Only one president made his own wine and it wasn’t Thomas Jefferson. So who was it? How did Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ love of France shape White House menus? Which famous California winemaker attended a White House celebration and as a result had a falling out with his brother and started his own winery? What would surprise you about what’s in the White House wine cellar?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Fred Ryan, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post and author of Wine and The White House.
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- How did Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ love of France shape White House menus?
- What influence did James Bond have on the wine served at one of JFK’s state dinners?
- How did Bill Clinton tie James Bond into his speech at an official dinner?
- What’s the story behind Jimmy Carter’s Toast of Insults?
- Which enduring change did Jimmy Carter bring to presidential toasts?
- Who did JFK one-up with Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1953?
- How did a White House event play a key role in the launch of Robert Mondavi’s winery?
- Which wine was served by Gerald Ford for the Queen’s visit at the US bicentennial?
- What does it mean to “pull a Nixon”?
- Did any presidents make their own wine?
- How did Ronald Reagan become so knowledgeable about wine?
- What role did wine play in Ronald Reagan’s celebrations?
- Which bottle of wine has Fred been saving for a special occasion?
- What diplomatic wine solution did Ronald Reagan find for Jacques Chirac’s 1987 visit to the White House?
- What influence did Michelle Obama have on wines served at the White House?
- What has Fred learned in his new research on Joe Biden’s toasts?
- How did Ben Franklin pave the way for Thomas Jefferson’s exploration of French wines?
- What might surprise you about the White House wine cellar?
- How did Ronald Reagan influence guests’ wine choices?
- I was surprised at just how small the White House wine cellar is. I had imagined it would be on the same scale of French president or the Queen’s with thousands of bottles.
- I love the story about how the White House gala played a key role in the launch of the Robert Mondavi winery.
- I’ve long admired the fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, especially her love of French haute couture including those iconic Chanel suits and pearls. It’s interesting how her style also shaped White House menus and wine choices.
- I enjoyed the stories about famous toasts, including Jimmy Carter’s Toast of Insults to more diplomatic versions from Bill Clinton Ronald Regan and Joe Biden.
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I learned in this book that toasting is such a central part of diplomacy and it has been, going back to the earliest days of civilization. - Fred Ryan Click to tweet
He brought Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1953 and I don’t know about the arms race, but in the wine race, Kennedy won that battle. - Fred Ryan Click to tweet
President Nixon had a separate bottle served only for his use while his guests were served something else. - Fred Ryan Click to tweet
Interestingly, three of the last four presidents – Biden, Trump, George W. Bush – were non-drinkers. - Fred Ryan Click to tweet
For state visits, instead of the old model where wine would be bought years in advance and aged and taken out for state visits, now it’s on an event-by-event basis. - Fred Ryan Click to tweet
About Fred Ryan
Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, has been an aficionado of both wine and White House history for most of his life. Growing up in Italy and California, he developed an early interest in wine and its production, studied winemaking and its history, and now participates in a joint winemaking venture in Napa Valley. Ryan’s fascination with wine parallels his lifelong interest in the American presidency. He served in a senior staff position in the Ronald Reagan White House and as Reagan’s post-presidential chief of staff. Ryan currently serves as chair of the Board of Directors of the White House Historical Association, of the Board of Trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, and of the Wine Committee of the Metropolitan Club of Washington, D.C.
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Fred Ryan 0:00
This was in 1987. And the Prime Minister of France, Jacques Chirac and his wife had come to the White House; Chirac and Reagan had been friends for many years. Chirac had been the mayor of Paris, and Reagan was governor of California, so they knew each other well, and they had shared wine together. And now here they are, the respective leaders of their two countries and Chirac is coming to the White House. Here is France, the world’s wine superpower coming; so you had to do something that balanced that, with the desire of American Presidents to showcase the best in American wine. So Ronald Reagan came up with a very diplomatic solution; he served Opus One, the joint venture between Felipe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi; the joint Franco American venture, and it was a perfect wine and it was very well received that evening.
Natalie MacLean 0:50
Perfect blend, blended diplomacy; very nice.
Natalie MacLean 1:00
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine, do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Well that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean and each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please and let’s get started!
Welcome to Episode 123. Only one President made his own wine and it wasn’t Thomas Jefferson. So who was it? How did Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ love of France shape White House menus and wine choices? Which famous California winemaker attended a White House gala, and as a result, had a major falling out with his brother and started his own winery? And what would surprise you about what’s in the White House wine cellar? This is part two of my conversation with Fred Ryan, the CEO and publisher of The Washington Post.
