Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spinning the Political Wine Bottle: Should Price Matter?

Hollande's Arrival
French President Hollande
Last week, President Obama was taken to task for serving French President Francois Hollande “cheap” wines at a state dinner.

A Toast
The American wines served were reasonably priced for a total of $125 for all three bottles. Considering that the entire evening came in around $500,000 – I would think that at least the American public (barring wine snobs) was glad the wine didn’t add too much to the already expensive, but typical price tag.

Dining Inside the White House
The Menu
In fact, most state dinners cost from $200,00 to $600,000, and Congress appropriates the money. Insiders say that the food and wine are not the most expensive components. That would be the venue, if held outside, decorating, and the entertainment. A guest list of 134 is standard for dinners held in the White House, but for dinner with the French president, held outside in a heated tent, 350 were invited.

Hu Jinato
Columbia Valley Cab
The White House has been reluctant to release the names and vintages of the wines served at such dinners for over two years. In 2011, the wine served for a dinner with then Chinese President Hu Jinato, a 2005 Ouilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, came in at $115 upon release and was fetching upward of $400 in the retail market by the time the dinner was held.  (The Cabernet had just received a 100-point rating from Robert Parker – hence the skyrocketing price point.)

But last week’s offerings were much more palatable, price-wise, with the most expensive vino coming in around $45 - $60 a bottle. And all of the wines served had exceptional wine scores, so quality doesn’t appear to have been compromised, as some have suggested.

La Proportion Doree
Luc Morlet
The wines served to President Hollande included a 2011 Morlet Family Vineyards
 “La Proportion Doree” from Napa Valley. This Bordeaux-style blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle was crafted by Luc Morlet, who grew up in Avenay-Val d’Or, France as a fourth generation winemaker. Morlet worked for vineyards and wineries in the south of France before moving to the U.S. in 1996. The Bordeaux blend retails between $45 and $60 a bottle and has a 95-point wine rating from Robert Parker. It was served with a winter garden salad of petite radishes and baby carrots on a bed of lettuce with a red wine vinaigrette.

Gilles Nicault
The second wine poured that evening was a 2009 Long Shadows Chester-Kidder Red Blend from Washington State. Winemaker Gilles Nicault was raised in southern France and worked at several French wineries before moving to Washington State in 1994. Nicault’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah has been awarded 92 points from Wine Advocate, and retails around $50 a bottle. It was served with dry-aged beef from Colorado, and blue cheese, charred shallots, oyster mushrooms and braised chard.

Claude Thibaut
Manuel Jannison
And the third bottle of wine was a non-vintage Thibaut-Jannison “Blanc de Chardonnay”, a sparkling wine from Charlottesville, Virginia that averages 89.2 points. Claude Thibaut and Manuel Jannison, both Frenchmen from Champagne-Ardenne, created the wine. It was served with the American Osetra caviar farmed in Illinois, quail eggs from Pennsylvania, and a dozen varieties of potatoes from Idaho, New York and California.

Blanc de Chardonnay
The Blanc de Chardonnay is considered one of the best sparkles in the country and has been served at the Obama White House since 2009. And, as an additional tie-in, Obama and Hollande had toured Monticello, the Charlottesville home of President Jefferson, a U.S. envoy to France, on Monday.
French Flag

White House staff said that all of the wines selected had a connection to France and were selected because of that symbolic gesture, not as a desire to be “cheap.” 

Preparing a White House Meal

All in all, it is good to see that the White House actually took the initiative to reduce the prices of the wines poured, and found a French connection with each of the vinos, too. While more expensive wines may make some feel that we are treating our foreign guests “royally”, a modest price should not influence the inclusion or exclusion of a wine. Quality should be what matters, and if a quality wine is available for a more reasonable price, then why not serve it?

State Dinner
After all, the purpose of these state dinners are to renew connections with our allies, and build diplomatic ties, not as food and wine judging competitions between countries. 

If a wine can score 90 points or above amid our myriad of wine rating agencies and critics, then why is it not appropriate to serve to heads of state?

Put another way: if this is a quality wine the average American can afford and would buy for a special meal– then why not serve it to the guests of our country, just as we would serve it to the guests in our homes? Then they can experience a true taste of what America drinks!

White House at Night
Now, if only the White House will work to reduce the price tag by keeping the guest list smaller so the dinners can be held inside…

~ Joy