Jefferson had developed a keen knowledge of wine while ambassador to France, not only of French wines but those from Germany, Italy, Spain and Madeira. Presidents were not provided with expense accounts back in 1801, so Jefferson personally paid for building and filling the first White House wine cellar. Legend has it that he left enough bottles behind to fill the needs of his friend James Madison, who moved in as the country’s fourth president. Today, the White House does not lay down wines for aging but rather buys what it needs for a given occasion.
NOW YOU KNOW: It takes approximately 600 to 800 grapes to produce one bottle of wine.
Not all of our past presidents appreciated wine as much as Jefferson did. Abraham Lincoln was rarely seen with a drink. Rutherford B. Hayes banned all alcohol from the White House. William Howard Taft abstained completely. And other than a ceremonial sip for a toast, Dwight D. Eisenhower usually passed on wine at state affairs. Herbert Hoover is often credited with dubbing Prohibition the noble experiment. Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the other hand, is credited with giving wine lovers the ultimate gift: His administration repealed Prohibition in 1933. With it, a new era of American wine was born.
While Daniel Shanks’ work revolves entirely around wine and selecting wine and food pairings, his title is, oddly, Usher. The term dates back to the 1800s, a time when presidents still had to supply their own staff for the Executive Residence. Every new family moving into the White House quickly realized that the only ones who knew how to run the building — i.e., knew where things were and how life worked in the White House — were the staff who had served the previous president. And so many of them were kept on from one administration to the next. In the late 1830s, this indispensable group was formalized as the Usher’s Office. “We are akin to the great concierge services,” Shanks remarks, “the kind one hopes to experience in prestige lodgings where the task is to make life as enjoyable as possible in unusual circumstances.”
And where are circumstances more often unusual than in the White House?
EUNICE FRIED is a New York–based writer and the author of the award-winning book Burgundy: The Country, The Wines, The People.