You’ll want to listen to part one of our conversation last week. Now it’s not necessary to do that before you listen to this one. I’ve got a bonus for you. In addition to this podcast, I’d love for you to join me for the première watch party of the video of this conversation that I’ll be live streaming for the very first time on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube tonight at 7pm. You can tune into any of those social media channels, or sign up for free on Zoom to watch it live. The video will show you the pictures and other visual elements that we discuss in this podcast. I’ll also be jumping into the comments on all four platforms as we watch it together, so that I can answer your questions in real time. It’s like the Netflix version of the podcast. Plus, you can talk to me and ask me questions as we watch it together. You can also see what other people thought of this conversation and answers to their questions. You can win a personally signed copy of Fred’s gorgeous new hardcover edition of Wine and the White House: A History if you comment on the social media post I’ve created about the contest. Just pick your favourite platform, Insta, Facebook or YouTube, and comment on my posts before 7pm tonight. In the show notes you’ll find a link to these posts, the full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class, where you can find me on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube every Wednesday at 7pm Eastern. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/123.
Now on a personal note, before we dive into the show, you know spring always reminds me of my grandmother who loved flowers, orange tiger lilies, marigolds, the wild pink and purple lupins in particular. I remember we’d be driving with my Mom and she’d want us to pull over to the roadside to pick some lupins and now when I see the tulips and crocuses poking up their little green buds above the ground, I think of her. What does spring remind you of? I think it’s that change of season that brings with it renewal, including a shift in our wine tastes to lighter wines and meals. Okay, on with the show.
Natalie MacLean 4:44
I think President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie were famous for their hosting of these gala dinners and showcasing American culture. Tell us more about that; I’m going to go to I think what is one of their menus
Fred Ryan 5:00
Yes, as you know that typically, Jacqueline Kennedy, our youngest First Lady, brought a level of elegance to the White House that had not been seen for quite some time. And she was very much focused on France.
Natalie MacLean 5:12
I think she loved the Chanel suits, right?
Unknown Speaker 5:14
Natalie MacLean 5:15
How old was she, by the way?
Fred Ryan 5:17
She was in her early thirties
Natalie MacLean 5:18
Oh, wow. Beautiful, too.
Fred Ryan 5:21
Yes. And she did a number of things for the White House, including acquiring art pieces. She wanted the best of American art to be in the White House. She wanted beautiful furniture. And she acquired old pieces that had long since been disappeared and been sold. She bought them, brought them back, restored them, and really created the White House as it’s experienced today. Because up until that time, Presidents and first ladies would come and go, and sometimes they would sell the furniture, they’d bring their own and they would move out with it. And she created the permanent collection. And for entertaining, she was very focused on elegant entertaining, particularly with French menus and French wines. And looking at the menu card that you have selected here, it’s in French. Today the menus are in English. It’s written in French, all three courses sound as though they’re French in design. And then actually, this is unusual because there are three different wines. It looks like a German to start, Almaden from California for the main course and then a Dom Perignon for the final course. This was unusual though, because typically she would have French wines for all three courses.
Natalie MacLean 6:25
Wow,and is it the Dom Perignon that has a connection with James Bond?
Fred Ryan 6:31
Yes,yes. Her husband, John Kennedy was a fan of the Ian Fleming novels and movies. They just started to come out during his presidency. And in 1962, the first James Bond movie is called Doctor No. and there was a scene where James Bond was trying to defend himself while sitting at a dining table, and he stood up and he grabbed a bottle of champagne, and he was about to hit the guard with it. And Dr. No calmly says, that’s a Dom Perignon 55; it would be a pity to break it.
Natalie MacLean 7:03
Fred Ryan 7:04
Bond sets it it back down and he says, I prefer the 53 myself, as he’s spinning it on the table. If you look, that was 1962. Just two or three months later, there was a state dinner at the White House. And the wine that was served, as was at the one year showing on the screen, was the Dom Perignon 1955
Natalie MacLean 7:23
Fred Ryan 7:24
So this was a case where pop culture was influencing politics and diplomatic entertaining. And in fact, just as a footnote, Kennedy was such an enthusiast of the James Bond movies that the next movie that came along, From Russia with Love, it was shown to him in a private showing at the White House in November of 1963, three days before he left for Dallas. It was the last film he ever saw.
Natalie MacLean 7:50
Oh, wow, that gives me goosebumps. Wow. We’ll stay with JFK and Jackie, but didn’t Bill Clinton make a toast in the UK when he was visiting that was sort of based on James Bond reference. What was that?
