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US presidents and their wines

MY dad was a lifelong Democrat so he wasn't especially fond of Richard Nixon, the 32nd President of the United States. He did however admire him for two things, firstly his foreign diplomacy sagacity and secondly his good taste in wines. Yes, Nixon was a wine lover and my family had a unique insight into his wine preferences and habits as my grandmother Gladys Lee was the second cousin of the former First Lady Pat Nixon. While our two families weren't particularly close they did occasionally share their common passions for wines.

It's now an open secret that Nixon often had his favorite wine Chateau Margaux served to him during official White House functions in a napkin to hide the label as other guests drank American wines. While earlier presidents could enjoy and serve any wine they liked, during the Kennedy administration American wines gradually began to be favored over those from other countries and Lyndon B. Johnson made it a requirement that only US wines be served at official functions. Administrations since then have usually followed this unofficial rule with the surreptitious exception of Richard Nixon's private bottles wrapped in napkins.

According to family sources it wasn't only Chateau Margaux, but the "Bordeaux Great Eight" that also includes Chateaux Haut-Brion, Latour, Mouton, Cheval Blanc, Ausone and Petrus that were wrapped in towels and served to the former commander and chief. On the last night of his Presidency, I am told that he savored a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1953.

Greatest wine president

Which US president knew and loved wines the most? That would be Thomas Jefferson. He developed a deep passion for wines when he lived in France from 1784-89, most of this time serving as US Ambassador to France. He made two lengthy, incognito wine trips during this stint, the first to Burgundy, Bordeaux, the South of France and Northern Italy and the second to the Rhine, Mosel and Champagne. While in France, Jefferson was also one of the first people to classify Bordeaux wines. His favorite wine was most likely Chateau Haut Brion as he once wrote, "Haut-Brion is a wine of the first rank and seems to please the American palate more than all the others that I have been able to taste in France."

When he returned to the US to serve as Secretary of State for the new nation, he was dismayed that he was unable to find the beautiful wines he savored in Europe. This stirred him to build one of the greatest private collections ever with great vintages of many of the top wines from France, Italy and Germany. His voluminous writings on wine, including letters exclusively on wines to George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe and other great men of the day are further testament to Jefferson's unrelenting passion for wine. Upon retirement in Monticello in Virginia he tried his hand at making wines but alas the results never lived up to great European wines that seduced his palate while in France. He did have his private wine cellar containing some of the greatest European wines to fall back on. I'm quite certain that if he were alive today he would be rather proud of some of the superior wines now being made in the US.

White House wines today

George W. Bush left Obama some distressing problems, a bad economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a depleted and neglected White House wine cellar of only 500-600 bottles. In the heyday of the Jefferson Presidency, the White House had two wines cellars with more than 20,000 bottles of wine. Of course, George Bush while President didn't drink and wine was mostly an afterthought at the White House.

While not Jeffersonian in terms of passion and effort, the Obama administration has made efforts to rectify the wine culture dearth left by the previous administration. White House usher and chief wine buyer Daniel Shanks was hired by President Clinton, somehow survived the wine depression of the Bush Administration and is now trying to improve the wine culture and legacy of the White House. His tastes tend toward very big fruity, almost always too young wines; but at least he's trying.

President Obama also has the chance to drink some exceptional wines when he travels abroad on official visits. One of the best wines that Obama enjoyed with his wife Michelle Obama was served during a trip to Chile earlier this year. Sebastian Pinera, the President of Chile, chose two wines from the Vina Chocalan, the Carmenere Reserva and Grand Reserva Blend. The good news for Shanghai Daily readers is that these wines are available locally at quite reasonable prices. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the wines Jefferson favored.


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