheer volume of wines we would have to handle. Each wine would deserve to be respected and tasted. Third is the fact that most of our events are receptions. The number of services where we select a specific pairing of food and wine is fewer than most people expect.”