Fred Ryan 8:04
I learned in this book that toasting is such a central part of diplomacy. And it has been; going back to the earliest days of civilization. I learned a lot about toasts of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans and how toasting evolved and became part of public gatherings and important events, and then learned a lot about the Presidents’ toasts, they were usually more serious. But every once in a while there would be kind of a fun one. And Bill Clinton was in London for a toast. It was his turn at the official state dinner with the Prime Minister to make a toast, and he kind of keyed off of another famous line from the James Bond movies that Martini lovers I’m sure remember. Bill Clinton raised his glass keying off of the 007 line. He said, may the relationship between our two countries always be solid and firm, never shaken, never stirred.
Natalie MacLean 8:54
Oh, I like that. Very suave, very suave. And so now we’re back to JFK and Jackie. Where are they here?
Fred Ryan 9:03
It looks like it’s on their South American trip.
Natalie MacLean 9:06
Yes, Mexico, I think
Fred Ryan 9:07
Yes, in Mexico. And there were quite a few interesting toasting experiences with Mexico. Two, I would point out, they weren’t with JFK, but they were both with Jimmy Carter actually. He was down in Mexico for a visit with the Mexican President. And there’s always a reciprocal lunch. So it’s on a diplomatic event; typically there’ll be a big dinner that the host gives for the visiting head of state and then the next day there’ll be a reciprocal lunch where the visiting head of state entertains. And at the reciprocal lunch toasts the Mexican President stood up to make a toast and apparently things weren’t going so well. And he went on this long critical speech about the United States and criticised America on several different fronts. And Jimmy Carter stood up and reciprocated by making an equally critical toast about Mexico, including talking about Montezuma’s revenge. And it was known as the toast of insults. Well, then the protocol is established that it’s meant to be positive and only two or three minutes long. But the other thing Jimmy Carter did, that every President follows to this day, was he had the President of Mexico back at the White House. And at the beginning of the meal, President Carter just stood up with his waterglass, the wine hadn’t been poured yet. And he stood up with his water glass, and he went to the podium, and he made a toast. And then he sat down, and he realised that he didn’t even have wine in his glass yet. So he got a glass with wine, he went back up and he made the toast again a second time, just to make sure it was official. But what he did, was the toast had always been at the end of the evening and he brought it to the beginning of the evening, and he decided he would do that at every event going forward, because then he didn’t have to spend time worrying about his toast. He had done it, it was out of the way. And every President since Jimmy Carter has followed that tradition. The toasts are now done at the beginning of the evening.
Natalie MacLean 10:58
And I’m sure they’re more perhaps more civilised, given, they’re given before wine is consumed. But also, there’s probably a great motivation to make the speeches shorter because you’re waiting to get to the wine and the food.
Fred Ryan 11:11
And I think people will stick to the script.
Natalie MacLean 11:13
Yes, exactly. Exactly. That’s great. Oh, a couple more questions about JFK. Was there something about the 1953 Château Mouton Rothschild he served? Something related to that?
Fred Ryan 11:25
Yes, JFK; there was a very famous summit that took place between the Soviet leader Khrushchev, and John Kennedy, American President. And Kennedy; he was also young. We talked about Jackie Kennedy being in her early 30s. Well, Kennedy was in his early 40s. And here was Khrushchev, this more senior world statesman, viewed as a tough player, and they had a summit in Vienna. And as part of that, as I mentioned earlier, there are the reciprocal events. So for the lunches that each leader gives in honour of the other. So Khrushchev, arrives fully armed with a huge assortment of Russian vodkas. And then he had some wine from the Soviet state of Georgia, which was a good winemaking area. It wasn’t so great at the time because the Soviets had kind of ruined the wine industry. But he had his wine from Georgia and he had his vodka. Well, Kennedy decided he would take no chances. He didn’t even decide he was going to bring great American wines. He brought Château Mouton Rothschild 1953. And I don’t know about the arms race, but in the wine race, Kennedy won that battle.
Natalie MacLean 12:28
That’s great. Yeah, that’s one of those top four that we talked about. Terrific. Now, Lyndon Johnson, we mentioned Robert Mondavi; Lyndon Johnson invited Robert Mondavi to the White House. What was that all about?
