From Oregon to the Oval Office

Story by Mark Stock

On the eve of a transfer of power that will be written in bold on our country’s action-packed timeline, America’s newly elected leader was, quite possibly, sipping Oregon wine. For an administration built on change, the working class and the ousting of the Old Guard, it makes perfect sense.

Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse made the unusual request. The decorated, wine-adoring chef asked Willamette Valley-based Ponzi Vineyards for some of their 2007 Arneis, a rare white varietal originating in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. More unusual was that it was to be served to then President-Elect Barack Obama on Jan. 19, at an inauguration benefit dinner on Capitol Hill.

Only 662 cases of the ’07 Arneis were produced, crafted with whole clusters from fruit first planted in 1991 at Ponzi’s Aurora Vineyard. The next batch is due out this spring and, thanks to fairly limited production and certain Presidential interest, will no doubt be tough to find. “This is an incredible honor for our family,” remarked Maria Ponzi Fogelstrom, director of sales and marketing for the winery. “What a thrill to have our wine enjoyed at such a memorable time in our country’s history.”

Just as the political climate alternates between blues, reds, even purples, the wine world endures varying cycles of power and prominence. Perhaps the Okanagan region of Canada in the 2020s will be the Napa of the late 1970s. Or Cabernet Franc, the next Merlot. But for now, it is Oregon that is competing mightily for American wine dominance, at least among a few choice varietals. And the vigor of our vines has snagged the attention of our nation’s leaders.

There’s a long history of wine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. George Washington is rumored to have enjoyed both Claret and Muscat. Thomas Jefferson was a lover and collector of fine wines and even watched over a small vineyard at Monticello. Franklin Delano Roosevelt lifted America out of Prohibition, signing the Beer and Wine Revenue Act in 1933, a sort of call to arms for winemakers countrywide. The Kennedys liked Bordeaux. Nixon was tickled by reds, especially those from France and his home state of California. 

Barack Obama is no exception. He and wife Michelle are known to enjoy wine with meals on occasion. Taking into account his role as grassroots populist hero, one can’t imagine President Obama drinking much foreign wine. In fact, what one can imagine is the 44th President of the United States of America encouraging growth in the domestic wine scene. At stake are additional jobs in the form of agriculture, responsible, environment-minded land-use policy, green technology and methodology, and the general quality of American wine.

The number of Oregon wines poured for dignitaries by our Executive Estate is staggering, especially in light of the local industry’s relatively fresh face. A bottle of 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon from Jacksonville’s Valley View Winery kicked off Oregon’s many White House cellar cameos. Today’s supply is Pinot oriented—naturally—and subject to the capable hands of some of our country’s best culinary figures.

In 1995, as the Internet took off and Bill Clinton ruled the White House, Fiddlehead Cellars’ 1993 Pinot Noir was served alongside loin of lamb with pistachios, ginger and serrano. Baked sweet potatoes with dates, roasted onions and garlic as well as braised greens and bell peppers rounded out the pairing. Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso was the guest of honor that spring evening.

A White House dinner in the winter of 2006 matched Adelsheim’s 2004 Deglace Pinot Noir with lemon custard cake, coconut ice cream and blackberry-ginger sauce. Classical dancer Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theater of Harlem were the toasts of this formal gathering. Two years earlier, Domaine Serene’s 2000 Evenstad Reserve shared the menu with herbed lamb chops with tarragon and grain mustard sauce, new potato sauté, and squash with baby carrots and asparagus. The evening was devoted to the presentation of the National Promise of America Awards at the White House.

For the Prime Minister Abe of Japan in 2007, Archery Summit’s ’02 Estate Pinot Noir teamed up with petite roasted breast of duck, soft duck egg and crispy braised duck leg with shaved potato cakes and spring vegetables.

Part of the pairing, of course, is that of the food and the guest. With ingredients subject to religious ties and regional preferences, putting together a proper dinner is no picnic.

Engineering most of the many State meals—from chef to wine to diners—is Daniel Shanks of the Executive Branch’s Ushers Office. Considered the “Jeeves” of the White House, Shanks began his service career as the manager of Domaine Chandon restaurant in Napa Valley. He was plucked by the White House in 1995 to join a small staff of events architects. The crew is extremely educated in the ways of wine, paid not only to coordinate extravagant dinners but to find the perfect, most appropriate food and wine pairings.

Dinner menus continue to be hand-written at the White House, gracefully penned in calligraphy and stamped with the Presidential Seal. Many Oregon wineries have received copies of menus from meals past in which a wine of theirs was featured. Not for publicity, but very much a warm thank you, these menus are a bit like wine labels; works of art in themselves. 

