Made by History

A Toast to the History of Wine at the White House

8 minute read

There is a tradition central to the functioning of the American presidency that is frequently overlooked: drinking wine. Beginning with George Washington, presidents have used wine to welcome guests, create friendships, and toast alliances. While presidents have had individual preferences for various wines, their collective attention to wine service at the White House testifies to the long and important role of wine in White House hospitality.

Eighteenth-century Americans enjoyed mostly fortified European wines such as Port, sherry, and Madeira, which were functional in large part because they could survive long transatlantic journeys. Although President Washington certainly liked his Madeira, he turned to Thomas Jefferson for advice in selecting wines for his guests. Jefferson, minister to France in the 1780s, had toured and tasted his way through the wine regions of France, Germany, and Italy, and he introduced wines to America that were extraordinarily diverse for the time and place. The whites and reds, drys and sweets, from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary that Jefferson served opened America’s eyes at the highest level to the finest wines of Europe.

When he became president in the first decade of the 19th century, Jefferson served European whites and reds at his dinner parties, establishing social customs that he recognized as an important part of presidential leadership. Jefferson purchased more than 20,000 bottles of fine European wine yet rightly predicted, “We could in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe: not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” He foresaw that just as fine French wine was a source of national pride to the French, American wines of the highest quality would be a source of pride and enjoyment in the United States.

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Over the course of the 19th century, the temperance movement, which advocated for moderation or complete abstinence from alcohol, gained ground in America and called into question the relationship between wine and the presidency. During the 1840 election, President Martin Van Buren's expensive taste in champagne became a political liability. U.S. Congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania attacked the incumbent’s lifestyle in a speech titled “The Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace.” He depicted the president as lavishing finery on himself while being stingy at public events. Building on Ogle’s speech, Van Buren’s political opponents featured a caricature of him holding a champagne glass in their campaign attacks. Van Buren lost his bid for reelection to William Henry Harrison, who claimed to be a “teetotaler.”

But even mid-19th century presidents like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, who personally abstained from alcohol, understood that wine had become an essential and expected part of presidential diplomacy. Even during the hard times of the Civil War when formal dinners were discontinued, the Lincolns continued to serve wine at afternoon and evening receptions. Records show that the president and Mary Todd Lincoln often served six different wines with dinner, followed by liqueurs in the Red Room.

Social dining reached a new high point in the years following the Civil War. The dinners hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant were particularly lavish. In 1870, for a single dinner, for Prince Arthur of Britain, Grant’s wine bill reportedly totaled nearly $1,500 ($44,059 in 2024 dollars). But the temperance movement also expanded. And in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife, Lucy Webb Hayes, entered the White House as leaders of the growing movement. The first lady directed that no alcohol be served at her luxurious dinners. Instead she offered her guests fruit juice, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.” After attending one such dinner, Secretary of State William Evarts remarked that, at the Hayes White House, “The water flowed like champagne.”

By the time Woodrow Wilson’s presidency ended in 1921, the nation was officially “dry.” The Eighteenth Amendment, which took effect on Jan. 17, 1920, prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States. The president was not exempt from the law, but Wilson had a substantial wine collection in the White House and wanted to enjoy it when he left. It was only by following the new rules, and obtaining the special approval required from the Prohibition commissioner, that he was able to transport his wine to his new home on S Street NW.

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By 1932, 12 years without alcohol and the effects of the Great Depression had left their mark on the voting public. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the political opening and as a candidate for president pledged his support for repealing the Eighteenth Amendment, referring to Prohibition as a “stupendous blunder.” A week after he was inaugurated president, Roosevelt pushed for a change to the Volstead Act that would permit beverages with 3.2% alcohol or less. “I believe this would be a good time for a beer,” he said. By the end of his first year in office Prohibition had been banished altogether by the Twenty-First Amendment. His guests could expect to be offered light wines and cocktails, a practice continued by President Harry S. Truman.

Obama Hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel For Official Visit To Washington
Wine glasses sit on a table during the State Dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, on the South Lawn at the White House on June 7, 2011, in Washington, D.C. Andrew Harrer—Pool/Getty Images

In the post-World War II White House, wine service at the State Dinners took on added significance as the importance of diplomacy grew. During the Eisenhower years, wine even functioned as a gift of state. In August 1959, in the midst of the Cold War, when ties between the United States and Western Europe were of increasing importance, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer presented the president with a special gift: 50 bottles of the highly acclaimed German wine Bernkasteler Doktor.

President Richard M. Nixon also understood the diplomatic importance of the growing wine industry in his home state of California, and elevated it on the international stage. When the time came for him to toast the opening of U.S.-China relations with Premier Zhou Enlai during his 1972 breakthrough visit to China, Nixon personally chose a 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs from California demonstrating that the American sparkling wine had risen to the level of great French champagne. Even though Nixon continued to serve more European wines during dinners, he also placed California varieties in the middle of the menu, showing his confidence that they could hold up in quality when served along with European selections.

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Nixon was thus the last president to serve European wines at official dinners, however. Beginning with the State Dinner for Italy on Sept. 25, 1974, all the wines served by President Gerald R. Ford were American; one even came from his home state of Michigan. The Fords’ social secretary stated that the new commitment to serving only domestic wines was in keeping with the president’s policy of “representing everything American at the White House.”

President Ronald Reagan continued this practice during the 1980s, when wine was rapidly growing in popularity in the United States. As the former governor of California during the era when the state’s wines came of age, Reagan brought his knowledge and enthusiasm for California wines to the White House and played a role in the selection of those wines for his State Dinners and launching a traditional that Clinton and Obama would expand upon as they used White House dinners to promote wine industries across the United States.

Even though three of four 21st-century presidents—George W. Bush, Donald J.Trump, and Joe Biden—do not drink themselves, they all continued to showcase the finest wines made in America at White House dinners. As before, the wines have become much more than a pleasant drink to sip with meals. They play an important role in White House hospitality, the nation’s diplomacy, and America’s history.

Frederick J. Ryan, Jr. is the author of Wine and the White House: A History. He is the former publisher and CEO of the Washington Post and the founding CEO of Politico. He currently serves as the chairman of the White House Historical Association's White House Endowment and Acquisition Trust and the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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