Fred Ryan 12:43
Well, right after President Kennedy was assassinated, the next state visit was with the Prime Minister of Italy. And Lyndon Johnson was now President. And he wanted to invite some prominent Italian Americans to the White House. So he invited Robert Mondavi who was in business with his brother, Peter Mondavi in California. They were not so well known, but they were starting to make wine and they were getting a growing business. And Robert Mondavi was told by people he knew in Washington, if you’re coming to the White House, you need to know a couple things. First off, you need to rent a beautiful tuxedo, you need to really look great, your wife needs to have a full length mink coat, and you need to come in a limousine, don’t go driving up in a taxi, be in a limousine. So Mondavi foollowed all these instructions. And then, when he got there, a lot of photos were taken of him and his wife with the President. And those photos slowly made their way out to California, to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, into the Napa Valley newspapers. And his brother, Peter, and more actually, his brother’s wife saw these and saw the elaborate attire and the beautiful dress, and they were convinced that Robert Mondavi was embezzling money from the wine business. The two brothers got into a fight, literally a fistfight down on the floor, punching each other. And that broke up the business. Robert Mondavi went his separate way; decided he was going to head out on his own. And that led to the launch of Robert Mondavi’s wine; a wine that was served by many, many Presidents since that occasion so that White House event played really kind of a key role in the launch of a great American wine.
Natalie MacLean 14:23
Wow! So even fall outs and disasters can lead to some positive results because I mean, as we both said, Robert Mondavi is just iconic in terms of being the visionary for the California wine industry and pushing it ahead. Alright, so is this Gerald Ford?
Fred Ryan 14:40
Natalie MacLean 14:41
Fred Ryan 14:42
This was Gerald Ford. He was President when America had its 200th birthday; our Bicentennial in 1976. And that’s the Queen of England there, who had come to the United States, for a very elegant, as you can tell, white tie event state dinner hosted by the president. And when these state dinners take place, by the way, a lot of time is spent. A state dinner may last three or four hours but weeks and months of planning go into every aspect of it from the food to the flowers, the entertainment, the guestlist certainly, and the wines. And when it’s the Queen of England, that is the highest level of state visit. There’s nothing that’s done diplomatically that has more attention paid in terms of a royal visit than the Queen of England. And this was Gerald Ford and Queen Elizabeth making their toast during the course of the state visit. Gerald Ford had rolled out, and speaking of great California wines, the wine he chose to serve the Queen was Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve. And that was one, that at the time, was one of the greatest wines that you could find anywhere.
Natalie MacLean 15:50
All this preparation and planning yet no wine consultant to tell them how to hold a wineglass by the bowl. Wow, what can you do? I guess there’s more important priorities.
Fred Ryan 16:05
Good eye. Only a true wine expert like you would notice that all three of them were holding the glass the wrong way. Exactly. Well,
Natalie MacLean 16:11
Exactly. Well, I get lost in movies, I lose the plot going, what are they doing? Martin Scorsese call me! What does pulling a Nixon mean?
Fred Ryan 16:22
That was one of the great kind of mysteries or myths, I guess I could say, that I really set out to try to resolve in this book. And there were people who said that this story of pulling a Nixon was true. And there were others who said, No, it never happened. And the story was that Nixon, who was quite a wine aficionado himself, which was surprising, I would rank him as one of the top tier American Presidents in terms of knowledge of wine and attention to wine that was served in the White House. And it was ironic because he’d grown up in very humble beginnings. And
Natalie MacLean 16:54
He was a Quaker, right? Sort of a denomination of Christianity that kind of avoids alcohol.
Fred Ryan 17:00
Yes, they abstain from alcohol. So he’d grown up with that background, but he had a thirst for knowledge, so to speak, and he learned about wine. And he picked a lot of them, he spent a lot of time selecting the wines that were served in the White House. But one thing that was said about him was he would have a state dinner or an important event and a great wine would be served to all of his guests. But there would be a separate waiter standing over behind his table, with a bottle of wine with a cloth wrapped around it, obscuring the label. And he would pour that wine only to President Nixon and that was always the best wine that was served and it was frequently Château Margaux 1966. That was one of Nixon’s favourites. So this rumour had been told and some people say it’s not true. And some people on those staffs Yes, they’re all sides. So I delve into it and I found by no authoritative source, less than Woodward and Bernstein
Natalie MacLean 17:51
Oh, famous Washington Post reporters.
Fred Ryan 17:56
Yes, written numerous books they found and they confirmed in their book called “The Final Days” that this was indeed true. And they had witnesses to President Nixon having a separate bottle served only for his use while his guests were served something else.
Natalie MacLean 18:12
So that’s truly damning testimony. Yes, so pulling a Nixon. Well, I’ve been guilty of serving decoy wines, when people don’t care about wine, it’s like have this, but it’s like, it’s not anything mean. but if you don’t value it anyway,
Fred Ryan 18:25
Right. I think we’ve all done that.
Natalie MacLean 18:29
Yeah, exactly. So we said that Jefferson planted vines, but he didn’t make wine. There was only one President who made wine. Who is that?