The 20,000-bottle cellar Jefferson built and kept fully stocked no longer exists at the White House, but there’s plenty of suitable wine storage at the ready. About 500 to 600 bottles from all corners of the globe are kept on hand today. Impressing a foreign leader takes quite the wine, and Oregon ought to be proud of their many White House appearances.

It’s likely only the beginning. 
Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

Presidental Pours

We’ve put together a compendium of Oregon wines served by members of the First Family or the White House. The list is likely significantly lengthier, but our prodding—via email—yielded the following informative list:

Adelsheim Vineyard

1983 Yamhill County Pinot Noir: Served by the Reagans at a Governors’ banquet, 1986. 2004 Deglace: Served by the Bushes at a dinner honoring classical dancer Arthur Mitchell, 2006.

ArborBrook Vineyards

2006 Estate 777 Block Pinot Noir, 2007 Barrel-Fermented Pinot Gris, 2005 Sauternes-style Late Harvest Semillon: Served in gift boxes to the Obama family in Hawaii, 2008.

Archery Summit

1995 Vireton Pinot Noir: Served by the Clintons for the wives of representatives of the G-7 Conference/Denver Summit of the Eight, 1997; 2002 Estate Pinot Noir: Served by the Bushes for the Prime Minister of Japan, 2007.

Argyle Winery

1987 Brut Rosé: Served by the Clintons in their first state dinner, 1993. 2003 Brut Rosé: Served by the Bushes at a Special Olympics Tribute Dinner, 2006. 1999 Reserve Chardonnay: Served by the Bushes at the U.S. Governors’ Dinner, 2004.

Brooks Winery

2002 Maysara Late Harvest Riesling: Served by the Bushes at a dinner for the Kennedy Center Festival of China, 2005.

Cana’s Feast Winery

2002 Cuneo Sangiovese: Served by the Bushes at a luncheon, 2005.

Domaine Meriwether

Discovery Cuvée, Captain Clark Cuvée, Jefferson Prestige Cuvée: Served by the Bushes during the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, 2003.

Domaine Serene

2000 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir: Served by the Bushes at a formal dinner, 2004.

Elk Cove Vineyards

1992 La Bohème Pinot Noir: Served by the Clintons at a State dinner honoring Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, 1995.

Fiddlehead Cellars

1993 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Served by the Clintons for the President of Brazil, 1995

Firesteed Wines

Pinot Noir: Served as “House Red Wine” during Clinton Administration (1993–2000).

Foris Vineyards Winery

1994 Maple Ranch Pinot Noir: Served by the Clintons for the wives of representatives of the G-7 Conference/Denver Summit of the Eight, 1997.

Gypsy Dancer Estates

2006 Christine Lorraine Pinot Gris: Served by Laura Bush at a dinner for the spouses of the Supreme Court Justices.

Maysara Winery

2003 Autees Late Harvest Riesling: Served by the Bushes at a dinner for the Festival of China, 2005.

Pfeiffer Vineyards

2007 Blue Dot Reserve Pinot Noir: Served at a pre-inauguration dinner for Obama, 2009.

Ponzi Vineyards

2007 Arneis: Served at the Inauguration Dinner for President Obama and company, 2009.

Silvan Ridge

Semi-Sparkling Muscat: Served by the Clintons for the Italian heads of State, 1996.

Soléna Cellars

2004 Oregon Pinot Gris: Served by President Bush at a luncheon honoring the Honorable Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister of the Republic of Italy, 2005; served by the Bushes at a luncheon in honor of his Excellency the President of the European Commission and Mrs. Barroso, 2005; served by the Bushes at a special evening dinner on Valentine’s Day, 2006.

Valley View Winery

1985 Chardonnay, 1983 Merlot, 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon: Served during the Reagan Administration (1981–1988).

WillaKenzie Estate

1995 Estate Gamay Noir: Served by the Clintons at a taping of “In Performance” for PBS, 1997. 1999 Estate Pinot Gris: Served by the Clintons during the Holiday Reflections Concert, 2000; served by President Bush for Tony Blair at Camp David, 2001. 2006 Estate Pinot Blanc: Served by President Bush for French President Nicolas Sarkozy at Mount Vernon, 2007; served by Laura Bush for Cheri Blair, 2008; served by the Bushes, honoring Barbara Bush and the Maryland Celebration of Reading, 2008; served by Laura Bush for Mrs. Sylvia Gasparovicova, First Lady of the Slovak Republic, 2008.

Willamette Valley Vineyards

1999 Tualatin Estate Semi-Sparkling Muscat: Served by the Clintons at a dinner, 2000. 

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