Napa Vintners to Obama: Pick Me!

The race is on to get the new first family to pick a Napa wine

Saturday, Dec 6, 2008  |  Updated 7:22 AM PDT
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The race to get the Obama's to pick a Napa wine is on

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When People magazine reported seeing an unopened bottle of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay in the Obamas' kitchen, the California winery fired off a couple of cases to No. 44.

Just another gift? Hardly. Winning over the presidential palate is a big deal for the wine industry, leaving vintners -- and vinophiles -- curious about what's on tap for the next occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"The one thing that I know about them is that they're quite adventurous in their tastes," said Chef Rick Bayless, owner of the upscale Chicago restaurant Topolobampo where President-elect Barack Obama and wife Michelle have ordered from the well-regarded wine list.

Wine and the White House go back to No. 1, who tried his hand growing vines at his Mt. Vernon estate in Virginia.

But it was Thomas Jefferson who really embraced enology, building and stocking White House Cellars. He also introduced guests, not always successfully, to fine, dry vintages vs. the sweet, fortified wines then in vogue, said John Hailman, author of "Thomas Jefferson and Wine," and a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi.

Getting poured for a president is a thrill that doesn't fade, said Hugh Davies, president of the Schramsberg winery that moved from relative obscurity to the world stage when Nixon used its sparkling wine to toast Chinese Premier Chou En-lai in Beijing in 1972.

Davies was about 6 at the time, but he remembers the crackle of activity that followed the call as his older brother drove their dad, late winery founder Jack Davies, and 13 cases of wine from the Napa Valley to a nearby Air Force base.

Since then, Schramsberg has been served at a number of White House events, a tradition Davies hopes continues. In fact, he expressed himself willing to accept an inaugural invite

"I'll bring the wine."

Kendall-Jackson hasn't heard back about its shipment, which was sent care of the Democratic National Committee. But Lettie Teague, executive wine editor for the magazine Food & Wine, said K-J chardonnay seems a good choice for modern times -- popular and reasonably priced at around $11 a bottle.

She envisions a bipartisan presidential table graced with blue state reds and red state whites.

"As a New Yorker, I'd like to see some New York wines represented -- we were a huge state for him," she said with a laugh, suggesting a sauvignon blanc or cabernet from the North Fork region or a Finger Lakes Riesling. Other picks: a Washington state merlot, "because I feel they really do that grape well," a hearty California zinfandel and "to show that he is an all-inclusive sort, I would throw in a viognier from Texas."

Presidential tastes in wine have ebbed and flowed.

First Lady Lucy Hayes was known as "Lemonade Lucy" for the dry spell that was her husband's administration.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt disagreed over alcohol. She was teetotaler; he wasn't. They compromised by serving wine at state dinners -- but refilling the glasses slowly, writes historian William Seale in "The President's House: A History."

A policy of serving only U.S. wines goes back to the administration of Lyndon Johnson. That turned out to be a slight problem for French wine fan Richard Nixon who sometimes wrapped a napkin around his bottles to obscure their origins, Hailman said.

And then there is Jimmy Carter who didn't serve hard liquor at the White House, but did serve wine and went on to practice a family tradition of winemaking.

With a new administration moving in, Bayless expects change and a style of entertaining "much more up to date than it's been in a long time."

After all, the first time he noticed Obama in his restaurant the then-newly elected Illinois senator had "a really nice bottle of wine on the table," the chef recalled, "And I thought to myself, now this is somebody I want to get to know."

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