Fred Ryan 18:38
Well, in terms of actually growing grapes, Jimmy Carter is our 39th President. He’d been a farmer. He owned a farm before he was President. They grew grapes on that farm and those grapes were made into wine. And then when he left office, he took the grapes, he made his own wine, not a huge production, he only makes about 100 bottles of it a year. And he donates them to various charities and they auction it off because it’s so unique. And I don’t even know if anyone can attest to how good it is or not because once they buy the bottle that’s made by Jimmy Carter, they haven’t opened it so the bottle never gets opened. But he made it. And then also Donald Trump, who was not a drinker, he owned a commercial winery, the first President to own a commercial winery in Virginia.
Natalie MacLean 19:20
Oh, well, and what was Carter’s wine called?
Fred Ryan 19:23
I think he just kind of did it with his own label and made it on his farm in Plains Georgia.
Natalie MacLean 19:28
Like Jimmy Carters Best Reserve or something.
Fred Ryan 19:31
It was something like that, that there was only 100 bottles. I don’t even know if they personalise the label. I’ve never had it. But I know that he’s helped a lot of worthy causes by donating bottles that are auctioned off by people who who are really curious to see it and to have it in their collection.
Natalie MacLean 19:48
All right now you say that Ronald Reagan, whom you probably know best, having served with him, was very wine knowledgeable. So here he is, how did he become so wine knowledgeable?
Fred Ryan 20:00
I did have the honour of working in his White House and then serving as his chief of staff afterwards and in the course of those roles to enjoy on many occasions, wines with President Reagan, and to hear his knowledge and his view on wines. He had been an actor in Hollywood and he got pneumonia in his late 30s. And his doctor said, you know, it wouldn’t hurt for you to have a glass of wine with dinner, just for your health. And Reagan didn’t really know much about wine; he’d come from the Midwest. So he started learning. He first became very knowledgeable on French wines, which, at that time, were still the dominant wine served in America. But then he became governor of California, at this time when the California wine making business was coming of age, and he played a huge role in elevating California wine, and advancing it on the world stage and promoting trade with California wine. And was by the way, beloved by the California winemakers, and people like Robert Mondavi was close to Ronald Reagan and André Tchelistcheff from Beaulieu Vineyards. When he was in Washington he’d come by and see President Reagan in the White House, they would talk about wine. But he had this love of California wine and then when he was President, he made sure that California wine was served at all of our important events. And only on a couple of rare occasions was French wine served and those were ones where I think afterwards he decided that only California, only American wines would be served. In fact, one that kind of ties our two countries together was when Pierre Trudeau came, first state visit in the 1980s; Ronald Reagan had discovered this California wine called Jordan Cabernet and he really liked it and he served it repeatedly. But one of the first times he served it was to Prime Minister Trudeau and during the course of their exchange during the evening, Trudeau and Reagan got into conversation about the wine and he told Trudeau about it and after the state visit was over, Trudeau went and ordered a case of it for his own cellar.
Natalie MacLean 21:55
Oh, wow. Good sampling program. Yeah
Fred Ryan 21:58
Yes, exactly. And that wine would serve when President Reagan had the Supreme Court for dinner, he served that wine on more than one occasion when he had important foreign visitors. It was one that he really thought highly of,
Natalie MacLean 22:10
Oh, it’s an excellent wine. I’ve had it myself and look for it on restaurant lists. It’s a terrific wine. So how’d he brag and celebrate birthdays when it came to wine.
Fred Ryan 22:19
He had built an impressive cellar before he went to the White House. And then, while and then after, and on his own birthday, I remember, excuse me, it wasn’t his birthday it was his anniversary, but his 33rd anniversary, he was in the White House his President. In his diary, he wrote that he and Nancy had enjoyed a bottle of 1911 Château Margaux for dinner in the White House residence on the night of their anniversary and which was very unique because what a rare wine, from a magnificent vineyard, but also it was the year he was born. But for birthdays, and as you’ve actually got on the screen now, for important occasions, he would pull a bottle out of his cellar and when I was working for him as his chief of staff when he was former President, he came in on my birthday with a beautiful bottle of wine; Château Mouton Rothschild from the year I was born, 1955, that he had taken form his cellar and he had signed, “Fred, Cheers, Ronald Reagan”, and gave it to me as a birthday gift. And it’s something that was just such a wonderful, thoughtful gift that I’ve saved to this day.
Natalie MacLean 23:27
Oh, wow. I guess you’re not opening that one.
