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February 23, 2012

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The power of wine diplomacy

AFTER helping to arrange and host thousands of wine dinners in China and the region over the past two decades, I can really appreciate the challenge of selecting and serving wines for important occasions. Perhaps no occasion is more challenging than a state dinner for world leaders. Quality, performance, theme and pertinence are all important issues to be addressed. Every detail of the menu, décor and music must be carefully planned.

Successful state dinners can have very positive influences on international relations and be powerful symbols of friendship both home and abroad, however the sheer complexity of these events and need for cultural sensitivity mean that things can also go terribly wrong.

Wine has traditionally played an important role in state dinners both symbolically and also practically. The histories, traditions and stories of wines are used to embellish the occasion and pay special tribute to the guests of honor. The practical effect of wines also helps lessen tensions and lubricate conversations.

Historic hosts

Since ancient times empires and dynasties have used the art of food and wine to win favor with foreign guests. Roman state dinners lasted for days with bountiful wine and entertainment often degenerating into debauchery. The Russian Czar Peter the Great was also known for entertaining foreign officials for days serving the finest of caviar with select bottles of Champagne with his own private label. In fact at one point he was the single largest buyer of Champagne in the world. Early US Presidents didn't have much time for state dinners and President Grant was the first one to hold a formal state dinner which featured a 29-course meal. US President Richard Nixon was one of the most skillful in using state dinners for diplomatic purposes and was reputed to be involved with every detail. He held a total of 76 state dinners during his presidency, more than any other US President.

Domestic focus

Whether it's locally made Kosher wine for Israel officials, or choosing wines with meanings that complement and pay tribute to the official guests, the selection of wines is an important detail. In winemaking countries domestic wines are often showcased. Recently US Presidents have served domestic wines made from winemakers who emigrated from the guest nations, for example wines from a renowned American winemaker whose family came from Italy, Germany and even China.

Now even countries not traditionally recognized as winemaking countries have been serving domestic wines at state dinners. The Thai wine PB Khao Yai Shiraz Reserve 2000 was served to leaders at the APEC summit held in Bangkok in 2003. In fact, this was an eye-opening choice as the Thai wine industry is only a little over a decade old but the high altitude vineyards in the northeast and central regions of the country are making some surprisingly good wines suitable for the palates of world leaders.

Over the past few decades British Prime Ministers have increasingly served English wines at official occasions causing some to say they are showcasing the benefits of global warming on UK wines.

US picks for Chinese officials

The US relationship with China is among the most important in modern diplomatic history. When important Chinese officials visit, there's nothing casual about the selection of wines to be served. Over the years the wines of many of the best US producers including Grigch Hills, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps, Cakebread and Shafer have been served.

The sparkling wines of Iron Horse have been served at the White House for five consecutive Presidential administrations, and senior Chinese officials including former President Jiang Zemin and current President Hu Jintao have all been toasted, wined and dined with Iron Horse wines, giving this Sonoma winery a special connection to China. Arguably Iron Horse is the premier US producer of sparkling wines. Since Barry and Audrey Sterling purchased the vineyard in 1976, this Sonoma winery has built a reputation for exquisite sparkling wines and also a range of acclaimed white and red wines. Daughter Joy Sterling has run the winery over the past few decades further enhancing the winery's lofty reputation.

Just last week China's Vice President Xi Jinping was served the appropriately named Iron Horse 2007 China Cuvee. This newly released sparkler, in honor of the Chinese Dragon Year, was served at US Vice President Joe Biden's luncheon for Xi. It was also used for the official greeting toast before the luncheon. The wine is 75 percent Pinot Noir and 25 percent Chardonnay that was made to complement Chinese cuisine. We can't always taste the wines of world leaders but fortunately there are 880 cases of this lovely China Cuvee available in China.


But selecting a wine for a state dinner to world leaders can also be risky business. Near the end of their tenure in 2008, the Bush administration was roundly criticized for serving the expensive Shafer Cabernet Hillside Select, 2003 at the G-20 summit. This rich and weighty Napa wine was paired with Colorado thyme-roast rack of lamb and received raves from world leaders but criticism from the media for being too pricey and extravagant; especially given the onset of the world economic crisis.

The 2003 wine is no longer available in China but the 2006 vintage of this great wine will set you back 2,730 yuan (US$433) per bottle. Compared to the money the US government gifted the large corporations about to go bankrupt, I believe the Shafer wine was a real bargain. It offers rich and concentrated chocolate, blackberry and current flavors and a seductively silky texture.


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