Fred Ryan 23:30
Well, at some point I have to; I keep waiting for the right occasion. What is the right equation open a bottle of wine that a President of the United States has signed to you?
Natalie MacLean 23:38
That is a very good question. I just interviewed the former Wall Street Journal Tastings columnist, John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter who invented Open that Bottle Night. So there you go, there’s an opportunity for you
Fred Ryan 23:50
So coincidental that you mentioned that, because I always read that column when they wrote it. And I got an email two nights ago from Dorothy saying, I heard you have this bottle of wine. Saturday night is Open your Favourite Bottle Night and you should open it. And I said, I think I will. So I’m taking advice from the very best sources on this.
Natalie MacLean 24:10
You should let them know, they’d be so excited. This is a big deal for them, big celebration. It’s always the last Saturday in February, although you don’t have to wait for that annual thing. But what they did, is they got the question so often. I have this very special or old bottle; “When should I open it?” And the second question was, How much do you think it’s worth?” is what they’d get asked. But on their first column, they hoped to get, you know, a few responses from this column. They got 1000 letters, back when you had to write letters. It wasn’t so easy to email and they were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for that column in the Wall Street Journal. So pretty special for them.
Fred Ryan 24:49
She’s convinced me, I think it’s this Saturday night. It’s also my oldest daughter’s birthday. So sounds like the stars are aligning.
Natalie MacLean 24:57
I think so. That’s great. So let me backtrack a bit here. T,his is Air Force One, is it?
Fred Ryan 25:04
Yes, President Reagan would on appropriate occasions sometimes if it’s someone’s birthday, as it was here, surprise everyone by having a cake brought out and open a bottle of champagne to toast someone on their birthday, if they had to be travelling and away from their family, doing their duty on the White House staff. And that was the particular occasion here with him and Nancy Reagan. And also, if he had been on a summit or an a very important foreign visit; on the way back President Reagan always make sure that a bottle of champagne was opened, and everybody had a chance to raise their glass and toast to the success of this summit.
Natalie MacLean 25:39
Oh, that’s fantastic. Did the Air Force One have like a little mini cellar or anything like that?
Fred Ryan 25:44
Well, it did have a few bottles on there; they always wanted to have them available in case the President or one of his guests felt like a glass of wine. So there’d be a nice selection, but not a cellar of great consequence.
Natalie MacLean 25:55
Space would be limited. Now Ronald Reagan was very savvy. He chose a very diplomatic wine, I think for this dinner. And maybe you can tell us more about it. It’s the Opus One, I believe
Fred Ryan 26:08
Yes, this was in 1987. And the Prime Minister of France, Jacques Chirac and his wife had come to the White House; and Chirac and Reagan had been friends for many years. Chirac had been the mayor of Paris, and Reagan was governor of California, so they knew each other well, and they had shared wine together. And now here they are, the respective leaders of their two countries and Chirac is coming to the White House. Here is France, the world’s wine superpower coming; so you had to do something that balanced that, with the desire of American Presidents to showcase the best in American wine. So Ronald Reagan came up with a very diplomatic solution; he served Opus One, the joint venture between Felipe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi; the joint Franco American venture, and it was a perfect wine and it was very well received that evening.
Natalie MacLean 27:02
Perfect blend, blended diplomacy. Very nice. Alright. That’s great. And now, you mentioned that several of the first ladies were also knowledgeable about wine. Tell us about Michelle Obama getting to more recent times.
Fred Ryan 27:17
Yes, Michelle Obama was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about wine, you know, her husband described himself as more of a beer man and enjoyed beer. In fact, he even made it in very small numbers, and they made some beer at the White House and he released his recipe to the public on exactly how he made it. But Michelle Obama would have, occasionally, with her girlfriends, a little wine tasting. And she was actually out in Virginia, Northern Virginia, not far from Washington about an hour away. There’s a winery called RdV. And it stands for the initials of the winemaker and owner, Rutger de Vink. And he is doing a spectacular job making wine, incredible quality wine, and she was there with her friends and went into the tasting room and they gave it a try. And they really liked the wine. And as a result, it became the first Virginia wine served at a state dinner. She served it just a couple of months later when there was a big state occasion at the White House. And she always played a role in selecting the wines that were served for important events. And she made it a point to make sure that her guests are always very well entertained and served and showcased great American wines.
Natalie MacLean 28:22
And I think she even belongs to a wine club. She gets regular wine shipments or something. I think she’s quite the wine fan.
Fred Ryan 28:29
She is, yes,
Natalie MacLean 28:30
Yeah. So let’s take it back to Barack here.
Fred Ryan 28:35
Our two countries come together; Justin Trudeau there with Barack Obama for dinner at the White House. I think they’re getting slightly closer to holding those glasses the right way as you’ve mentioned but still not all the way down on the stem; am I right?
Natalie MacLean 28:49
Well, diplomatic, you know, progress takes time. Right? Like all things. My goodness
Fred Ryan 28:55
Interesting story from that. I’ve been working now on what will be the next chapter about President Biden. And I’ve been researching what he served at the Vice President’s residence, and he is a non drinker. And interestingly, three of the last four Presidents; Biden, Trump, George W. Bush were non drinkers. Of course, they made sure that spectacular wines were always served; that was never an impediment to wine service. But I’ve been learning a lot about the toasts particularly, that Joe Biden has done over the years. And I found one when he was up visiting, shortly after that visit of Justin Trudeau to the White House, he was up in Canada on a visit and he made a toast. In making his toast he pointed out that during the time that Justin Trudeau was down in Washington, President Obama had sent his Vice President Joe Biden out of the country on an important mission. When Joe Biden was making his toast to this later event he raised his glass to Trudeau and he said it’s very nice to be able to meet you. I want you to know that I think Obama thought you would like me better when you were in Washington, so he sent me out of the country so you wouldn’t meet me.
Natalie MacLean 30:05
Well, it ended up that they came together anyway. I was thinking too, just all of this cross border diplomacy, the wine that I’m going to open in your honour, Fred, is this one.
Fred Ryan 30:18
Natalie MacLean 30:19
The Federalist with Ben Franklin. I don’t know if he was quite a wine aficionado. He was seem to be everything. Leading author, printer, inventor
Fred Ryan 30:28
Benjamin Franklin was over in Paris as America’s emissary just before Thomas Jefferson was, as we were talking earlier about that. Thomas Jefferson used that time to learn so much. When he arrived, Benjamin Franklin was already there, and had already begun to dive deep into French wines and had his own cellar of more than 2000 bottles in Paris, and helped introduce Thomas Jefferson to the key wine figures in France. So that’s a very appropriate wine to be serving.
Natalie MacLean 30:55
All right, awesome. And I just wanted to show the wine cellar of the White House because I think it would surprise people.
Fred Ryan 31:03
Yes. When I worked there, I was interested in wine and I wanted to see the White House wine cellar. And I asked repeatedly, I pled with the person in charge of the White House facilities to show me the wine cellar. And finally, I guess I just bugged him so much. He said, All right. Okay, come on, I’m going to show it to you. And I had this illusion of these big arches and stone bricks on the wall and, and centuries of dust, and maybe there would be an odd bottle of Thomas Jefferson’s wine still over in the corner or something. And today, for example, the Queen of England has a wine cellar with more than 30,000 bottles of wine in it. The Élysée Palace in France, in fact, there’s a picture right there of the Élysée Palace wine cellar, it has more than 18,000 bottles of wine. So I have this image of the President’s wine cellar. So I go over there. And just as you showed it, it’s just a little closet, it’s a pantry. The huge wine cellars that have been built over the years have been replaced during different remodelings of the White House. And it holds about 300 bottles, as you can see there. That’s the chief Usher of the White House, it’s got a little wood flat, so they can put up to 300 bottles in there, to have a few in case the Presidents have some guests over who’d like a glass of wine. And then for state visits, instead of the old model where wine will be bought years in advance and aged and taken out for state visits; now it’s bought on an event by event basis. If there’s a visit coming up, they’ll buy two or three cases, whatever it takes to serve that round, and that will be served and no wine will be bought until it’s selected for the next state visit.
Natalie MacLean 32:35
That is amazing. Wow. I think that would surprise a lot of people to see that. So Fred, you’ve been so generous with your time. As we wrap up, “Do you have a favourite memory of wine, and the White House or just wine in general, like just a moment where, you know, it was a really special experience?”
Fred Ryan 32:53
Yes, I would say I had an interesting experience. It was right after I left the White House, but involved President Reagan, just coming back to him and his enjoyment of wine. You may remember, well, this was now least 20 years ago, the programme 60 Minutes on CBS did a special about the Mediterranean diet, and how these French people who drank a lot of wine and ate food that you know, had its fair share of cholesterol, were living longer lives and had better heart health. And he embraced that completely and his drink of choice was a glass of red wine. And I remember when he left office, he would go out and speak to different groups as a former President. He would give a speech and then afterwards, there would be a dinner and he would sit with the guests through a large banquet sometimes. And I would always sit about a table away from him, I didn’t want to take up a seat at his table since people were so anxious to talk to him. Again, and again, I would see the same pattern occur and I’ll never forget it. It was the waiters would come over and they would take the order of the drinks from the guests. And some people would order a cocktail or a martini or a beer or whatever. And President Reagan would order a glass of red wine. And while they were away, the waiter was away I would see him lean over and tell that story about the Mediterranean diet and how red wine was actually good for you and it promoted a better quality of life and longer life. And then I would watch when the waiter came over with the drinks that had been ordered, he would take his glass of red wine down and everyone else would cancel their previous order and ask for a glass of red wine. Without fail, the red wine would be there and they would all take a glass and they would toast each other on their red wine.
Natalie MacLean 34:31
Oh no, that’s leadership. That’s great. So I just want to remind everyone who’s watching. This beautiful book, you could win a signed copy. Gorgeous 450 pages, I mean just the illustrations and all you have to do is pick your favourite social media channel and post a wine that you’ve enjoyed lately, preferably an American wine, and tag me and we’ll choose one person to get this. Now this book; all of the proceeds are actually going to the White House Historical Association. Is that correct?
Fred Ryan 35:04
Yes. The White House Historical Association is a non-profit, non-political group whose goal is to teach people around the world about the White House itself; typically young students and all expenses for the book are underwritten. So every penny of the purchase price goes to educate young people about history and about the White House
Natalie MacLean 35:22
That is fantastic. A good cause, and a great subject. And where can people find this to purchase it online?
Fred Ryan 35:29
Amazon.com is probably the easiest; can be done with one click. It’s available there. It’s available at the White House Historical Association, some American wineries are now selling it and some retail stores. But Amazon is the quickest and easiest probably.
Natalie MacLean 35:44
Oh, fantastic. So Fred, I raise my glass, which will be filled with the Federalist tonight, to you, and thank you so much for this great conversation, great stories and such a gorgeous book. Congratulations on it.
Fred Ryan 35:56
Well, thank you, Natalie. Thank you for having me on your show. And also let me just say thank you to you for all you do to educate Canadians and Americans and people around the world about wine. What you do is really so enlightening. And you also make it fun and enjoyable, which is what wine should be, right?
Natalie MacLean 36:13
Absolutely. I love my job. I try my best. So thank you so much Fred
Fred Ryan 36:17
Natalie MacLean 36:25
All right. Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed part two of my chat with Fred Ryan. Here are my takeaways. Number one, I’m surprised at just how small the White House wine cellar is. I had imagined it would be on the same scale and size of the French President’s cellar or even the Queens’ with tens of thousands of bottles.
Two; I love the story about how the White House gala played a key role in the launch of the Robert Mondavi winery.
Three; I’ve always admired the fashion sense of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, especially her love of French haute couture, including those iconic Chanel suits and pearls. It’s interesting how her style also shaped White House menus and wine choices.
And four; I love the stories about the famous toasts including Jimmy Carter’s toast of insults to the more diplomatic versions from Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden.
You can win a personally signed copy of Fred’s gorgeous new hardcover edition of Wine and the White House: A History if you comment on the social media post I’ve created about the contest. You’ll find details in the show notes. You’ll also find a link to these posts, a full transcript of our conversation, how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class and where you can find me on Zoom, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube live on video every Wednesday at 7pm, including tonight and next week. That’s all in the show notes at Nataliemaclean.com/123.
You won’t want to miss next week when I chat with Paul K, the host of the podcast Wine Talks with Paul K, on which he interviews wine royalty, as well as Michelin starred chefs. He’s also the owner of America’s oldest wine club; the original Wine of the Month Club. His expertise in the wine industry spans 30 years. His father actually invented the idea of sending wine by mail in 1972. He has so many colourful stories and tasting tips to share with us next week.
In the meantime, if you missed Episode 16 go back and take a listen. I talk about organic wines, which is great lead up to Earth Day on April 22. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Until the 1950s, most grapes grown for wine were organic. That is they were grown without using any synthetic pesticides or fertilisers. Then along came the so called Green Revolution, and the chemicals proceed as the modern and progressive way to farm. They seem to offer problem free fields, without destroying the crops. The backlash started with the back to the land movement of the 1970s. Consumers worried about harm to the environment, and the long term effects of chemicals used to produce food and drink. Scientists now believe that all such substances accumulate in our bodies, and since they’ve only been used for several decades, we don’t know yet the full long term effects.
Natalie MacLean 39:41
If you enjoyed this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who be interested in the tips and stories that Fred shared. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week.
Natalie MacLean 40:04
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full bodied bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Nataliemaclean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers.